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MOVED BY MOONSHINE

Pic by Bhubaneswarananda Halder

Expectation is a tenacious animal. But reality is, just as doggedly, a reminder. Each year, over the past few years, one goes to the international Jazz Festival in Calcutta, held at the forever welcoming Dalhousie Institute (October 29 and 31 this year), knowing fully well that there is one thing one should shelve at its threshold, while picking up something else on the way in — hope and earplugs, respectively. This year, and at least on the first day, one was far more thankful for the latter.

Pommel Horse, a Swiss outfit, is an engaging fivesome, as its opening number, When it Starts to Snow, thumpingly announced: Joel Graf on the saxophone was instantly anointed the undisputed voice of the group, and it remained so for a good part, thanks to its careening fervour and, for a larger part, a disbalanced sound which the Helvetians, spoiled by geographical latitude, purposefully opted for. This flair for piercing amplitude, however, proved less intrusive during Between Dead and Alive, allowing for malleable sepulchral tones courtesy the electric piano of Olivier Zurkirchen, who silkenly struck the new-age ivory once again, in support of the improvisational zest which caked the ensuing Important Movie Scene. Melody reared its much elusive head soon after, albeit teasingly: Pop Song enthralled, as did — a tad more impishly — another piece that promised, and delivered, visions of a deer gambolling on its familiar yet uncertain terrain. Jeremiah Keller (bass) and Gregory Lisser (drums) belatedly enthralled the audience with a punctuative and robust percussive strain, which ensured that the song, Coming Home, remained the group’s salient offering.

What the following group offered was the reassuring presence of Matthias Akeo Nowak’s double bass — and with it, the possibility of analogue gravity. Happily, The Frederik Koster Quartet (Germany), conversed a lot more, as was immediately seen in their performance of Sign of the Times. It was marked by a prolonged and easy interplay featuring Koster’s uninhibited and often undulating trumpet and Tobias Hoffman’s steady strains on the guitar. This inherent interactiveness proved to be a blessing during what surely was the group’s classiest act: Snapshots. It was a piece that courted the mushy, the rumbustious and the starkly spiritual with unfaltering èlan. It was dotted with instances of Hoffman upping the rhythmic ante and complemented manfully by Nowak’s sometimes deliberate, full-bodied brio.

Day two brought more hope and less occasion for ear plugs, though the Tarun Balan Collective’s initial composition was worryingly shorn of the cohesive element that the very nomenclature of the group sought to claim — that they are a confluence of musicians from the United States of America, India and Israel. Belief was more about competition than complementing, with the drums (Tarun Balani) wresting primacy from the piano (Julian Shore), and an exuberant trumpet (Billy Buss) crossing swords with Aditya Balani’s guitar. The latter strove, with little success, to straddle this chaotic interpretation. Shore, whose skill and stridence had sadly remained distant, had his moment during The Other Side: his unerringly languorous phrasings greatly enriched this piece — aided, of course, by Wiesenberg’s lazy, soft brushes on the drums — which bespoke Sunday somnolence.

Compactness comes with a foursome reassuringly exuding, at the same time, its penchant for the resonant and tonally temperate, as the repertoire of the Froy Aagre Quartet from Norway instantly validated. Rhythmic finesse, too, made a tardy but invigorating entry thanks to the most accomplished drummer of the festival, Jonas Barsten Johnsen. Certain things became clear right from the group’s show starter: an expert and uncommon blend of the celebratory and the melancholic was indeed Aagre’s insignia. The saxophonist’s approach of melodic simplicity sans prodigal gestures gifted every composition with a sense of precision. This was seen in Birds, Bees and Forest Trees, when a beckoningly elastic motif stretched over an engagingly broad rhythmic canvas, and more so during State of stillness, when she disarmingly unveiled another area of her considerable métier: haunting yet wispy balladeering.

Yes, Aagre endeared with her pure sound and nimble expression. Her larder, despite being variegated, awed with the organic energy of her accompanists. Even one of her lesser efforts, Southern Sanctuary, was not without a heady lilt and an inspiring solo from Erlend Slettevoll (piano). Both Factory and Castle in the Air married the upbeat to her much-tamed melodicism with expected èlan, compelling the crowd — by now moved by moonshine — to ask for repeated encores. Aagre, of course, obliged, but not unconditionally: “dance and I will play’’. And those among the audience who were bemoaning the absence of the likes of Marlena Shaw and Abdullah Ibrahim at the fest, had another rock to swallow — seeing the once genteel occasion atrophy into a veritable discotheque.

So, for next year, one does not just need earplugs. One needs appropriate footwear too.