International jazz collaborations are a lot like family holidays. They’re a nice idea in theory, but the practicalities can be a bit of a nightmare. How do you rehearse when you live on different continents and the time lag on Skype makes everything sound like Sun Ra’s greatest hits?
If last night’s double bill at the Vortex was anything to go by, you squeeze in a practice an hour before the gig or you don’t bother, you just cross your fingers and listen like buggery. For pianist Kit Downes and German bassist Robert Landfermann it all worked out. Their opening set was a thing of beauty, full of intriguing musical narratives that whispered “follow me” and set off through sunlit fields, bright with Copland-esque modality, and dark Teutonic forests plucked from the folklore of The Brothers Grimm.
Landfermann is the bassist with the Pablo Held Trio whose set at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival was one of my gigs of 2014. Back then his fragile harmonics and guttural bow scrapes had me transfixed and there were more of them here. Pushing his bass away from him then holding it close, he conjured delicate pedal points, shrieks and sounds like creaking timbers as Downes pirouetted and twirled. From the shimmering chords that announced the arrival of ‘Waira’, to the jagged theme of ‘Windstille’ and the lowing bass notes that brought ‘Eno’ to a close, the duo seemed to dance around one another, playing with grace and sensitivity.
At times, there was a dance-like synchronicity to the minimalist motifs and silvery melodies played by experimental Australian pianist Alister Spence and his quartet. Yet, on the whole, they seemed less at ease. Marred by miscommunication, ‘Radium’ was a tentative opener – four dancers repeatedly treading on one another’s toes. Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald was clearly finding the sight reading a headache, but he raised his game on ‘Felt’, circular breathing through a boiling, Brötzmann-like soprano feature with his cheeks bulging and the sweat beading on his brow.
‘Brave Ghost’ was more confident and brought the best out of Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen who laid into his cymbals while Spence pounded out a deliciously sour mash of chords. Narvesen was similarly impressive on ‘Seventh Song’, preparing his snare drum with cloths, wood blocks and coffee mugs, which produced insect-like chirrups. It was here that Spence came alive too, layering in mesmeric samples of his Australian trio, which had a ghostly, faded quality that ramped up the atmosphere.
‘Another October’, from Spence album Fit, was a highlight thanks to Joe Williamson who took the melody and worked in a whispered bass feature, his lips pursed throughout. But a brace of McDonald compositions were less consistent. ‘A Big Toe’ was a deliberately corny, ‘my first jazz gig’ type number crossed with an agro shred fest that sounded more fun to play than it was to listen to. ‘If You Really Want To Hear About It’ was better and the fragile unison vocals at the end were surprisingly effective.
Still, it was the music of Downes and Landfermann that stayed with me after the gig. In the hurriedly rehearsed, international jazz collaboration lottery, it was their ears that won the day and their numbers that came up.
– Thomas Rees