Review: BCN Impro Festival, Barcelona

At the first BCN Impro Festival Dave Foxall enjoys an eclectic mix of improvisatory flavours and facets, characterised by experiment and spontaneity

The improvised music scene in Barcelona dates back decades, in one form or another. But in the last few years it’s been growing in strength, thanks largely to weekly sessions at small venues such as Soda in the Gràcia district and Robadors 23 and Sala Fènix in El Raval and the efforts of local label, Discordian Records. Finally, the scene gets its own festival: BCN Impro Fest.

Organised by Miquel Jordà, the festival was hosted by Sala Fènix with a concert each Tuesday evening. In addition, there’s an exhibition of photography and artwork by Joan Cortés, Roberto Dominguez, Elena Márquez and Miquel Jordà, depicting both Barcelona-based musicians and international names who have played the city in the past (inc. Peter Kowald, Barry Guy, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey...)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, this wasn’t a jazz festival, although jazz elements and roots do inform the approaches of many of the musicians. The hoary old question, “What is jazz?” often settles on improvisation as a necessary ingredient; but of course that doesn’t mean all improvisation is jazz... BCN Impro Fest is firmly focused on "free improvisation," taking Bailey’s “non-idiomatic” as a starting point.

The key words here are experimental and unrehearsed; though you could easily add commitment, unfettered and at times, humour. So, to the sounds…

The first week had two sets divided along gender lines. The first was a fragile collision of fragments: Clara Lai’s delicate piano dissonance, Ilona Schneider’s non-verbal acrobatics, Sarah Claman’s angular violin and Almudena Vega’s zen flute (pictured above right). There was an easy randomness at work here alongside an atmosphere of close attention and deliberation. Contrast this filigree of sound with the altogether more in-your-face second set: Tom Chant’s tenor alternating between brutal fire and mellow-toned melody, Mark Cunningham lingering over his trumpet lines, inhabiting each note fully, El Pricto managed both jagged piano and a shrapnel approach to the alto (not at the same time!) and Pep Mula laid down a relentless percussive foundation.

For week #2, a more laboratorial (and playful) aesthetic prevailed, with two sets of "mad scientists" combining unexpected sounds via extended techniques and everyday objects. Highlights from the first set included Ferran Besalduch’s bass saxophone and Fernando Carrasco’s guitar (frequently "prepared" and played in a most un-guitarlike fashion to elicit ethereal sounds). Set number two managed to include inflated wine-box bags (pictured left) and minimalist sopranino saxophone from Miquel Jordà, a combination of power and subtlety at the drum kit from Ivo Sans and fractured space-blues courtesy of Diego Caicedo’s vintage Telecaster. Not necessarily "musical" this week – at times almost anti-music – but fascinating in the extreme; all the more so for the visual component of being able to watch the creation process.

For me, the third week was the highlight: two sets with the latest incarnation of "improvising orchestra" Memoria Uno. Led by Iván González and inspired by Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris’s "conductions", Memoria Uno is symbolic of the Barcelona scene, with dozens of local musicians featuring in the revolving line up. The twist for the festival was that the first set was conducted by Catalan pianist Josep-Maria Balanyà, with González taking the trumpet chair. Balanyà’s conducting style is part dance, part maestro, part tai chi – he whirls, he hops, he crouches, at one point he stands on one leg, using a foot to adjust the sound as he adds splashes of expressionist chaos over sustained rhythmic patterns and drones. For the second set, González takes over, starting with a dense organic mass of sound, laced with guitar feedback before creating a series of varying textures out of which emerge momentary solos, duets, quartets… with a variety of styles from hard bop to free noise.

The fourth and final week branched out in yet another direction, including dance and spoken word in the experimentation. After an impassioned (and a little Trane-ish at times) tenor solo by Agustí Martínez, a quintet took the stage one by one. In the absence of drums, Amaiur González’s tuba took on most of the rhythm duties and further percussion was provided by Sònia Sanchéz’s feet as she added a unique mix of flamenco and butoh dance styles – an intense physical expression of the music and absolutely mesmerising for the eyes and ears.

Over the four weeks, there was an eclectic mix of improvisatory flavours and facets and while not everything will have been to everyone’s taste (I readily admit to enjoying some sounds more than others) it showcased the wide variety and strength of the improvising scene in Barcelona, and that’s the sign of a strong programme. That, together with the sponsorship and endorsement from both the city council and brewers Estrella Damm give me hope that this is no flash in the pan, and that BCN Impro Fest will return next year.

See more music commentary from Dave Foxall (pictured right) at aJazzNoise.

Pictures by Elena Márquez

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