(Various Venues in Mulhouse, France, 23 to 26 August, 2023. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)
The focus of the Météo Festival is on the experimental areas of improvised music and electronica. Founded in 1983 as “Jazz à Mulhouse” it no longer describes itself as a jazz festival – the name change was in 2009 – but rather as “an international festival of experimental and improvised music” […] with “programming is both radical and open to all.”
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Nonetheless, the music presented certainly has the creativity we associate with jazz in all its forms. Mathieu Schoenahl, – Artistic Director since 2018 – and his team present a mix of high energy instrumental music, and equally intense electronic sets with influences from noise music and heavy rock. The overall focus is akin to that of, say, The Wire magazine.
It is mostly based at Motoco, a warehouse type venue in a large former textile factory – Mulhouse used to be described as ‘the Manchester of France’ – but also uses some round town, more formal venues. It is clear that in its forty years of existence the festival has built up a loyal audience of a range of ages from both the immediately surrounding area, and from nearby Switzerland and Germany. Much of the programme is run as a kind of club event with gigs running from 9pm to 1am and seats removed, though more senior members of the audience would usually bring out chairs from the stacks at the back!
The concerts mostly fell into three categories: high energy instrumental sets, turntable electronic sets, either solo or in a duo with an instrument, and more acoustic solo or duo sets.
Mike Reed’s Separatist Party from Chicago played a set that moved without pauses between a range of styles and moods with subtle and intricate shifting patterns featuring the cornet of Ben Lamar Gay and the saxophone of Rob Frye exchanging ideas over a propulsive rhythm from Reed on drums. Much of the set was built around the declaimed spoken word and poetry of Marvin Tate whose forceful delivery added greatly to the atmosphere of the set, but, as so often with settings of this type with a spoken word artist declaiming over a groove-based accompaniment, it was for the most part impossible to catch the words. This was a pity as the words are clearly important. Nonetheless, this was a very distinctive set of music that combined various traditions and new approaches.
Bonbon Flamme led by Valentin Ceccaldi on cello with Luis Lopes on guitar, Fulco Ottervanger on keys and piano and Étienne Ziemniak on drums played a set full of drama, humour and changes of pace, while The End with Mats Gustafsson on baritone saxophone and Kjetil Møster on tenor saxophone and clarinet played a highly structured set of mostly high energy music but some downtime. Within the overall structure the solos from the two saxophonists were freely improvised. Vocalist Sofia Jernberg’s flight was delayed, but she made an impressive entrance on the group’s final number to bring the set to an intense climax.
Vaka played an intriguing but puzzling set; the music is built around the driving rhythms of double bass player Joel Grip and drummer Antonín Gerbal over which vocalist Elvin Brandhi shouted and screamed while Daniel Blumberg recorded and played back elements of the music as it developed. It’s an interesting concept, but needs much more variety.
Saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and guitarist Julien Desprez began their set as a duo with Desprez’s bugged guitar acting as a disruptive foil to Rasmussen’s freely improvised lines; after 30 minutes they were joined by four turntable artists and the rhythm team of Grip and Gerbal to create a wonderful maelstrom of industrial sound. Particularly impressive was Rasmussen’s switching at one point to using conduction techniques with the four turntable artists. There was also some performance art with Evicshen using an electronic comb on Rasmussen’s long blond hair to create an interesting sound.
Solos and Duos
Musho (pianist Alex Hawkins and vocalist Sofia Jernberg) performed a continuous 50-minute set with one brief encore on the opening night of the festival; this was an outstanding and beautiful integration of song, improvisation and interaction between voice and piano. I believe the songs were in both Amharic and Swedish, but Jernberg also uses the range of her voice to create what are sometimes quite startling, but impressive improvisations. Musho apparently means ‘sad songs’ in Amharic, and the mood of the set was, if not exactly sad, certainly passionate. As well as performing in the duo with Sofia Jernberg Alex Hawkins, ran a daily workshop on composition for larger ensembles attended by 16 participants.
Violinist Clara Levy played a solo set as part of the Family Programme (Bambin Bamboche), and then later in the day a duo set with drummer Alexis Degrenier. In both concerts Levy’s sound, at times manipulated with a brace on the strings, was clear and beautiful. The set with Degrenier produced four episodes of hypnotic minimalist music with Levy playing repeated motifs on violin and Degrenier adding rhythmic patterns, initially on cymbals, then on the toms first with small mallets and then still on the toms but with full mallets.
At the Fraternity Hall guitarist Thibault Florent and multi-instrumentalist Ben Lamar Gay played contrasting solo sets, with Florent improvising within a structure, and Lamar Gay developing ideas spontaneously throughout his set.
The variety of the turnable sets was a notable feature of the festival. These were not DJ sets or performances based around audience participation as in a hip hop event, but coherent sets of music using electronics, loops and samples for a listening audience. Sets by Damon Locks and Eat Drink Man Woman were quite socially aware, even political, while that by Evicshen, a turntablist from San Francisco, was very much a dramatic performance with the desk and turntables moving round the room. Damon Locks also performed with electric bassist Fanny Lasfargues in which her bass combined well with the loops and samples of Locks. There was also a workshop on Abstract Turntablism run by Maria Chavez, who also performed a solo set on turntables.
Tony Dudley-Evans was a guest of the festival which is supported by the French national organisation AJC.
LINK: Festival website