Back when I did "Life Skills Coaches' Training," a sort of weird, quasi-culty group therapy designed, in part, to put the participants in touch with their emotions, there was a concept that got batted around a lot, of congruency. If someone is visibly twitching with anger, but speaking softly and apologetically; or smiling while clenching their fists; or saying they feel fine whilst staring sadly into the distance - they are not congruent. Not really sure where the idea came from - Life Skills was a mixed bag of influences, from EST/"the Landmark Forum" to Fritz Perls to Reality Therapy to Native American spiritual practice - but it was very useful for the collective project we were engaged in; people would put up various layers of dissimulation to protect their emotional state, and if you wanted to "call" them on what they were really feeling, to acknowledge it and deal with it and get them thinking about it, then observing contradictions between things they said, or between their behaviours or body language and their words, was a pretty good way of going about it.
I still haven't seen Mats Gustafsson play this festival, but I realized last night that one of the things I really, really like about his playing is that he seems totally, utterly congruent. Everything about him fits together: his athleticism, his shooting, his love of garage punk and record collecting, even the way he devours barbeque all make perfect sense as aspects of his character, each piece obviously fitting with the next; and so with his music. If Mats Gustafsson were playing the soft, textural stuff one now finds on ECM, or country music, or Weezer-like geek rock, it really wouldn't make much sense. When you're listening to him perform, you get the sense that what he is doing is a perfect and natural expression of his character, part of who he is. It's all one thing, the various pieces fitting together to make the man, without spaces or jagged pointy bits that don't quite fit.
Though it may be an odd way to go about a concert review, I think that's the main reason I couldn't settle in to really enjoy Ab Baars with Ig Henneman, Ingibrigt Haker Flaten, and Paal Nilssen-Love last night; or the headliners, Free Fall, with Flaten, Atomic's Håvard Wiik, and Chicago clarinet player Ken Vandermark. I don't mean to fault the performances - I can't, really; all the musicians were phenomenally talented people, and played up a storm, and even if I could write about technique at length - which I can't, being a non-musician - I doubt I could find fault with anything they were doing on that level. However, Ab Baars presents as a fairly cerebral, fairly restrained, fairly controlled and observant human being, so when he opted for a hypermasculine* mode of powerhouse blowing, which dominated several of his numbers, both on saxophone and clarinet, it seemed, to me, just slightly out of place. I don't know the man, and I don't know his music that well, but what he played last night didn't seem like an expression of what I could see of his character; I enjoyed it a lot better when, during the same set, he opted for more intense, quieter, more perceptually dense music, often on clarinet or what I believe was a shakuhachi, using his playing to invoke and query the silence around the notes and investigating the other players' lines, as if inquiring why there should be music rather than nothing, and wondering what it meant; that fit, and, in fact, way much more intense. Much of what he played, tho', seemed like it was about something other than self-expression - be it a need to display his force, a compensation for something, a belief that free jazz "should" be played like a windstorm, or so forth. Some people do seem to think that, but there are so many ways that free jazz can be played - look at Ornette and Don Cherry, for instance - that it seems a shame to restrict oneself to the "onslaught" concept of improvisation; I'd rather get the sense - and maybe this is a romantic delusion on my part - that the music is emerging from the player as an organic, natural extension of who he or she is, and when I don't, it jars, blocks me, makes it harder to enter the performance.
As I say, this was only an issue sometimes with Baars, and with the other players, it wasn't an issue at all. When Ig Henneman used her viola to produce insecty* screeches, whipping them with frenzied bowing into a vast cloud of locusts that flew about the space with their mandibles chattering - which I liked a lot, by the way, in case that seems negative - you got the sense that this was, well, coming from Ig Henneman's deeper reaches; this was her music, slightly chilly, a tad quirky, extremely smart, and immensely accomplished, just like (one images) she might be... Congruency! Ditto with Nilssen-Love and, especially, Flaten, who was so intensely and physically connected to what he was playing that a) he started doing a Glenn Gould "humming and moaning" thing, making rather, er, horrible but delightful vocalisations to accompany himself; and b) he was full of movement that seemed absolutely superfluous to the playing of his music in a technical sense, but which was probably intimately connected to the playing of his music psychologically and emotionally, as he rose up and down above his double bass to accompany his gestures. This is a guy who plays bass with ALL of himself, not just his hands. He plays bass with his balls, with his intestines, with his whole goddamn body. You can't make a division between any aspects of what he's doing - he gets the Alienated in Vancouver "congruency" award for sure.
I'm going to get in trouble for this weird fucking review, I'm sure, but some of the same issues I had with Baars rose up watchin' Ken Vandermark: between numbers - he was chatty, funny, friendly, a very warm and engaging person - perhaps a bit nervous, he confessed, to be following an opening act of such stature and force. He made a joking announcement to start things off that "when we played here a couple of years ago, we were criticized for our poor interpretations of Jimmy Giuffre's music, so I thought I'd clarify: we don't play Jimmy Giuffre's music. We have similar instrumentation" - bass, piano, clarinet - "but we're playing our own compositions." The audience was already amused by this introduction, and laughed outright at his understated conclusion: "if you want to criticize us for poor interpretations of our music - that's okay." What a likable guy! The trio then opened with a rather amusingly-titled piece, "Accidents with Ladders." Given all the human warmth on display here, though, often his playing - while less difficult-to-process than Baars' approach - seemed rather abstract, neglecting, unless I just missed it, the apparently abundant playfulness in Vandermark's character; I wanted more of the guy who goofed around with us between songs to be in evidence! My favourite piece during their set was an immensely tuneful, cookin' number, rather self-deprecatingly (?) entitled "Music for Clocks," a title he explained was "not meant as a reference to the audience" (again, getting laughs). After starting that piece with an intense bass and piano workout, Wiik layed down a tuneful rhythm on piano that reminded me of an African-influenced piece Randy Weston once recorded, and Vandermark stepped in with the most fun music of the night, a veritably toe-tapping line on bass clarinet that was a joy (and a bit of a relief) to hear. Are free jazz musicians nervous about making music that could be described as "fun?" Vandermark even ended that piece on a screeching improvisation, as if to erase or apologize for what had gone before, lest he be judged too harshly for it; later, when various audience members walked out, he saluted them with his water bottle, advising them with a smirk to be careful on their way out. Which also seemed funny and likable, mind you - not hostile or snide in the least; but why would a man who wants his audience to like him between songs, be amused or proud when his actual playing alienates them? I ain't saying that either attitude is wrong, just that they don't add up.
I should clarify that I have nothing against powerhouse improvisation. It may sound like I do, but I have, for instance, eleven Brotzmann CDs at the moment. No, fuck, I have twelve - Mats Gustafsson convinced me I needed to buy Machine Gun. Admittedly, I'm rolling my eyes to see that there's a Brotzmann project kicking around the merch tables with Nilssen-Love and Japanese virtuoso koto player Michiyo Yagi, because I instantly coveted it, but really don't want to feel like I have to buy ANOTHER Brotzmann album - I'm not so diehard an enthusiast that I need a baker's dozen of his discs, and I overcame my completist tendencies years ago. The point is that Brotzmann is so goddamn good at being Brotzmann that I really don't need anyone else to play that way; and if someone IS going to opt for the powerhouse approach to things - like Mats, for instance - it really ought to be because they HAVE to play that way, because that's who they are. If it's not who they are - why play it? I've felt that way about quite a few shows I've seen at the jazz festival over the years, and I'm really happy to be able to put my finger on the logic of it.
So: night two not as fun as night one, tho' it was great to hear Flaten humming, and I really did like what Ig Henneman did, and I'm very curious what Vandermark will be like when he plays with The Thing on Monday. By the way, Henneman - who also plays with Canadians Lori Freedman and Marilyn Lerner in the Queen Mab Trio, tho' they're sadly not performing at this festival - will be at the Western Front today at 5:30 with Ab.
And fuck, I just realized, I forgot to count the Last Exit CD I have. I DO own 13 Brotzmann discs. Maybe that's bad luck, and I should buy a 14th just to even things out...? No, no, goddamn - I have ENOUGH BROTZMANN! ENOUGH! STOP! STOP! STOP!
*For the record, I owe two adjectives in this piece to other people: hypermasculine and insecty. I'm thinkin' the people who provided these terms may not want to be credited for them, given the context.