innova’s Inn-fest 2018 in Minneapolis-St. Paul: Delightfully Adventurous

Do you know those musical events in which you practically know all of the sounds you’ll hear even before you show up… even if it’s new music™… and even if it’s improvised? Happily, Inn-fest is not one of those. Co-presented with Zeitgeist, Inn-fest was a three-day celebration tied to brand new and recently released albums on innova, which featured the wide array of original composed and improvised music on the label. In the last decade, the label’s catalog has grown from 70 to over 550 titles, with innova producing 24-30 releases a year. This year’s celebration began with an April 24th album release event and then continued in the Lowertown district of St. Paul in Studio Z with a relay of music on April 27-28th.

Last year’s Inn-fest took place at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. innova director Philip Blackburn and publicist Tim Igel mentioned that the label moves the fete across the country from year to year to highlight their diverse artists regardless of geographic location. While there are many organizations in the musical world clamoring to claim diversity in their work, innova proves their philosophy with action. innova is dedicated to progressive work because the label’s releases are less dictated by “record-bin-constraints or typical notions of marketability,” but by the integrity of the work and its originality. This work that is unlikely to find a home in the mainstream record industry is exactly what made Inn-fest so surprising and delightful.

The audience was treated to a shift in the performing artists every 20 minutes or so, and a full cycle through all of the artists represented lasted approximately two hours. Over Friday night and Saturday day/evening, the performers played roughly five or six sets. This musical relay had an added benefit of taking place during the biannual St. Paul Art Crawl, which ensured some culture enthusiasts wandering in to listen to a few of the performers before continuing their art rovings.

Issam Rafea and Gao Hong

Issam Rafea and Gao Hong

Those that made their way to the second floor location of Studio Z were treated to alluring solo sets from Nirmala Rajasekar (veena and vocals), Dana Jessen (bassoon), Nick Zoulek (saxophone), Patti Cudd (percussion),  and Pat O’Keefe (reeds). There were also ensemble sets featuring: Maithree: the Music of Friendship–Nirmala Rajasekar (veena), Pat O’Keefe (clarinet), Tim O’Keefe (percussion), Thanjavur Muruga Boopathi (mrdangam), Michelle Kinney (cello); Gao Hong (pipa) and Issam Rafea (oud); and Zeitgeist–Heather Barringer (percussion), Patti Cudd (percussion), Pat O’Keefe (woodwinds), and Nicola Melville (piano).

Inspired by their parent organization, the American Composers Forum, innova is part business and part service. Even sitting through Inn-fest gives the impression that there is an immense amount of dedication to the artists on the label—almost like a musical family. The artists demonstrated an incredibly high artistic calibre and a propensity to be musically adventurous. Maithree provided a beautiful example of four musicians from wildly different backgrounds fusing musical and improvisational styles. In fact, they told a humorous story about discovering two years into playing together that they didn’t even count the same way.

Zoulek showed off some of his new compositions for bass saxophone and Jessen created an enveloping sound world through Peter Swendsen’s Fireflies and Winter. However, both of these artists took moments in their sets to explore new avenues, like Zoulek singing (in addition to his circular breathing and vocal techniques through his horn) or Jessen cupping a reed between her hands and creating evocative, intense bird call cries while performing Paula Matthusen’s of an implacable subtraction.



It was also a pleasure to hear Zeitgeist performing in advance of their big 40th Anniversary shindig on May 4-6th. One of the longest established new music groups in the country, Zeitgeist’s past four decades have included commissioning more than 400 works. They demonstrated their steadfastness to beguiling repertoire with Jerome Kitzke’s In Bone-Colored Light. Cudd and O’Keefe also shone in their solo sets–Cudd’s performance of Cort Lippe’s Music for Cajon and Computer was engrossing, and O’Keefe even gave the listeners a little blast from the past with a fine performance of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint. Another example of that peculiar and delightful conceptual richness and technical quality among these artists was Gao Hong playing the pipa and Issam Rafea playing oud. Their sensitivity and openness to each other while performing was a masterclass in subtle ensemble congruence.

It is always a treat to be musically surprised. innova recordings seems to be in the business of musical surprise and delight, and their Inn-fest 2018 was no departure. If you’re looking for someone who is really doing it right in the world of new music recording, you’ve found it.