River Tiger Fire (4CD Box)

Agusti Fernandez

Label: Sluchaj
Medium: 4CD
Year: 2015

Availability: Out of stock



By Colin Green on freejazzblog

The pianist Agustí Fernández turned sixty last year, and in celebration Maciej Karlowski – journalist, jazz critic, curator, CD producer and chairman of the Sluchaj Foundation – invited him to perform over four days during the Ad Libitum (At Liberty) festival in Warsaw, choosing three of the formats himself with Fernández directing a group of musicians for the fourth performance, who were left to him. The concerts are on each of the four CDs that make up this set, more a book than a box.

In his liner notes, Fernández is almost apologetic for the diversity of material and suggests there’s a unifying thread which runs through the performances, though he’s reluctant to say exactly what it is. I don’t have a problem with diversity however, and this is one of the most varied collections I’ve come across. Versatility is a prerequisite for playing free jazz and it might be said that as in life, musical character is best considered in different settings, and is rarely reducible to just one thing. The festival celebrated Fernández’ multifaceted imagination and his ability to both blend with others and make his music distinctive. The funding for such events in Poland, and the commissioning of new works, is something one would like to see more often in other, more affluent countries. As with any lifetime retrospective, it can only represent the view at the time. As Fernández puts it: “This retrospective, as a summary or inventory of my work, makes sense now, not before or after”. 

What emerges is a musical figure of outstanding ability and singular vision, a combination of both free jazz and aspects of contemporary composed music. He’s spent time with Cecil Taylor but also studied with the composer Iannis Xenakis in Paris, and cites Paul Bley and Evan Parker as major influences. According to Fernández, we have moved from a musical world with an exclusive focus on notes to one in which tones and sounds predominate: “The way we perceive sounds and music has changed…In every sound there is a note, and every note is a sound as well”. This duality can be heard throughout the works performed at the festival.

The title piece, ‘River, Tiger, Fire’ is a Conduction of the Ad Libitum Ensemble of ten musicians – Wacław Zimpel (alto clarinet, ukrainian trombita, khaen (laotian bamboo mouth organ), Ray Dickaty (soprano & tenor saxophones), Gerard Lebik (tenor saxophone), Artur Majewski (trumpet), Dominik Strycharski (soprano, alto & bass recorders / blockflutes), Patryk Zakrocki (violin), Marcin Olak (electric, acoustic guitars), Rafał Mazur (acoustic bass guitar), Ksawery Wójciński (double bass), Hubert Zemler (drums) – together with Fernández, who directs from the piano. The title is taken from the closing passage of Jorge Luis Borges’ philosophical essay A New Refutation of Time, which seeks to establish that time does not proceed in a linear fashion although typically, it’s more an exercise in the play of ideas (as Borges  points out: “new” only makes sense by reference to linear time). Similarly, for Fernández the notion of non-linear time has provided the inspiration and a poetic model for the work. The difference between objective ‘clock time’ and how it’s perceived in music is something that has puzzled him: “The many facets that rhythm can adopt are all facets of the same phenomena: how do humans deal with time in music, and how, through understanding these different conceptions, do we get to a broader concept of time?” 

Fernández has plenty of experience working in this medium, having played in the larger ensembles of Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Mats Gustafsson, but he has a different role here. Arguably, the central issue with free jazz orchestras or big bands is how to marry the spontaneity of improvisation with overall coherence on the larger scale. This is a problem with which many have grappled over the years, with differing degrees of success, and a variety of methods have been employed: standard notation, graphic scores, numbers on cards, signs, hand movements, or any combination of them. There’s also Conduction, developed by the late Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris which has become increasingly popular (Fernández played with Morris on his ‘Conduction # 113, Interflight’ back in 2000). It’s a technique using prearranged signs and gestures to modify material in real time, but I confess to being a bit hazy about the details and how much it differs from the other options. I suspect there’s an overlap. 

Thankfully, it’s not necessary for the listener to be aware of how exactly Conduction works in the piece as it’s only a means to an end, but it’s clear that the basic material is drawn from a common pool of motifs and rhythms, explored over the course of the work and returning in different contexts, evoking non-linear time. The other distinguishing feature is the various kinds of music that are played, a spectrum of colours and contrasts. Not a mishmash of indigenous dishes stirred together on the same plate but an exercise in how different music and genres can be put together, highlighting both salient sounds and common traits. Fernández has given careful consideration to the components he deploys and the whole piece is executed with gusto by the ensemble, successfully combining the freshness of improvisation with a bigger picture, neither inhibiting the other. 

Divided into eight parts there’s no real sense of progress during the course of the work: it’s more an accumulation of views from different perspectives. There is nevertheless, a definite feeling of birth in ‘I’ as the undifferentiated sound of wind instruments is transformed into chirruping parts, and closure in ‘VIII’ as the piece reaches a stirring conclusion.

Fernández uses the forces at his disposal with restraint. Often, a section will begin with a chamber-like passage of unusual combinations: a recorder with vocal overtones accompanied by a scratchy violin (‘II’); jazz guitar, piano, soprano sax and double bass studiously unwrapping a motif (‘III’); the cursive line of the bass clarinet with pizzicato violin and acoustic guitar (‘IV’); and electric guitar harmonics and chimes (‘VI’). Gradually, Fernández introduces new layers and textures – an incessant rhythm which builds to a raucous climax (‘III’) and in ‘IV’ the bass clarinet takes on a definite swinging groove. ‘V’ is more static, dominated by the exotic sounds produced by placing objects inside the piano, then by the sound of gongs and woodblocks. 

There’s also wit, an easily overlooked feature of music. ‘VII’ starts with a hypnotic rhythmic figure on acoustic bass guitar that had previously appeared as a sort of mad march in ‘II’, and forms the basis of a rock rhythm for distorted guitar and tenor sax. The riff is broken off twice to allow feeble interjections from violin and then trumpet, completely out of place. The music builds further but then fades away and we’re transported to a completely different location: a dialogue for violin and double bass, later joined by a delicate combination of bamboo mouth organ, flute and trumpet. ‘VIII’ is a mixture of Cajun and middle-eastern music over which the tenor sax plays a rousing melody.