Photos: The Vilnius Jazz Festival in Lithuania has a long-established reputation as a platform for free improvisation … Videos

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The Vilnius Jazz Festival in Lithuania has a long-established reputation as a platform for free improvisation and the adventurous reaches of composed music. The man responsible for the festival’s entire history is Antanas Gustys, and this year found him celebrating its 30th anniversary. Surely the lineup was of an even higher standard than usual, as several impressive large ensembles took to the stage of the Russian Drama Theatre.

On this occasion, such expansiveness was impressive both for scale and content. Each of the four evenings (Oct. 12–15) featured two acts in the theater, with a Lithuanian band (followed by after-midnight jam sessions) at Paviljonas Jazz Bar on two of the days.

On the opening night, veteran French bassist Henri Texier led the Hope Quartet, featuring his son Sébastien (reeds), François Corneloup (baritone saxophone) and Gautier Garrigue (drums), the latter making his debut with this quartet. The well-paired saxophonists (with Sébastien on alto) maintained fluidity, sending out streams of lyrical notes, neither of them pushing their tones harshly, choosing a harmonious existence that lay well within mainline jazz parameters. Sébastien switched to clarinet, already imparting a freshness to the reed relationship, with a new cool school of slickly skimming detail, as Henri highlighted his delicate, tonally singing bass deftness, phrases warbling softly and precisely.

Texier favors substantial chordings, almost strumming for much of the time. The most impressive section of the set arrived at the end, with “Sacrifice” changing the orientation, a free-form miasma opening this suite-like piece. Sébastien’s alto made an introductory statement, rising out of an active drum rush, Corneloup introducing his baritone, joining for the theme, then taking an exhaustive solo, his tone like Jan Garbarek’s, transposed to another horn, his scampering route akin to that favored by John Surman. The bass and drums paused for space, then Henri stood up to deliver a tough bass line, the saxophones blustering back in, honking and scurrying. Returning for an encore, Henri was gliding and sliding notes, as if contemplating the techniques of Indian classical music, Sébastien further widening the palette with his clarinet.

Next came The Young Mothers, a mostly Texan outfit assembled by the Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who has been living in Austin since 2009. Though mostly jazz-rooted, their set also invited heady doses of rock, rap and funk, all perfectly grafted in compositional unity. The lineup featured two drummers (one of them, Stéfan Gonzalez, doubling on vibraphone and guttural death metal vocals), bass (both acoustic and electric), guitar, saxophone and trumpet. After a period of exploration, they hardened around a lounge reggae pulse, with a scrabbling guitar solo from Jonathan Horne. Flaten also crouched on the floor, tweaking electronic devices, setting up clipped beats, as if two drummers weren’t sufficient, then adding a gritty electric bass part.

Besides playing trumpet, Jawwaad Taylor also raps, sometimes performing a striking exchange with Gonzalez’s dark vocal explosions. A fierce groove was unleashed, with a monosyllabic guitar/vibraphone ostinato, then Flaten spewed fuzz bass and Taylor rapped with a targeted precision. “Bodiless Arms” (by Gonzalez) opened with a terrifying scream from its composer, then edged towards a South African township groove, complete with a deranged guitar solo that nudged it closer to the sound of Chicago’s Tortoise. All of these diverse characteristics were confidently deployed into a powerful hybrid, completely natural in its amalgamations.

The second evening brought Infiltrators, a Lithuanian trio of soprano saxophone, keyboards and drums, formulating an ambient soundscape, spread around the dimly lit stage. Their electroacoustic mix often meant that if the horn was bathed in effects, the piano would be purely acoustic, and if Dmitry Golovanov turned to his wire-strewn keyboard filtering, the soprano would keep itself “clean.” The trio’s moods were highly evocative, catching phrases to sample on the hoof, and using this raw matter to create rhythmic stutters.

Sweden’s Fire! Orchestra emerged from near silence, making an extremely slow build towards a tension in softness that was rarely released, so facilitating a state of continual suspension. Their songs are invariably crawling and stately, with relationships constantly weaving during the 20 or so minutes that they take to unfurl. A gently skipping time cut in, as leader Mats Gustafsson squealed high on his baritone saxophone, protracted intensification being the plan. At one stage, singer Sofia Jernberg caught shivery notes, with a softly hymnal development, eventually reinforced by the deeper resonance of her co-vocalist Mariam Wallentin.

One of Chicagoan Rob Mazurek’s various platforms is an exposed solo state, where he moves between trumpets, prepared piano, vocals, electronics and percussion, often as much ritual as musical performance. He brought a candle onstage, then gently extinguished it with his pocket trumpet breath, sculpting massive piano reverberation clouds and initiating an industrial-whine electronics soundscape, built up with overlaid vocal chanting. As Mazurek found a climax, a massive accumulation of real-time sample layers brought the set to its conclusion, but then he walked right out to the lip of the stage, shaking his clusters of bells and wooden rattles, as if making a shamanic farewell for the departed.

The Instant Composers Pool Orchestra continue to combine free improvisation, old-time swing and their distinctive Dutch slapstick, this last principally handled by veteran drummer Han Bennink, but with cellist Tristan Honsinger also contributing a unique display of conducting via dance moves during the band’s Oct. 15 set. A sharp explosion of musical clutter led into the swing parade of “The Spinning Song,” by Herbie Nichols. It’s a studied classicist tomfoolery, the pace maintained by Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Wolter Wierbos acting as the trombone-rasping leader, answered by the horn ranks. A slow burnish permeated Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” passing into trumpeter Thomas Heberer’s arrangement of “Let’s Call This” and closing with Bennink sitting splay-legged on the floor, rattling his sticks through “Restless In Pieces,” sung in fragile fashion by Honsinger, its author.

The final day ended well, as the English trio of Evan Parker (tenor saxophone), Barry Guy (bass) and Paul Lytton (drums) improvised through a set that was built up with medium length rather than extended pieces. There was ample opportunity for aloneness during their set, as two members would choose to contemplate while the third burrowed into an active expressiveness. Parker’s feathery lowness matched Guy’s bowed drone, as Lytton stroked his array of small gongs. Sometimes he littered his skins with clutter, creating a completely different kit, saving his most detailed shake-up of metal and membranes for his solo spotlights. Meanwhile, Guy inserted two long, thin metal rods into his strings, flicking them into humming, rattling life. The threesome’s amount of arranging accuracy was even more impressive, springing as it did from the instantaneous intuition of improvising.

Finally, the French guitarist Marc Ducret invited Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockūnas to expand his regular trio. Ducret and Mockūnas have worked as a duo for around a decade, and some of the set’s pieces appeared to be expansions of that repertoire. The trio is long-standing, with more than two decades of history together. They started with guitar and tenor, bass and drums rocketing in later, Mockūnas eventually stepping up to his bass saxophone, as Ducret responded by delivering the quietest possible solo, before pressing down on his volume pedal and resuming the fray. A slow dirge found Mockūnas blowing soprano and tenor simultaneously, before the next complex funk structure grew. The centerpiece of their set was actually right at the close, with an extended “Dialect,” boasting a whooping unison between all except drummer Eric Echampard, with Mockūnas excelling on clarinet.

During the late-night sessions, the Lithuanian combo TDT proffered an entangled baritone saxophone, guitar, bass and drums knit, descended from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, but with added math-rock brutality. The guitar work of Dominikka Norkūnas was particularly notable. When the jam session followed, the startling realization was that the various groupings were to continue on this adventurous path. There were no bebop classics or Broadway standards in sight, as each permutation probed the possibilities of angular modernity.

Vilnius Jazz Young Power 2017

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