Spring, and Music in the Air

It’s a sure sign of Spring that we find jazz musicians blossoming all around us in Vienna, which is, after all, the city of music. The final days of February as part of the exciting concert series “The art of the song”, at the Konzerthaus (3., Lothringerstraße 20), Carinthian-born alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig brought a program featuring original music based on traditional themes from his Carinthian Heimat.

It was a daring move by this proud Austrian export to the global music stage. Ignoring the revered standards of the great American Songbook, Puschnig spoke to his audience, making Carinthian themes alive again, reworked in new apparel.  Long a member of the A-team of European jazzers, Puschnig was a founding member of the Vienna Art Orchestra, and more than most, truly embraces both his local and Continental musical roots, not simply acknowledging his forebears but drawing upon them for inspiration.

With this tour, under the subtitle, “For the Love of It”, Puschnig shares the stage with mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, Mark Feldman, violin, and Mike Richmond, on bass, and somewhat like a mellow wine, his provenance shown through, supported by the eight membes of the Vienna Flautists and four voices from the Schnittpunktvocal chorus.

“There are certain songs that simply suit one,” Puschnig said, introducing the evening. Something about these “country” songs, with their clear internal structure, seem to fit him in a specific way, whether he likes it or not. Perhaps that is what is meant by “feeling at home.” With the additional voices, flutes and choir, and particularly with Bernarda Fink in counterpoint to his saxophone, Puschnig was in his element as director and soloist. While warm and relaxed, the program had a gravity fed by history, making this jazz night much more than a pleasant diversion.

Across town, a week later, in the gemütlich setting that is Vienna’s Jazzland (1., Franz Josefs-Kai 29), sax master and composer Chico Freeman was joined by The Fritz Pauer Trio. Fritz Pauer, long one of Europe’s most beloved and respected pianists and composers shared the stage with Johannes Strasser on bass, with Joris Dudli on drums. Freeman and Pauer were winding up the last dates of a tour following their recently released double-CD The Essence of Silence, recorded in Vienna in March 2009, and provided the backbone for their current program.

The evening’s repetroire drew heavily from the new CD, which in itself was quite refreshing. Jazz audiences are notorious for wanting to play favorites, aching to hear Gershwin, “Yip” Harburg, or Jerome Kern again…and again, and indeed when this dynamic duo wants to, they deliver on the “hits”. However, this night was all the more a treat to the ears, hearing as we did the noise from deep in their souls, music they brought into this world, some of it in any case from the next.

The set opened powerfully with a Fritz Pauer tune “Drum Chant” recalling the “high, lonesone” sound of Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66” theme, driven to resolution by a strong drum solo by Dudli. Passion gave way to melody, transitioning to the next tune, opening with a quite and lovely piano solo by Pauer, a ballad called “Enchance” which leads off the CD. This intro, in fact, sets the stage for the tune’s composer Freeman on saxophone (ably supported by bassist Strasser) who drove home the melody, reminiscent of “A Song for You,” evincing his McCoy Tyner-Elvin Jones influences.

With the team warmed to their task, the next tune, “Dark Blue” (another Freeman original) brought the audience to life. First heard on Freeman’s “Tales of Ellington” album, it was written in honor of the Duke. Back on tenor sax, Freemean, with the “power” trio behind him, delivered a near-boogie woogie with Pauer working his Bösendorfer to yield an electric sound. The next tune turned suddenly more personal, if no less powerful, the waltz-like ballad, “To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain” opened with a plaintive, aching tenor solo, speaking to those emotions only barely below the surface of us all.

Balancing the mood of the night, the next tune, “Epikur” by Johannes Strasser, showcased the integral role played by this great bassist. With a clarity and control of a cellist, Strasser drew out the song’s melody before astonished eyes and ears, yielding to solos by Chico freeman and Fritz Pauer.

A night of highlights, the teaming of Pauer and Freeman worked its magic among the fortunate on hand at Jazzland on this final night of the tour. Other highlights included (yes) a reading of the standard, “Angel Eyes” in a new arrangement described by Freemean as “ballad and groove in simultaneous motion” demonstrating the living art of jazz, grafting the creativity of these fine artists on to sturdy, living roots.

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