Jazz & The City: Autumn leaves in Salzburg

Salzburg's jazz festival took place October 16-20.

DUDU TASSA had the crowd rocking and dancing with his offering of rock-laced Arabic numbers.  (photo credit: HENRY SCHULZ)
DUDU TASSA had the crowd rocking and dancing with his offering of rock-laced Arabic numbers.
(photo credit: HENRY SCHULZ)
If you’re going to have a jazz festival in a beautiful setting, Salzburg isn’t a bad option. And, given that timing is an all-important element of any music making endeavor, having the event take place in mid-October, when Mother Nature unfurls all her autumnal finery – that only serves to up the enjoyment ante.
The latest edition of Jazz & The City, under the creative guiding hand of artistic director Tina Heine, took place in the historic city in the southwest of Austria October 16-20. The festival, which was founded 20 years ago by Altstadt Verband Salzburg (Salzburg Old Town Association), is well-named. The free shows take place at all kinds of venues all over town, from bona fide auditoria to cozy theater spaces, a record store, a cinema, palatial environs, cafés, bars, churches and even a modestly proportioned family run umbrella factory.
The latter is the Kirchtag Schirmmanufaktur where the PRO trio played an enchanting blend of West Africa, Indian and jazz sounds to an audience that packed the factory’s diminutive premises on the fourth floor of a 17th century building in the heart of the old city. The music, produced by an electric violinist, reed-man and tabla player, was a pulsating affair that put one in mind – at least in terms of spirit and surroundings – of the New York loft scene vibe of the 1970s.
All told, there were 30 venues and 70 gigs strung across the festival program with David Helbock playing a stellar solo spot at the Mozarteum University. The Austrian pianist, who is known both for his sparkling keyboard work, and trademark piano key “kippah,” packed the auditorium to the rafters as he produced some intriguing versions of tracks from his latest release, Playing John Williams, which feeds off some of the scores written by the titular multiple Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning American film composer .
The Kollegienkirche was one of the more impressive locations on offer, with the church’s late 17th century ornate Baroque décor providing a sumptuous backdrop to the sounds of the Silent Witness duo, with Mieko Moyazaki playing koto and Bond playing electric bass and various electronically-enhanced sound effects. Moyazaki certainly did the business, as she mixed drama with velvety touches on her elongated Japanese stringed instrument, which suited the vastness and natural acoustics of the setting. However, rather than complementing or enhancing the sonic end product, the electric and electronic sounds rather blunted and swamped the Japanese player’s more organic offerings. Perhaps the absence of Loup Barrow, the percussion-playing third member of the trio, who was unable to participate to a family emergency, was to the detriment of the artistic bottom line.
One of the most enticing items at the festival is Blind Date. There were 15 such on-the-fly unscripted slots spread across the four days whereby members of the public take their seats before the house lights are turned off. After a minute or so the music starts. I attended a couple of Blind Dates, the first of which featured Israeli-American reed-man Oran Etkin and French drummer Edward Perraud, was a highly successful excursion, while the other, with American drummer Jonathan Barber and an Austrian viola de gamba player started out a bit lopsided, but gradually took on a more cohesive line.
It is not only the audience that doesn’t know what it is going to get. The musicians themselves don’t know the identity of their counterpart, nor the instrument they play. The first quarter of an hour or so is played, and listened to, in pitch darkness, after which the lights come up gradually. Presumably, some Blind Dates work better than others – it is down to not only to instrumental skills, but the ability to listen well and adapt – but the ones I caught were mainly rewarding experiences.
On the non-jazzy side of the program, Israeli vocalist and guitarist Dudu Tassa, and his Kuwaitis band, had the crowd rocking and dancing with his offering of rock-laced Arabic numbers. There were also some left field strands to the festival bow, with Etkin also contributing to a thought-provoking quartet performance accompanied by an experimental film with the chilling title of “Unique Places of Death NYC.”
With jam sessions and musical guided tours of the town and its environs included in the agenda, Jazz & The City continues to provide the goods for all and sundry 20 years after its inception. So, if you happen to dig fun, provocative, inspiring, curious and compelling musical endeavors, hitting Salzburg next fall could be a good option.

For more information: www.salzburgjazz.com.