The theme of the 12 Points festival is that there is no theme, and that’s its strength – over the course of each festival, all planets in the musical universe are visited, and every night is a trip into the unknown.
Five38 are a Parisian duo named after the abundance of strings on stage: the five on Fanny Lasfargues' bass and the rest on the harp played by Rafaelle Rinaudo, but the word "played" doesn't quite capture the extraordinary levels of manipulation going on here. Rinaudo applies all sorts of implements to her harp, from percussion mallets to electric fans, occasionally even her fingers, and then guides the resulting sounds through a pedal array, creating loops and motifs rather than anything linear or melodic. In response, Lasfargues lays down the occasional bass line, but is just as likely to pick up a clothes brush and drag it across the bridge of her bass to set up a percussion loop.
The results are spacey, ambient soundscapes that wash back and forth between two improvisers, more like a sci-fi soundtrack than a traditional performance. In a music that has traditionally emphasised the masculine values of instrumental virtuosity and technical display, these two women are moving out into a parallel universe. Those who got it really got it.
Over the past seven years, 12 Points has developed a particular talent for uncovering the extraordinary richness of Scandinavian vocals, and Norwegian singer Live Foyn Friis is a worthy addition to the list. Björk is a constant reference for contemporary singers, and rightly so, but Björk's roots in Icelandic traditional music are roots she shares with other Scandinavian vocalists, and Foyn Friis is finding her own way within that tradition. With her Danish partners, Alex Jonsson on guitar and Jens Madsen on bass, she crafts an earthy, shamanic sound that is equal parts folk, jazz, indy and country.
Madsen doubles as the group's drummer, thumping and slapping his bass, while Jonsson picks out ringing, countrified chords on his guitar, proving once again that Bill Frisell has cast a long shadow over this generation of guitarists. The Umea crowd clearly get where Foyn Trio are coming from and respond accordingly. Smiles all round.
Rounding off Day Two, Lab Trio are the youngest and most Belgian of this year's groups, and on the face of it, also the most conventional. In his introduction, artistic director Gerry Godley refers to the weight of history that comes with the classic piano trio format, but when pianist Bram De Looze, bassist Anneleen Boehme and drummer Lander Gyselnick start to play, it's clear that no one has told them. They play with that winning combination of utter conviction and disregard for precedent that characterises the best jazz groups, and if they occasionally sound like other piano trios – Brad Mehldau, Paul Bley, Esbjorn Svensson – you sense it's only because they're having the same ideas themselves.
Chatting with them afterwards, they are quick to point out that they don't see themselves as a piano trio anyway - they've been playing together since their teens, and if De Looze happened to play the steel drums, he'd still be in the band. But Lab Trio are conventional in the sense that they can really play, and they are the first group so far to play any tunes we've heard before. Their funky cover of the the old Flashdance favourite Maniac brings the house down, and by the end it's clear that we have witnessed something extra special, even by 12 Points standards. If this festival is about finding the musicians who will be important in the next generation, then Lab Trio are a pretty good bet.