Oxygen - Anne-Liis Poll & Anto Pett
Valery Ponomarev Quintet
Wandering Voices ll
THE term "improv", especially on the Fringe, has been taken over by comedians lately. They've also appropriated and completely altered the meaning of the verb to riff, but that's another story. The improvisation on offer in Oxygen is, then, a rare Fringe treat for anyone who enjoys spontaneous music. Estonians Anne-Liis Poll and Anto Pett are a vocalist and pianist respectively who, instead of working with film as advertised, have invited another pianist, a violinist and a computerised sound artist to create entirely unscripted pieces of music.
Poll's vocabulary of sounds is amazing: she chirrups and cheeps, chatters and creates something akin to an entire planet's fauna with added industrial noises, while Alastair MacDonald runs them through his laptop in one conversation. In another, she adds a brilliantly quirky harmony and then another to a vocal line while manipulating various small percussion instruments. There are piano duets and a series of five character pieces led by each musician in turn in an hour that's made to seem much shorter by dint of the concision and judgment of the players and by the humorous introduction of kazoo, swannee whistle and other assorted accoutrements. If you've never "got" improvised music, this could be your road to Damascus.
Valery Ponomarev's story of how he escaped communist Russia to play with the great jazz messenger himself, Art Blakey, inevitably crops up during his late-night Jazz Bar session. You can read about it in Ponomarev's book but what's of more immediate interest to this review is how superbly the trumpeter is carrying on his former boss's groove 'n' gospel-driven tradition. Ponomarev is a bravura player with a ready stream of melodic variations and he makes his quintet's music easily accessible with ear-friendly tunes and hand clapping accompaniments that everyone, but everyone joins in with. His mostly young, mostly local accomplices are, like Blakey's, creative and with a strong sense of jazz history in their touches, tones and improvisations, as best illustrated by pianist Paul Kirby's tantalising trio setting of Duke Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss.
Wandering Voices ll presents a remarkable variety of music on all sorts of instruments and runs to the perhaps unlikely and almost but not quite successful pairing of a Chinese countertenor and Robert Burns' Ye Banks and Braes. Courtly dance tunes on an ancient lute, a two-string violin improvising with a sitar, Elizabethan folk songs, impressionistic pieces for lute and tuned percussion, Mongolian songs about horse racing: this is a whole festival in itself, and while Cheng-Ying Chuang's voice is otherworldly and may be an acquired taste, its precision, power and sound mark it out, alongside Anne Liis Poll's work in Oxygen, as one of the most interesting discoveries to be made in the Fringe brochure's music section.