Review: 12 Points day three

The final day of the jazz festival sees six acts stretch their abilities and their musical definitions

Artist: Varioius

Venue: Norrland Operan

Date Reviewed: April 9th, 2014

Alexander Hawkins; Herd Trio; Violet Spin; Marcin Masecki; Alarmist; The More Socially Relevant Jazz Music Ensemble

One of the main frustrations of your typical jazz festival is that the best gigs frequently clash. At 12 Points, there’s just one stage and everybody gets the same amount of time on it. Each band is an unknown headliner and, as a result, the audience tends to be made up of the kind of open-minded listeners who bring the best out in musicians.

Day Three of the festival sees six bands in as many hours, each in their own way here to stretch what jazz means for young European musicians in the 21st century. The spirit is willing alright, but it’s too soon to say about the flesh.

English pianist Alexander Hawkins gave up a career in criminology to pursue his passion for music, and there is something forensic in the way he goes about his solo performance. In among the crash, bang and wallop of a young pianist showing brave disregard for the technique he clearly possesses, there are fragments of stride and swing, echoes of Thelonious Monk and briefly glimpsed ghosts of Hawkins’ favourite, Duke Ellington. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole enthralling performance is a radically improvised recomposition of Duke Ellington’s Take the A-Train .

Finnish trio Herd are awarded brownie points in Gerry Godley’s introduction for travelling to the festival by ferry across the gulf of Bothnia, but are honest enough to admit later that it was only bassist Mikko Pellinen who had actually got his feet wet. Their music is a sweetly melodic confection of percussive instruments – bass, drums and vibraphone acting like one big thumb piano. Without any traditional chordal accompaniment, vibist Panu Savolainen is free to follow the music wherever it leads him, keeping his damper off and allowing the ringing bars to congregate in the air in clouds of overlapping harmony, while Pellinen and drummer Tuomas Timonen drive the grooves along with delicate precision.

Of all the castle walls being stormed here this week, perhaps the hardest to breach are the formidable defences of classical music, where the composer holds the strings and the notes are decided before the performance begins – often several hundreds years before. String quartet Violet Spin from Vienna are brave outliers, trying to find a way to ditch the dots and function as a single improvising unit. It’s a work in progress and there are still a lot of written passages in their gutsy performance, but at their best violinists Irene Kepl and Paul Dangl, violist Magdalena Zenz and cellist Fabian Jäger point the way to a new frontier for the string quartet.

Warsaw pianist Marcin Masecki continues the assault on classical certainties with a solo piano performance that opens the evening session, deconstructing a series of Scarlatti sonatas. The 17th-century Spanish composer’s melodies are dismantled and reassembled in a charmingly innocent, almost childlike fashion. Although he’s clearly a well-schooled classical pianist, Macecki doesn’t try to show off, and there are times when he sounds like a bold child deliberately screwing up his piano lesson while his teacher is out of the room. It takes a good musician to take on such challenging source material, and a great one to use it to create something so fresh.

One definition of jazz that I can always get behind is that it’s the sound good musicians make when they’re left to their own devices - not trying to please a king, praise a god or feed the corporate monster, just playing for the hell of it. Alarmist from Dublin - Osgar Dukes and Neil Cowley on drums, and Elis Czerniak and Barry O’Halpin both playing guitar and keyboards, usually at the same time - would certainly qualify under that definition. They look and sound like guys who just invented this music in their garage to amuse themselves. Their fresh and original indy-hi-life synth-pop post-rock (a category I’ve just invented) is as far from conventional jazz as we have seen all week, but no one in the delighted Umea audience is complaining.

This year’s festival started with iconoclasm and moved through so many different iterations of “new European jazz”, it seems fitting that Amsterdam’s More Socially Relevant Jazz Music Ensemble should bring it all full circle by looking and sounding like a proper jazz group. Led by guitarist Reinier Baas, clearly a man with an ear for a deadpan title (their latest album is called Mostly Improvised Instrumental Indy Music), they play original compositions from the leader, driven along by rock-inflected grooves from double bassist Sean Fasciani and drummer Mark Schilders, with actual saxophones, played by Ben van Gelder and Maarten Hogenhuis. Their set draws the a warm response from the audience and brings the 12 Points mothership back down to earth with a soft landing, a signal success for Dublin-based Improvised Music Company, as well as a tribute to the open-minded listeners of Umea who made the scene.

Jazz today isn’t a style any more than the United Nations is a country. Some will argue that if you allow a word to mean so much, it ceases to mean anything at all. Maybe, but that hasn’t happened yet to jazz. For now, the 12 young bands at this years 12 Points have proved that Europe’s new jazz is alive and well and not caring two hoots what it’s called.