On July 21st 2018, the third day of the 39th Konfrontationen Festival, Kaja Draksler played a blisteringly intense concert with the Peter Evans Quartet. The biggest surprise of the day, however, came a few hours later, when she joined forces with Dutchmen Ab Baars and Terrie Ex. The surprise was not the combination of these distinct personalities in itself. You could have seen that coming. The remarkable thing about it was the emotional pay-off and the sheer beauty of the performance. Like some of the best improvised music out there, whether created by the trampling energy of a collective clenched fist or the subtle empathy of kindred spirits with a thin upper skin, this music excels with its remarkable coherence and unity.
Of course, the musicians had ample opportunities to finetune their interrelations. By the time of this concert, Draksler had just left Amsterdam, the city where she had become one of the brightest players of the jazz/improvised scene. It is where she met Baars in Fish-Scale Sunrise and developed ideas for the Octet he is also a member of. It is also where Baars and Ex forged their unique chemistry with a couple of duo albums, countless performances with The Ex and other projects. The guitarist even became the wild card on the latest ICP-album, Komen & Gaan. A few years ago, Draksler and Ex also road-tested their affinity, which led to the disjointed harmony of The Swim on the latter’s Terp Records.
Baars’ eccentric timbre can seem wild and jarring to unprepared listeners, yet as this recording proves, it can also be exhilarating and touching. It retains that untamed sense of control, as well as a kind of fickle unpredictability, which it has in common with the natural world he gets so inspired by. Draksler often relies on dreamily repeated motives, subtle inside playing and, during a tumultuous passage when Baars explores the clarinet’s upper register, a carillon-like sound that dissolves into a brief solo with brilliant cohesion. All the while, Ex darts all over the stage with his animalistic scrapes and howls, the five-stringed sound generator an endlessly productive communication vessel. His intuition is downright uncanny.
This album is not the kind you should use to single out short fragments to illustrate the musicians’ extraordinary interaction. You’d miss the arc of their story, the flow of the performance and their enormous range. You could cut up the performance in three parts, based on Baars’ use of the tenor saxophone, clarinet and shakuhachi respectively, but take into account what’s happening next to him. And between them. It is that snap of the finger, an inexplicable sensation that you recognize when you hear it, extended for forty short minutes. Perhaps it is something like the murmuration of starlings, an unspoken and spontaneously executed agreement. In this case, the birds have a markedly divergent plumage, but there’s no discussion about their joint direction. They know where they are going and it is a sight and sound to behold.