Inntoene Festival: Diersbach, Austria, June 10-12, 2011

Inntoene Festival 2011
Diersbach, Austria
June 10-12, 2011

I overheard a conversation at the Inntoene Festival in Austria. In a mock-incredulous tone, one New York musician was asking another:

"Straight up. You're telling me. That this whole farm place. Is owned. By a trombonist?!"

Cue laughter and the gentlest of fist pumps.

That statement does have its slight inaccuracies, but they shouldn't be allowed to spoil what is not just a good story, but a truly remarkable one. Paul Zauner, the director of the Inntoene Festival—whose family own the pig farm at which the Inntoene Festival is held—is, indeed, a trombonist. He lived in the US for a while in the late 1980s and played with George Adams and David Murray. But he is also the proprietor of a record label which has produced many gems—see the selection of two below—and over ten years he has developed a concept for a festival which may be unique in the world.

How does the Inntoene concept work?

Zauner " refuses to play the big names game," said one observer. He mixes a very few familiar names—last year he had Hugh Masekela and Gregory Porter—with the unfamiliar. This year the festival was packed, even without the lure of familiar names—perhaps the best-known internationally was guitarist John Abercrombie—which implies an audience firmly entrenched in the habit of coming along with open ears, and prepared to place its trust the bold instincts of the festival programmer.

Within jazz, Zauner unearths the neglected. What had originally drawn me towards the Diersbach was a fabulous recording, from the 2009 festival, of Lenny Popkin.

Zauner unashamedly puts jazz in its logical place at the centre of a broad range of different music, and sets the standard for musicianship/musicality/quality very high, indeed. This year, he moved further than before in the direction of baroque, folk and world music, with interesting collaborations. One Austrian journalist wrote, about the 2011, Festival that Zauner may have created an entirely new genre: "polygamous music."

The audience, mostly of regulars—he doesn't need to market anymore, just enjoy the open, relaxed atmosphere—"it's just like the seventies," one couple from Germany told me with a smile. There are no VIP enclosures, no guarded areas, no burly gatekeepers preventing access. The atmosphere is one of trust, companionship and a warm welcome.

The Festival has been held in its current location on a working farm in Diersbach for the past ten years. The main stage, on which all the concerts happen, is in a huge barn with a capacity of 800 people sitting on two levels. It is a working agricultural building which also serves to store the hay in winter. There is pride in farming communities about the quality and the freshness of the food. And people weren't disappointed. One mischievous local farmer seemed to enjoy plying musicians with his home-distilled fire-water. Idiot.

The Inntoene Festival is, in fact, in its 26th season. It used to be held in various locations—one long-term devotee had a hazy memory of having heard Joe Lovano, probably in a sawmill.

Where is Diersbach?

In the Innviertel province of Upper Austria. The nearest large town to Diersbach is Passau, just over the border in Germany, 25km away. A preserved Baroque town—Schaerding is nearby, and the state capital of Linz is an hour away by train.

A few personal highlights:

Singer/pianist Davell Crawford. The virtuous circle of an audience warming to a musician, and taking him completely to their heart. At 2 15am. Unforgettable.

 Any of several pianists level-checking, warming-up, getting comfortable with the Bosendorfer piano and its gentle nature—but particularly Kirk Lightsey, with Wayne Shorter's "Fee Fi Fo Fum."

Melba Joyce, digging deep for a smoky contralto timbre in "Round Midnight," and responding to the physicality of Ronnie Burrage's backbeat in "World on a String."

A surreal, can-this-really-be-happening moment. So here I am in an Austrian barn, listening to Japanese serpent player Chaki a Galician/Portuguese jazz-folk band.

The gentle, persuasively courtly, multi-voiced baroque splendor of XavierDiaz Latorre's guitar.

 John Abercrombie's weaving of counter melodies around the Tawadros brothers.

Pure emotion from Larry Smith, whose valedictory words on the last night were close to tears: "I've had two strokes. And I've never seen anything as beautiful as this in 57 years of playing music."

Yes, Inntoene was bound to be a voyage of discovery, and so it proved. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

This was the first day, but there had been a pre-opening night, the inauguration of "St Pig's Pub," an informal venue in a building which until recently had served as a pig shed.

The first act of main program gave exactly the right kind of upbeat vibe to launch a festival. The Tawadros brothers are Joseph (oud, born 1983 in Cairo) and James (percussion, born 1989, after the family had moved to Sydney). They were joined by two US musicians—one, from an older generation—and both from the top flight: guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Drew Gress. This quartet played tunes mostly from a recent quintet album, The Hour of Separation (Enja, 2010), recorded by the brothers in New York with Abercrombie, and with bassist Jack DeJohnette and John Patitucci. The most remarkable contribution to their live set came from Abercrombie, whose endlessly subtle counter-melodies around Joseph Tawadros' feverishly busy, impressively energetic oud playing was full of surprises and illuminating contrasts. Paul Zauner knows Abercombie's playing, having previously released a fine album of the guitarist in duet with Polish guitar God Jarek Smietana.

The programming of early music ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria next was an interesting contrast, and gave the strong sense of how programming with jazz at its heart can extend in fascinating directions. The most skilled improviser in the group is Jan Krigovsky, originally from the Tatras mountains of Northern Slovakia. He is listed on various websites as a jazz bassist, but last night was called upon to sing, and to play just about everything apart from the bass. He played a subsidiary violin part with the kind of attack and bite that comes from an accordion. He was also featured, playing in ensemble with the others, on two types of Slovakian overtone flutes, interesting curiosities but not much more, the koncovka and the fujara.

Saxophonist Carlos Garnett had apparently told Zauner that his quartet, with pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Taru Alexander, would "blow the barn down." But this group was at its most effective in its two ballads: Garnett's own "Shakina"—after a daughter born to him at the age of 67, an African-American name meaning possessing god-like beauty—and Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes." Garnett, with gorgeous and focused tone, stated his melodies clearly, whereas the quicker numbers, typified by "Catch me if you can," zipped through changes, and at times the band had a tendency to play vertically over the chords, rather than to narrate. A delightful closer, the theme from The Flintstones, brought out the genuine entertainer in Garnett, whose "Jump -Did-Le-Ba," Dizzy Gillespie-style vocalizing did fulfill the promise, bringing the house down and an enthusiastic full house to its feet.

Davell Crawford delivered a truly remarkable set. The scheduling had drifted a bit, and the evening's closing act took the stage at 1:10am. But it was well worth the wait for the singer-pianist, the "Prince of New Orleans." Crawford is the godson of Roberta Flack, but has a vocal quality recalling Donny Hathaway. Something definitely happened during this performance; its tentative beginnings grew into a set which will be remembered for a lifetime. Crawford came on wearing a white Stetson hat and dark sunglasses. The opening numbers were, as billed, celebrating New Orleans, including a heartfelt rendition of "Basin Street Blues." The Stetson, wisely, got jettisoned. The word Bosendorfer, the realization that he had such a great piano to commune with, seemed to trigger relaxation in Crawford, and the vibe, the communication level just moved to a different place. A highlight was "Blueberry Hill," in homage to Fats Domino, and Abbey Lincoln's "Throw it away.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Melba Joyce, originally from Texas, has been a feature on the scene in Harlem for many years. The mother of singer Carmen Bradford and sang, until recently, with the Count Basie band. She conveyed pure emotion, but also proved to be a fine and subtle musician. It was a lively and popular set which came to a close with the blues "Doodlin,'" pianist Kirk Lightsey, bassist Aaron James and drummer Ronnie Burrage providing sympathetic support. Burrage gave Joyce a strongly kicking physical backbeat in "World on a String." She released gorgeous contralto tone in "Round Midnight."

In the hands of Austrian trumpeter Herbert Joos, the instrument completely ceases to be an extroverted declamatory voice, and becomes, instead, shadowy presence—subtle and understated. The quartet which he leads, with vibraphonist Woody Schiabata, is the perfect context for his quiet, Jimmy Giuffre-ish compositions.

Baldo Martinez Projecto Mino

Baldo Martinez's nine-piece Projecto Mino , from Galicia in North-Western Spain, received one of the warmest welcomes of the festival for its extrovert material, mixing folk and jazz. Martinez is a hard-working bassist and composer, and his project attracts high quality improvisers. The unusual instruments in the band—serpent and hurdy-gurdy—were not just diversions. The players could really improvise, and Martinez put them through their paces. Maite Dono fronted the band, possessing an appealing, light voice, and the high level of musicianship typical of this band.

Saxophonists Azar Lawrence's quartet gave a high-energy, hard-hitting Coltrane tribute, in which the least surprising thing was that a drumsticks broke into pieces. Bassist Essiet Essiet was particularly impressive, not just for a solo in which the body of the bass got slapped hard, but for strong characterful and muscular playing throughout the set.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Sunday, a sunnier day with no fewer than eight gigs.

Oliver Steger's education project, Around the World with Brother Jacob, showed off a late group of local students for whom being onstage and performing seemed like the most natural thing in the world. It was good to be reminded that this festival is rooted in its community. The province of Upper Austria, "Kulturland," is rightly renowned for a well-funded high quality music education system.

The first of the day's professional gigs was from a Hammond trio led by saxophonist/flautist/bass clarinetist Klaus Dickbauer, a former member of the Vienna Art Orchestra. A strong, rhythmically assertive player, he led the group at the start through tricky meters, but then just seemed happy to attach the funk engine, lay back in the groove—and, highly successfully, please the crowd.

The next two afternoon gigs showed the boldness with which Paul Zauner's adventurous programming can bring the audience with him into uncharted territory. Xavier Diaz Latorre's duo was highly successful, resulting in a lovely gentle gig. Latorre is an awesomely equipped baroque guitarist who keeps, mostly, within the courtly and restrained mode of delivery of the period. When producing multi-fingered contrapuntal playing the quality of the voice-leading was quite stunning.

The crowd was won over, but there was less to enjoy in pianist Aki Takase's duo with Xiu Fengxia. Both women musicians, from the Far East, are based in the Germanic world, but until this gig had not played together.

The Eric Sava Quartet from France—consisting of baritone saxophone, piano, accordion and drums—had no such problem convincing everyone in the room and received a rapturous reception for their blend of fast-moving and energetic folk-jazz.

Bleu is a trio led by trumpeter Lorenz Raab, who doubles occasionally—with one hand—on harmonium, with Ali Angerer's tuba/zither/cimbalom/electronics and drummer Rainer Deixler. An extrovert trumpeter (is that a tautology?), Raab plays in the Volksoper, and mainly explored quieter sound-worlds and Austrian-inflected, Nordic-inspired electronica.

One of the moments which Paul Zauner had been evidently looking forward was to reunite a group of American musicians. Two are now based in Europe—composer/drummer/educator Doug Hammond, originally from Tampa Florida, and now based in Linz; and Detroit pianist Kirk Lightsey, based in Paris—with young bassist Aaron James. They played standards, the trio providing lively and first rate support, leaving saxophonist Larry Smith free to roam. Lightsey produced a moment of pure magic with his brief solo feature on "Never Let Me Go," which he segued into Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," for trio.

Larry Smith was close to tears, as he thanked Paul Zauner for having made something extremely special at Diersbach, enthusing, "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in 57 years of making music." That moment of introspection, however, was not yet the last word. The audience's chairs were cleared, suddenly the vibe got a lot younger, the barn became a club, and the lively French band Les Lapins Superstar just let rip.

By SEBASTIAN SCOTNEY, Published: June 25, 2011

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