Victoriaville Fest Embraces Jazz, Rock & Avant-Garde

Josef Woodard, Downbeat, August 1, 2015

Many qualities weigh into the lofty reputation of the annual spring festival in Victoriaville, Quebec, known as FIMAV (Festival International Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville). Founded and run by the soft-spoken but determined Michel Levasseur, it’s one of the premiere and venerable avant-garde festivals in the Americas.

The festival weaves its patchwork tapestry from strands in jazz, free improvisation, non-main- stream rock, world music hybrids, beatless electronica and experimentalism of all sorts for three-and-a-half densely packed days in Quebec’s idyllic farmland region.

FIMAV’s identity involves elements of what it isn’t and doesn’t pretend to be. Now in its 31st year, this expansive jazz festival is not a place one goes to hear musicians blowing over changes.

So it made perfect sense when guitarist Marc Ribot launched into a punk-ish version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with his power trio Ceramic Dog and opted out of the chord changes in the “B” section, letting the bass line rumble forth instead, despite the contours of the chord pattern. It was a ges- ture of sly reinvention in a trio (Ches Smith on drums, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and keyboards) that is restless and cosmopolitan.

After Ribot ended his set in the stunning hilltop Pavilion Arthabaska venue, he raced downtown to the largest festival venue, the Colisée, to join the expanded ranks of guitarist Nels Cline’s Singers Unlimited project, one of the special occasions at this year’s edition.

Cline — the Wilco member who, like Ribot, has excelled in a rock context while maintaining his more marginal, experimental persona — was obviously excited to have a chance to expand his core trio with four additional members. It was another momentous hour in the history of FIMAV.

After last year’s 30th anniversary edition, this year’s post-milestone was a touch cooler in terms of programming, but also louder, surveying the many variations of rock music to the left of conventional or commercial. But rock wasn’t the only game in town, starting with the fine festival opener, Jason Kao Hwang’s “Burning Bridge,” a proverbial east-meets-west venture for eight musicians.

A recurring theme in keeping with past fests was the presence of two ambitious improvisation-oriented large ensembles led by dynamic conductors/conductionists working around small structured modules and cueing on the fly. Montrealer Jean Derome outdid himself with his texturally sweeping piece “Resistance.” His 20-musician group (including three bass/drum components) was led via hand gestures. By contrast, New Yorker Hans Tammen directed his Third Eye Orchestra—in its first show outside of New York City—with a system of cue cards and stage-roaming action painting.

An intriguing theme this year had to do with the unusual—and unusually sensitive—pairing up of like instruments. We got an initial taste of this concept with the refreshingly soft and low-key festival debut set by the German clarinet duo wryly calling itself The International Nothing. Reedists Michael Thieke and Kai Fagaschinski ended their set with a minimal, melancholic piece reminiscent more of 20th- century composer Morton Feldman than anything in the jazz clarinet cosmos.

From another double-up angle, the rarely heard sound of two trumpets collaborating is at the cen- ter of the group Kaze. Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, teamed up with musicians from Lille, France—trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins—five years ago to form the bass-less quartet, which has honed a strong distinctive group sound over the course of three albums. At FIMAV, their set list slalomed from structured parts to free-spirited abandon. For the record, they did navigate a few chord changes on the way “out.”