Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bold Pianists Kick off the Umbrella Music Festival Tonight

Posted By on 11.05.09 at 02:54 PM

Achim Kaufmann
  • Achim Kaufmann
In this week’s paper I write about a couple of the international artists performing at the Chicago Cultural Center tonight as part of “European Jazz Meets Chicago,” the opening celebration of this year’s Umbrella Music Festival. But don’t take my focus on Liudas Mockunas and Martin Brandlmayr to mean the other musicians on the bill aren’t worthy. In fact, the two visiting pianists tonight would merit special attention any day of the year. (So would the other two guests, Swiss reedist Hans Koch and Swedish guitarist David Stackenas.)

Achim Kaufmann is German, but he’s lived in Amsterdam since 1996, where anything-goes polystylistic action is the name of the game. He’s proved a good fit for the city’s prevailing aesthetic, especially in his work with the collective trio he’s bringing to Chicago—Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode and German reedist Frank Gratkowski. On the trio’s third and latest album, 2007’s Palaë (Leo), the entirely improvised music ranges freely despite its relatively restrained, chamber-ish feel, organically incorporating postbop harmony, extended technique (particularly on Kaufmann’s part—he digs around inside the piano, scraping strings and thwacking its body), and high-level give-and-take. The three players have developed an intuitive rapport over the years, evident in the way they propel the music by anticipating one another’s moves instead of waiting to hear them and then reacting. You never catch any of them hesitating or faltering when it comes time to choose what happens next.

Guus Janssen
  • Guus Janssen
I have to admit that I’m more excited about Dutch pianist Guus Janssen, who for this rare local appearance performs with his brother Wim on drums and Chicagoan Anton Hatwich on bass. He’s one of the most overlooked composers and musicians in Europe, partly because he splits his energies between the jazz and classical worlds and has never cleaved to any particular school, style, or approach. You can certainly hear his stunning classical technique on his solo album Out of Frame (GeestGronden), where he adapts the freewheeling improvised-medley style developed by Misha Mengelberg for a piece that combines a variety of themes and ideas swiped from Scarlatti’s sonatas, but the record is jazz first and foremost, even if the music is often loaded with witty conceptual gambits. “In the End,” for example, which closes the album, uses boogie-woogie to weave together nearly seven minutes of musical endings—the last bars of one tune after another. “Extrucage” extrapolates a few block chords from Lennie Tristano’s classic solo piece “Becoming” into an ever-shifting showcase for knotty harmony, chunky rhythm, and radically changing density. Tristano and Art Tatum are key influences for Janssen, but on the title track it’s as though he’s channeling both the jagged phrasing of Thelonious Monk and the rollicking rhythm of Vince Guaraldi.

Janssen’s trio will also play a free concert on Friday at 12:15 PM in the Randolph Cafe of the Cultural Center.

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