Swiss artists @EFG London Jazz Festival 2015

EFG_London Jazz logoThe EFG London Jazz Festival is a big annual affair running for ten days in the middle of November. This year Swiss and Swiss-based artists, represented by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and Mobile, Elina Duni, Samuel Blaser, Basel Rajoub, Marc Perrenoud, Christophe Fellay and the Russian/Swiss collaboration, Jazzator, had well-attended gigs (two were sold out). Phew. Clashing with big-name artists, and the overwhelming number of events can be an issue at such festivals.
The UK can be a tough and weird market

Consider this list of musicians – you couldn’t get a more diverse bunch. There isn’t a Swiss sound like there was a Norwegian one, but the artists are building individual reputations via their quality. The UK can be a tough and weird market, but when people hear something they like they will always give a warm and enthusiastic response.

Nik Bärtsch has a definite fanbase and had a two-day residency at King’s Place as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped season with Mobile Extended and Ronin Rhythm Clan. I saw the latter on the opening night of the festival with an added 3-part brass section and guitarist Manuel Troller, whose sensitive but spirited playing made him a natural part of the clan. I first heard Ronin two years ago in the same hall. I was entranced by their intense yet grooving sound and still am.

You live for such moments with Ronin

nik_baertschs_feat_roninThere were the sparkles of Nik’s compelling piano work and superior conversations between the Ronin members whilst other phases had the extended band heading into an alt-funk fest with James Brown’s spirit shimmying around the room (well, almost). But ‘Modul 32’ was the highlight for me: Kaspar Rast played a small shaker – no fuss, just simple but killer in its repetition, and clever in the textural canvas it gave saxophonist, Sha, and Manuel on which to paint subtle but deeply personal musical thoughts. You live for such moments with Ronin.

He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson

©Alex TroeschThe small, shabby Club Inégales is in the bowels of an office building but was set aglow by the quality of the musicians in Samuel Blaser‘s quartet. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the wisdom of pianist Russ Lossing’s playing on Spring Rain, Blaser’s tribute to Jimmy Guiffre. He approaches music as an horizon, it’s not about him, but the entire landscape. I love his touch. Equally fine are bassist Masatoshi Kamaguchi and legendary Gerry Hemingway. A key drummer on the avant garde circuit he caresses and cajoles rhythm out of his kit, able to be economical yet inventive. I particularly like Blaser when he drawls his sound as if part of a deep South funeral march, his soulfulness peeping through. He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson then veer off elsewhere. It was a promising show cut short by the venue’s format of a final set improvising with the house band.

 

marc_perrenoud_feat_marc_perrenoud_trio

Luckily I’d got to hear the crisp interplay between this quartet at Adventures in Sound, a feast of music recorded for BBC Radio’s Jazz on 3 programme earlier that day. Each of them also improvised with renowned UK artists such as John Edwards (bass) and rising keyboardist, Elliott Galvin (in photo). Unfortunately it meant I missed Marc Perrenoud‘s set as part of ‘Seriously Talented’ – an afternoon of musicians that had been on Serious’ Take Five course. The Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall was packed and I heard that Marc’s joyful and bonded trio were an uplifting addition to the line up.

Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps

Elina Duni Quartet Elina Duni Quartet are equally notable and their Dallëndyshe album had good reviews, one in The Guardian. Live, Norbert Pfammatter stands out as a sublime drummer. His pulse-like work encourages a sensual interplay between vocals and rhythm. There is an almost mantra-like progression as Elina leads us through the emotive themes of Albanian folk songs. Lyrics such as, “My dear boy in front of the flag oh, my heart’s engulfed in worrisome flames,” (from ‘Me on a Hill, You on a Hill’) feel horribly relevant and even if they weren’t Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps. At first her tone seems warm and smooth, but then a quiver or cry renders me helplessly emotional.

Colin Vallon is simply captivating, and fierce too, making his mark. Along with new, fearless bassist, Lukas Traxel, they stand their ground at the side of Elina’s power. I like the brave move the quartet made of paying great respect to the Albanian folk tradition whilst interlacing it with a form of ethereal jazz. It left the audience spellbound.

richmixbaselrajoubnov15_26It was a similar story for another Swiss émigré. The concert of Basel Rajoub‘s Soriana (‘Our Syria’) was the evening after the Paris attacks and as the review Classical Source expressed, it could not have made for a more eloquent night of music. Made so by the skill and personality of Basel in a magical alchemy with the type of welcoming audiences that can be found in London.

 

 A unique view of free music

Jazzator2_M&FNov2015Finally, Jazzator are a Russian/Swiss quartet with quirky intentions conveyed with talent. I particularly liked saxophonist Oleg Mariakhin who delicately integrated himself with the vivid vocals of Marina Sobyanina. I sensed underlying eastern folk traditions that had been pulled apart leaving ragged edges and broken threads. Drummer Sergey Balashov on drums and bass player Maximilian Grossenbacher provided an ear-pricking rhythm section, and together Jazzator offered a unique view of free music. One UK reviewer declared them a highlight of the festival.

 

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2e Grand Prix suisse de musique : derrière les feux de la rampe

10835315_427611730733058_1175974439816194667_oAlors que la remise du Grand Prix suisse de musiques aura lieu le 11 septembre à Bâle, Swiss Vibes s’interroge. Et revient sur le casse-tête auquel est confronté tout musicien suisse cherchant à mener une carrière professionnelle. Une série en plusieurs épisodes dont voici le premier chapitre.

En 2014, le Grand Prix suisse de musique, organisé par l’Office Fédéral de la Culture (OFC) avait récompensé le leader des Young Gods et pionnier des musiques électroniques Franz Treichler. C’était une première, qui plus est pour une figure de l’underground. L’événement avait largement été plébiscité par le secteur musical, d’ordinaire habitué à travailler beaucoup, longtemps, et pour peu. La démarche, qui est reconduite de façon pérenne, s’avère en effet généreuse : 25’000 CHF par nomination (15 en tout) et un prix de 100’000 CHF pour le lauréat, tous étant sélectionnés par des comités d’experts musicaux venus des quatre coins du pays.

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 Une récompense qui soulève beaucoup de questions

La communication du Grand Prix suisse de musique est classe sans être pompeuse, son organisation sérieuse mais décontractée, il y a de quoi impressionner.

Comme l’an dernier, sont nominées 15 personnalités ayant pour horizon commun le territoire helvétique, la pratique musicale et un succès d’estime plus ou moins national. Le site du Grand Prix suisse de musique, offre une bonne porte d’entrée à qui souhaiterait découvrir ces musiciens. A l’orée de cette deuxième édition, il semble intéressant de mener une réflexion sur les enjeux d’un tel prix et les problèmes qu’il soulève. Sous son beau vernis, quelques choses moins reluisantes apparaissent,

Une sélection compliquée au sein d’une scène protéiforme

« Le Grand Prix suisse de musique a pour objectif de récompenser la création musicale suisse exceptionnelle et novatrice et de la mettre en lumière. » Si l’intention est louable, elle n’en est pas moins brumeuse. Comment faire une sélection exhaustive parmi le foisonnement de genres musicaux que vit notre époque, dans une scène musicale aussi protéiformes que l’est notre petit pays ? Plusieurs zones linguistiques impliquent un certain cloisonnement, malgré le travail de relais qu’opère Pro Helvetia depuis des années en encourageant financièrement à sauter les barrières, de Roesti entre autres. Il n’est pas question de considérer la célébrité des musiciens, ni leur rayonnement international, d’ordinaire si cher aux politiques culturelles. Ceci explique l’absence de noms comme Stephan Eicher ou Sophie Hunger dans les listes de ces deux premières années.

Même la musique n’échappe pas au compromis helvétique…

Il semble plutôt question d’encouragement de nouveaux venus (Joy Frempong, Bit-Turner, Christian Pahud), de récompenses émérites (Philippe Albera, Heinz Holliger, Daniel Humair) et de soutiens de carrières déjà bien avancées (Nik Bärtsch, Malcolm Braff, Christian Zender). Les questions de genres musicaux, zones géographiques et parité hommes-femmes ont été savamment soupesées afin de fournir un panel tout helvétique : des acteurs dans les domaines des musique électroniques, expérimentales, contemporaines, classiques et du jazz par une majorité de Suisse alémaniques, bon nombre de Romands, quelques expatriés, et un Tessinois. Une cérémonie en 2014 à Lausanne, la suivante à Bâle. Si l’on suit cette logique, puisque le lauréat 2014 était un homme romand plutôt en fin de carrière, serait-ce une jeune femme suisse-allemande qui remportera le pactole le 11 septembre prochain ? C’est du moins le seul raisonnement qui pourrait permettre au jury de départager ces artistes aux musiques et carrières incomparables, qui méritent tous largement le soutien qui leur est offert.

Un cataplasme sur une jambe de bois ?

La formule est un peu méchante, car ce Grand Prix de musique Suisse n’est pas inutile, c’est même un effort bienvenu, et il faut éviter de cracher dans la soupe. Mais tant qu’à dire les choses tout de go : mener une carrière de musicien en Suisse est un vrai casse-tête. La politique de subventionnement culturel pose à l’artiste des difficultés pratiques que ce Grand Prix met à nouveau à l’ordre du jour. La suite au prochain épisode!

Nik Baertsch’s Ronin @ The London Jazz Festival

©Martin Moell

©Martin Moell

This is Ronin’s first London gig since their latest recorded-in-concert ECM release simply entitled “LIVE”. New to this Swiss quartet, I had heard them described in terms such as ‘zen, meditative, minimalist and hypnotic’, and am hence expecting to quietly relax in my seat and possibly drift off into some pleasant la-la-land reverie. Fat chance.

Then comes the master’s cry

The opening number, a piece commissioned by the London Jazz Festival to celebrate their 21st edition, admittedly sets out the minimalist framework from which many of Nik Baertsch’s compositions emerge: a small sequence of notes played out repeatedly until an almost humming, vibrational plateau is reached. Then comes the shout – akin to a quantum leap – the master’s cry which signals the change in direction, and it’s never the direction you’re expecting. Enter the spikey-edged groove that creates an exciting synergie among the four musicians as the humming vibration is maintained but layered and combined with idiosyncratic funk-jazz rhythms. At once I understand the beguiling statement featured on the band’s press page: “creating the maximum effect by minimal means”. This is music that makes space within a limited space, yet manages to sound intense and massive. “From self-imposed restriction stems freedom” explains Nik on his website.

In between anything can happen
©Martin Moell

©Martin Moell

The twists and turns inside the strict aesthetic infrastructure are varied, unexpected and occasionally brutal. Tracks merge in and out of one another with liquid low-key starts and scary built-up endings; in between anything can happen. Just as you begin to think you’ve seized the pattern – bang! – here comes a sharp corner ushering in a brisk tempo change, a pregnant pause, an unexpected motive, an anti-pattern or perhaps just a slight percusiive tap on the inside of the piano. The yin and yang of tension and release are constant key elements, (brilliantly exemplified by a loud, almost orgasmic, gasp from an audience member during an unusually abrupt stop mid-flow in track 5). To quote a You Tube comment “It goes right in the body. Ronin can sometimes feel like a drug”, no snoozing on this risky rollercoaster, Nik himself describes his musical thinking as “ecstasy through asceticism”.

What’s clear though is that Nik is having fun…

A big engaging smile encourages the interlocking rhythms between him and his band members. There’s a lot of playfulness going on in the groove habitat despite the apparent strict code of conduct. Sha on the bass clarinet shuffles and whispers like a discreet background vocalist, yet is in fact unifying the electrical force field. Kaspar Rast on drums is raw and explosive when pushing outwards from the framework . Thomy Jordi on bass is the funk master from whom the mesmerising groove stems. This is a band that meets every Monday at 2pm in Zurich to play in a workshop environment open to all members of the public, so to assume that Ronin is a musical concept best appreciated by the brainy and pretentious is a total fallacy. Tonight’s audience is made up of novices as well as diehard fans, and both types leap to a rapturous standing ovation once released from the deliciously dramatic tension.

Nik Baertsch: piano, Fender Rhodes

Sha: bass clarinet, alto saxophone

Thomy Jordi: bass

Kaspar Rast: drums

Nik Baertsch’s Ronin played @ The London Jazz Festival (Kings Place), 23rd November 2013.

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