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Guelph 2014: Ernst Reijseger plays the cello as you have not heard it before (review)

Ernst Reijseger, Harmen Fraanje, Mola Sylla blended hugely different bodies of music into a coherent and beautiful whole ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Ernst Reijseger – Harmen Fraanje – Mola Sylla
Guelph Jazz Festival
River Run Centre, Cooperators Hall
Thursday, September 4, 2014 - 8 p.m.

Ernst Reijseger solo
Macdonald Stewart Art Centre
Friday, September 5, 2014 - 5 p.m.

Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger has an enviable reputation – both for the purity and breadth of his technique and the imaginativeness of his collaborations and projects. After starting out playing early and Baroque music, he switched to the avant-garde and jazz. He's performed with top European free jazz musicians like Derek Bailey, Eric Vloeimans, Han Bennink, and Gerry Hemingway, has written and produced film scores for Werner Herzog, and has collaborated with world music artists as well as cellist Yo Yo Ma.

On stage, he's a wild man.

Both of his two concerts at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival featured jaw-dropping moments, as Reijseger expanded his audiences' understanding of how the cello could be played while producing lovely and unexpected music.

He turned the cello on its side and played it like a plump guitar – to audible gasps from some listeners. He hit the cello with his bow, and then ripped it savagely across the strings in an example of extreme bowing. He threaded his bow through the strings and then let the bow vibrate while plucking strings. He attached a plastic hair clip and wooden clothes pegs to the strings to dampen and mute their resonance, while still continuing to play. He let the cello swing in his hand, like a pendulum, as he played. He used the cello body as a drum, then shook it, and then moved its bottom spike in and out creating a creaking sound. He wetted his fingers to make the strings squeak. He whipped his bow through the air. He twirled around and around while playing.

Reijseger deliberately subverted the classical view of the cello: as the deep rich base of a chamber music group, played only with the bow and sitting still and upright in one place. Other jazz musicians have expanded that basic cello sound with more pizzicato and bowing styles and techniques borrowed from the jazz bass, as well as using pegs and percussive techniques, but he took it far further.

And the result was both visually and aurally fascinating. Reijseger consistently surprised and delighted his audiences in both his concerts – once in a trio, once solo.

Combining many strands of music into a harmonious whole

His first appearance was with Dutch jazz pianist Harmen Fraanje and Senegalese vocalist/percussionist Mola Sylla, who now lives in Holland. Their Thursday evening concert was the first half of a double bill with the Vijay Iyer Trio – a tough act to precede, but they quickly won over their audience.

They have a long-standing partnership: Sylla met Reijseger in the late 80s, shortly after Sylla moved from Dakar and played his first concerts in Amsterdam. Ten years later, they started playing as a duo; in 2002, they recorded an album, Janna. In 2008, they teamed up with Fraanje, and a year later recorded the music for Werner Herzog's film, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. In 2013, they released their first trio album, Down Deep, which includes Giacomo Puccini's “E lucevan le stelle”, as well as original compositions by all three.

Thursday's show began with just cello and piano in quiet conversation, playing generally pastoral music but with exploratory and punctuated passages. It was quite lovely, and you could hear how attuned the two were to each other.

Suddenly, there was a call from the back of the audience – and Sylla appeared. He walked down the steep raked stairs to the stage, dramatically singing all the while, and occasionally pausing to address himself to different sections of the audience. He continued singing on reaching the stage, with his arms held out in front of him, until the music softened and faded to a close, and strong and immediate applause.

For the next hour, the trio played music that was both strongly percussive and also strongly melodic. You could hear jazz rhythms, classical strains, and African influences in the mix, and the music frequently changed direction and intensity.

One piece (perhaps because of language barriers, the trio spoke very little and did not announce song titles) began with light, repeated, circling patterns on piano, against high attenuated lines on cello – and then Sylla started swinging a whistle on a string quickly around his head. Then he played the whistle, and its bird-like calls lightly soared over the increasing intensity of the other two. The piece continued to contrast the romantic, classically-influenced music on cello and piano with Sylla's African influenced rhythms, as he switched to rattles and then chanting, and ended with a call out to the audience.

It almost looked easy – until you realized the talent and skill and knowledge required from all three musicians in order to blend these hugely different bodies of music into a coherent and beautiful whole.

Reijseger began another piece by hand-drumming on his cello, constantly changing the complicated, quick patterns – and plucking the strings as well. He then moved to just playing pizzicato, creating danceable, jazzy riffs, with Fraanje joining in lightly behind him. Sylla added hand-claps, and eventually started chanting deeply and gutturally and calling out before the piece faded out.

Sylla played several Senegalese instruments during the show, including the xalam, a West-African stringed instrument, in what reminded me of a cross between a Muddy Waters-style blues and a Woody Guthrie song. That piece also featured Reijseger playing his cello like a guitar, creating high-pitched plucked notes.

After a piece which contrasted almost metallic sounds and pulled notes on cello with rippling piano and joyous, syncopated vocals, the audience rose for an immediate and extended standing ovation, with lots of cheering.

The trio was called back for an encore – a quiet, thoughtful piece reminiscent of a requiem. Partway through, Reijseger walked up the stairs, playing as he went. He stopped half-way up, leaving Sylla to play another bird whistle solo, and then returned in time for all three to bow to the audience and say “Buy our CD!” – their only spoken message in the concert.

Part 2 of review starts below photo gallery

Click any photo to view a larger image. All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage

A tour-de-force solo show

At 5 p.m. the next afternoon, Reijseger stood alone in a large open space in an art gallery, facing a capacity audience. He and his cello instantly dominated the plain, open space, with the late afternoon light spotlighting his movements.

He played a series of free improvisations in the completely-acoustic concert, starting with a simple, slightly fuzzy, bowed drone. He increased the level of vibration and started bending notes and adding variations and complexity. While still anchored in the original deep pitch, his music explored higher and lighter areas before returning to its base – and then becoming more fast and frantic, with attenuated high notes, before returning to a deep riff and ending.

Throughout the next hour, he used the full range of his cello, letting it sing out, playing very loudly and very softly, and in one case singing wordlessly along with it in a manner reminiscent of a Bach fugue. And starting with the third piece, he played it steadily less-traditionally – like a guitar, muting its strings, unpredictably and unconventionally changing how he deployed his bow, and in general looking like he was having a great deal of fun confounding his audience.

But it wasn't just a bag of tricks: while you would have missed some fascinating visuals during the concert by closing your eyes, the music had its own clear structure and flow separate from how it was created. Each extended technique, such as swinging the cello, created its unique sound which contributed to the feel of the piece.

And his music always had a basis on melody, creating a magical and intimate space, and filling the room with variations on a theme.

It was a tour-de-force of a show: no surprise the audience gave him a standing ovation.

For the encore, Reijseger again played the cello like a guitar, playing simple patterns, almost like a country blues, and using the greater resonance of his instrument. He left the room, still playing, and returned a moment later with a handful of his CDs, dropping them on the floor and then kicking them with his feet into the middle of the floor.

He ended the encore by balancing his cello perfectly by its scroll on the tip of one finger.

A showman to the end – but one who perfectly understands and loves his instrument.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival assisted Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage in finding a family who very generously billeted us in Guelph, so we could afford to report on the festival.

Read more about the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival:

Click any photo to view a larger image. All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage