Some European jazz festival towns have ocean beaches. Some have mountains. Some have rivers. San Sebastián, in the Basque region of Spain, has all of the above, plus a promenade that runs for two miles along the golden crescent of Concha Bay. There is a monumental steel form anchored to rocks at the far end, El Peine Del Viento (“the comb of the wind”), by the great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Jazzaldia, which began in 1966, is Europe’s second-oldest ongoing jazz festival (after Jazz a Juan in Antibes), with the second-best food (after Belgrade).
I was able to attend only the first two nights of the five-night program, which meant that I missed Dave Holland, Wadada Leo Smith, George Benson, Archie Shepp, Kris Kristofferson, and Elvis Costello. But I caught seven full concerts in some memorable settings.
The most memorable was Playa de Zurriola, the beach where Escenario Verde, the Green Stage, was set up for the free concert on opening night by Patti Smith. For the first two days of the festival the sky was overcast. Festival Director Miguel Martín estimated the turnout for Smith at 4500, about half as many as last year, when Living Colour played the opening free concert in good weather. But looking out from the side of the stage, half as many people as last year made an impressive horde down the sand.
A night with Patti Smith is as much a witch’s sabbath as a rock concert. She pranced the stage, hissing and spitting, haranguing the crowd into a frenzy. (A Spanish crowd hollers “Pah-dee Pah-dee Pah-dee!”) She stopped and stood still and sang a Rolling Stones song: “So don’t play with me, ’cause you’re playing with fire.” It was ominous and creepy and credible. “Because The Night” was a fervent, livid testament, Smith on her knees at the front of the stage. Forty-five hundred people sang along on “People Have The Power.” Smith raised her fist and tossed off her skullcap and whipped and spun and her tendrils flew.
The climax was “Gloria.” The rain that had been holding off was suddenly unleashed. It was a breath-taking sight from the side of the stage as the crowd, now dotted with umbrellas, held firm in the pelting rain. When Smith screamed “G-L-O-R-I-A!” she pointed into the night with a long skinny witch’s finger and the crowd and the wind howled back: “GLORIA!”
While a Patti Smith concert is going on, it is possible to believe that none of us will ever get old, that Time will not eventually crush everything in its path, that Lenny Kaye, who has played guitar with Smith for 40 years, is just getting started, and that Patti Smith, light on her feet, will fly around a stage singing “Gloria” forever.
There were two other concerts on Playa de Zurriola on opening night, but they were under a tent, in a small venue called Carpa Heineken, or Heineken Marquee. The first was by a trio formed in late 2009: guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The contrast between Rypdal’s heavy dark detonations and Vitous’ lighter arco filigrees was odd and intriguing. Gerald Cleaver has outcat credentials, but in this band he serves as the voice of reason. He generated a clear avenue of steady energy down the center of this music, a reference of relative order amid the crashing and whirling.
What has always been interesting about Rypdal is the combination of his rock sound and his jazz ideas. Rypdal is the jazz guitarist most explicitly indebted to Jimi Hendrix. He sounds like Hendrix come back to life as an abstract expressionist. The opening piece threatened to blow the audience in Carpa Heineken backwards in their folding chairs. Rypdal began with rasping screeds and wails. Vitous immediately revealed that he was not a member of the rhythm section but was a second contrapuntal lead voice. He bowed frantically, or used his bow as a drumstick on the strings of his bass.
Rypdal is a sound sculptor who works in large jagged forms. He has an instinct for drama, and creates suspense with looming thunder but withholds the resolution of the full storm until the right moment. There is a sense of impending crisis in Rypdal’s music, but you don’t know whether it will bring enlightenment or doom. Yet a piece like “Memory Lane” proved that Rypdal’s keenings can contain genuine melodies.
The crowd in Carpa Heineken had drunk a lot of Heineken by the time of the late concert. The noise did not matter because the band called Supersilent is anything but. Picture two Norwegians, Helge Sten and Ståle Storløkken, facing one another as they manipulate keyboards and synthesizers and black boxes and patch bays. They conducted a conversation, or a war, at 110 decibels, blasting one another with fusillades and sweeps and oscillations. Synthesizers often mimic the sound of orchestras. The synthesizers of Sten and Storløkken sounded like choirs-choirs moaning in Purgatory. Supersilent plays advanced nightmare music. Once when a drunk in the crowd let out a strangled roar, it fit right in.
On the second evening, the Arturo Sandoval Quintet played the Teatro Victoria Eugenia, one of the most beautiful concert venues in Europe. This 900-seat horseshoe with three tiers of opera boxes opened in 1912, but was completely renovated in 2007. Everything, from the red velvet seats to the ceiling frescoes to the gold leaf on the ornate flowered facings, gleams.
Sandoval’s band played a proficient, fiery set in which the leader demonstrated his extreme versatility. He played trumpet over five octaves. He sang. He drummed. He played piano on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” with a skill level rare for a jazz musician doubling on an unrelated instrument. The best piece was “Body And Soul,” a duet between Sandoval on trumpet and the band’s regular pianist, Manuel Valera. Sandoval decorated it lavishly with spitfire digressions and flaring flourishes.
Then the music moved back outside for a double bill of Christian Scott and Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio. Plaza de la Trinidad is a square that opens out from the narrow cobblestone streets of San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja, or Old Town. Laundry billows from clotheslines high above. The square holds 2500 for music, not counting the people on balconies and those looking down from their apartment windows. There is a plaque on a stone wall dedicating the Plaza to Charles Mingus, who played here in 1974.
Rain ponchos were distributed to the crowd before the music began. Fortunately they were not necessary.
There is a buzz on the jazz street about Christian Scott. When he walks onstage he commands attention before he plays a note. He has an aura, a presence. His cool and his poise remind you of Miles Davis, but Scott is more socially engaged with his band and his audience. He played tunes from his latest album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, on Concord. “Eraser” was representative. It focused all of its components into a specific mood and story: pianist Milton Fletcher’s obsessive, cycling chords, drummer Jamire Williams’ surges and waves, Scott’s brooding muted lines, set apart. Scott is unusual for a 27-year-old musician because he already understands discipline and (like Miles) believes in less-is-more. His pieces set up vivid atmospheres, and his trumpet, sometimes with just a few gestures, hovered over them or traversed them to deepen them. “K.K.P.D.,” which stands for “Ku Klux Police Department,” portrayed a traumatic incident in Scott’s hometown of New Orleans. It was explosive social protest, Williams thrashing and cursing, Scott raging in short bursts. But it was not a simple picture, and by the end Scott’s lines had lengthened into something like mourning, perhaps even forgiveness.
Scott’s band is hot. Fletcher is a powerful, fresh pianist. Williams is one of the best of the new generation of jazz drummers. He creates fields of complex information, never stops soloing, yet does not crowd the music. Kris Funn is a quick-on-quick bassist. Matthew Stevens is like a guitar version of Scott: a young player already smart enough to use his chops selectively, with purpose. Everyone in this ensemble understands that his role in the group concept is to sustain the narrative.
To go from Arturo Sandoval’s concert to Scott’s was a meaningful contrast. Sandoval, a much older and more experienced musician, offered bravura and flash and sophisticated entertainment. Scott, mature beyond his years, offered art.
I have heard Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio live on several occasions, including a concert at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, right before San Sebastián. I have puzzled over why this band with three renowned players does not move me. They were better in Spain than in Italy. On “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” the fluid melodicism of guitarist Russell Malone was seductive. Mulgrew Miller played a “My Funny Valentine” that contained a large spectrum of expressiveness, from bare single-note lines to sudden densities to headlong swing and the blues. Not many pianists could have assembled it. But in Spain, I came to the rueful, reluctant realization that my problem with Ron Carter’s bands is Ron Carter. Every solo he took in Plaza de la Trinidad was a long indulgent wandering. Sometimes you could hear the crowd getting impatient, murmuring and stirring. And Carter’s bass sound is a dry, technical thud.
Jazzaldia tried something new this year: “secret concerts,” not in the program, announced 24 hours in advance only on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. The first was a solo performance by Vijay Iyer at 12:30 a.m. on the second night in Club Victoria Eugenia, downstairs from the Teatro. Iyer was in town with Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, which played the next day.
The festival’s very first attempt at a secret concert was not successful in generating an audience. The club, a small space, was less than half full for an artist who is the “Jazz Musician Of The Year” according to the Jazz Journalists Association, and whose recording Historicity, on ACT, is the consensus “Album Of The Year.” But from a selfish point of view, those of us seated in a semi-circle around Iyer and his Steinway were afforded an opportunity to hear him in a setting of rare intimacy.
Iyer has just released his first unaccompanied recording on ACT, Solo, and much of his repertoire came from the album. His proprietary approach to the piano sounds even more erudite and austere when he plays alone. In the absolute silence of Club Victoria Eugenia, Iyer played jerky staccatos, disruptive intervals, bi-directional fidgeting runs, and chordal blocks with hands spread wide. He plays jazz piano in a foreign language in which he alone is fluent. It is redundant to speak of his technical brilliance because it is inseparable from his accretive creative process, in which external elements are introduced and multiplied and layered into vast designs. Iyer’s magic is that, once he has taught you how to listen to his music, you hear the angles and planes cohere and begin to strangely flow. You hear new pure forms of esoteric lyricism infused even into songs that Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand sang, like “Human Nature” and “I’m All Smiles.”
I was sorry to leave San Sebastián before the festival was over, but I felt fortunate to have been present for Vijay Iyer’s private recital.