Free and easy International Jazz Festival in Saalfelden, Austria

Besides the setting, the great venues and the well-oiled production, just seeing the hundreds turn out for a festival is a definite fillip for the soul.

SYLVIE COURVOISER plays piano while Lorenz Raab accompanies on trumpet. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
SYLVIE COURVOISER plays piano while Lorenz Raab accompanies on trumpet.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The Saalfelden Jazz Festival marked its 40th anniversary this year from August 22-25. The four-day event took place at its regular berth in the southwest Austrian town with a plethora of predominantly avant-garde, or free-leaning, endeavors at numerous indoor and outdoor venues. And if you’re going to put out some adventurous vibes why not do that in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable, with towering mountain peaks, verdant stretches and teaming streams and rivers aplenty in the vicinity?
The main stage, naturally, hosted the most highly anticipated of the dozens of acts lined up by perennial artistic director Mario Steidl, starting with an intriguing pairing of envelope-pushing Austrian bassist Manu Mayr and compatriot bass clarinet player and sometime vocalist Susanna Gartmayer. It was a commendable front-line opener, and the two musicians were clearly simpatico as they reeled off velvety shades and sumptuous textures with some quirky asides thrown in to keep the more broad-minded members of the jam-packed audience on board. The audience sat transfixed and applauded rapturously as the long piece – a work of well-sculpted beauty – ended.
Tri-national fivesome Koma Saxo were next up and duly pumped out the calories as they waded into juddering grooves, with Swedish reedmen Otis Sandsjö and Jonas Kulhammar, and Finnish counterpart Mikko Innanen blowing up a storm, ably supported by Swedish bassist and German drummer Christian Lillinger. The latter was particularly entertaining, and kept us constantly guessing as to which way his percussive trail would next lead him.
When it comes to big guns in the freer roaming areas of the jazz domain, there are few more eminent than American saxman Ken Vandermark. His Noise of Our Time quartet was a consummately charged and inventive affair, with US-based, Swiss-born pianist Sylvie Courvoisier enhancing the band’s output with plenty of left-field keyboard and percussive work. Drummer Tom Rainey also put in a stellar performance, adroitly delivering tender riffs between more energized offerings.
And if you’re looking for bracing soundscapes, Vandermark’s your man and, as expected, he belted out some high-octane stuff. But there were some quieter moments too, albeit stacked with tension, notably in the aptly titled “The Space between The Teeth,” which married merry mayhem with silent slots and shuddering explosive vignettes. 
Vandermark is a master of sound, rhythm and weight, with all the players contributing and supporting, and intermittently getting their chance to strut their stuff from the front. Passages of delicacy, and even silence, were occasionally, almost brutally interrupted by bursts of gloves-off mayhem. But the lyricism was always around to be called upon.
THERE WERE high expectations from Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli’s gig and the leader and his tentet duly did the business. Deftly crafted lilting, surging and ebbing melodies, with more than a hint of Gaelic charm to them, were a joy to the ears and the heart, while trumpeter Hildegunn Øiseth provided some dimensional breadth with soaring arpeggios.
New York resident, Canadian flutist-saxophonist Anna Webber was yet another Saalfelden performer who put in a well-orchestrated shift, with her American sextet delivering strident, pulsating, thickly layered waves of sound in a well-weighted show.
The pick of the bunch, at the main stage, was the Tropic nonet show led by French guitarist Julien Desprez and American cornetist Rob Mazurek, with drummer Gerald Cleaver powering hard and unapologetically from behind. While many of the other bands in the festival lineup tended towards the carefully composed side of avant-garde jazz, Desprez and Mazurek let it all hang out, in buckets. Festival ticket buyers looking for a rip-roaring, bare-knuckled time would have found it here.
Meanwhile, the Orjazztra Vienna big band kept us right royally entertained with what could be best described as blues-seasoned cacophony, with plenty of good humor sewed into the seams.
And there was plenty in the way of fun and games over at the smaller Nexus-Short Cuts hall, with Courvoisier, this time teaming up with enterprising Austrian trumpeter Lorenz Raab. They clearly had the chemistry as they dovetailed through fast runs and more delicate, gossamer, breathy passages with seemingly well-rehearsed panache. I was surprised to hear from Raab during a post-gig chat that it was their first-ever show together. There may very well be more to come from their duo sometime.
The same auditorium also hosted risk-taking Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen in a merry joust with Bhutan-born guitarist Tashi Dorji. The latter employed a broad range of technological texture manipulators, while Rasmussen took us on a wild and wacky trip along her own creative pathway.
The most entertaining of the lot – as expected – was the Botticelli Baby bunch from Germany. Led by effervescent bassist-vocalist and showman extraordinaire Marlon Bösherz, the band put in a typically high-energy shift that had many in the audience hoofin’ and jivin’.
Besides the setting, the great venues and the well-oiled production, just seeing the hundreds turn out for a festival, which by and large steers a wide berth around mainstream jazz material, is a definite fillip for the soul.