2012 Umea Jazz Festival: Umea, Sweden, October 24-28, 2012
Last seen in 2006 at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, guitarist Pat Martino is another member of a group of aging musicians who, rather than slowing down, seem to be ramping up their activity. Two years shy of 70, Martino was an early success with a series of recordings for the Muse label, in the late '60s and early '70s, that positioned him as the torch-carrier for past legends like Wes Montgomery while formulating his own unmistakable approach, which he's further honed since his remarkable comeback from a brain aneurysm in 1980 that, leaving him with absolutely no memory, required him to learn his instrument all over again, from scratch.
Since then, he's released a series of fine records, but since signing with Joe Fields' HighNote label, he's returned to releasing an album a year, first with the 2011 quartet date, Undeniable: Live at Blues Alley, and this year with Alone Together (2012), a duo recording with pianist Bobby Rose that harkens back in concept, if not actual execution, to one if his early classics, 1976's We'll Be Together Again (Muse), with a then-twenty-something pianist who has since also gone on to bigger things, Gil Goldstein.
For his Umeå performance-and a European tour that will take him to Stockholm and Moscow, before returning to the United States for a visit to Chris' Jazz Café in his hometown of Philadelphia-Martino brought Pat Bianchi, an organist whose reputation is on the ascendance, and drummer Carmen Intorre, another promising young player. The set ranged from simmering swing and gentle blues to Latin balladry and an absolutely incendiary look at Martino's "The Great Stream," one of the three extended tracks that make the guitarist's Live! (Muse, 1972) an absolutely essential recording for anyone who wants to hear the straight line from Charlie Christian through Wes Montgomery and into the future.
Possessed of a rich, indigo tone that few others have been able to master with such effortless clarity and articulation, Martino was a marvel from start to finish. Bianchi managed to keep the bottom end swinging, even as he layered Leslie-drenched chords beneath Martino's rapid-fire phrases while delivering sizzling solos of his own-and Martino was nothing if not a democratic leader, giving his trio mates plenty of space as well. Intorre's ability to swing at any tempo was matched by his punctuating Martino's lines with effortless intuition, driving his trio mates on with a combination of grace and passion.
All told, it was a mainstream set that went nuclear on more than one occasion. Few guitarists possess Martino's ability to hang onto a phrase, repeating it with absolute precision as his band mates build the tension, only to release so powerfully that it was possible to feel it throughout the audience-in this case, a packed house.
From there it was off to a set so completely different that it highlighted one of Umeå Jazz Festival's great strengths: a mixed program so diverse which, in addition to having something for everyone, by allowing the audience to sample any show helps to stretch its audience. Some festivals aim to please; others aim to please and to challenge, and Umeå is one of the latter.
Singer Tone Åse and Food/Humcrush percussionist Thomas Strønen released their debut as a duo this year, Voxpheria (Gigafon, 2012), and if each is beyond capable as an acoustic instrumentalist-Åse possessing a soft-toned and very appealing voice, Strønen a drummer capable of strong pulse, textural abandon and everything in between-it's their infusion of electronics into the mix that gives this duo its distinct specificity.
Åse may be less known on the international stage, but she's been garnering significant attention in her home country for her participation/leadership in Trondheim Voices, an experimental outfit that, not unlike Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen, searches the the roads less traveled (though ones significantly different from those trodden by Endresen), exploring the intimate relationships between singer, sound and movement. Åse was also a member of Kvitrettena female vocal quartet that released three recordings between 1996 and 2002, and featured three other Norwegian stars in the making, who have all gone onto own independent successes: Kristin Asbjørnsen, who was a key member of pianist Tord Gustavsen's ensemble on Restored, Returned (ECM, 2009) in addition to her own recordings; Solveig Slettahjell, last heard on the wonderful duo recording with In the Country keyboardist Morten Qvenild, Antologie (Universal Norway, 2012); and Eldbjørg Raknes, who (in addition to making a series of forward- thinking recordings), has been teaching at the renowned Trondheim Conservatory (now called Trondheim NTNU) for some time, and has recently been promoted to the position of Associate Professor.
Åse is also known for her trio, Bol, with Strønen's Humcrush partner, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, and drummer Tor Haugerud, and whose numb, Number (Gigafon, 2012) is an intrepid collaboration with guitarists Stian Westerhus and Motorpsycho's Snah. It's all reflective of a Norwegian scene that has more going on than many countries much larger, and yet is defined by ongoing collaborations across its entire spectrum. Strønen's work with Food and Humcrush is only one aspect of his larger purview, but one thing he has proven in both contexts is that he's capable of creating a surprising amount of sound from his kit and electronics-both of which are so tightly integrated that it's oftentimes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.
In the first of two free improvisations lasting about an hour, the duo began in quirky quietude, but gradually began to build as Strønen focused largely on bells and cymbals, which he sampled and expanded onto the duo's soundstage. Traces of Endresen could be heard in Åse's more mellifluous moments, but unlike the older, completely acoustic singer, Åse began to process her voice, adding two, sometimes three layers of harmony, as well as inserting spoken word and singing samples, and real-time looping. As a pulse insidiously began to assert itself, Åse proved herself capable of a wonderfully warm delivery, sometimes as quiet as a whisper and, while never exactly becoming a roar, certainly building, along with Strønen, to momentary climaxes that led to new and unexpected directions.
A second improv, based on the idiosyncratic poetry of e.e. cummings, was more aggressive than the first, as the duo created a wash of sound that was, perhaps, unexpected from just two performers, but with their use of electronics as natural and seamless as their acoustic instruments, anything-and everything-clearly became possible.