In the ranks of European jazz festivals, the JazzFest Berlin has long been somewhat off the radar, by nature and by instinct. Not only is does it take place on a long weekend around early November, missing out (semi-thankfully) on the circuit of acts filtering through the summer festival scene, but this festival prides itself on taking roads less traveled. It may be more accurate to say that Berlin’s festival has calibrated its own private sense of radar.
That in-house taste for adventure and avoiding the obvious has been especially strong in the past five years, under the watch of artistic director Peter Schulze, who wrapped up his five-year tenure with the 2007 festival. In 2007, the big marquee names were scarcely to be found, although the crowds were large, and the musical enticements were ample.
Tellingly, the festival began not with jazz, per se, but on a world-music note, with the extra-big-band setting of “El Gusto—Masters of Chaabi Reunite.” Forty-odd musicians, of both Arab and Jewish heritage, joined together for a kind of ersatz radio orchestra, summoning a massive but cohesive cross-cultural, cross-ideological sound. Other “world music” artists found their way naturally into the program and expanded its geo-musical perspective, including the striking Brasilerinho Ao Vivo.
One of the recurring themes was so-called “chamber jazz,” that being jazz with classical manners, moods and modes. That appellation comes in various flavors and intensities, and is quietly growing into a world of its own. Wayne Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet (Horvitz, pictured)—a drumless outfit with trumpeter Ron Miles, the increasingly circulating and impressive bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and cellist Peggy Lee—beautifully realized Horvitz’s thoughtful yet free-spirited pieces. A waltz here, an angular Mingus-meets-Stravinsky twist there, a Satie moment here, a free zone there, the Gravitas Quartet demands attention—without being at all demanding. Here we have another intriguing chapter in Horvitz’s large and happily complicated musical life.
In another chamber-esque corner, the Julia Hülsmann Trio and the Gerdur Gunnarsdottir smoothly navigated the differences between the piano trio and string-quartet traditions, with a languid lyricism in tow.
In a sense, the big event in terms of classically minded jazz ventures was a set of Michael Mantler’s concertos, with the help of the Kammerensemble Musik Neue Ensemble Berlin, directed by Roland Luttig. Mantler’s concertos—including those performed by the composer on trumpet, pianist Majella Stockhausen-Riegelbauer, tenor saxist Bob Rockwell, guitarist Bjarne Roupé and percussionist Pedro Carneiro—walk a fine line between a Euro-jazz atmosphere and contemporary classical syntax, with alternately spiky and spacious scores.
Trombone great Roswell Rudd was supposed to have played on the Mantler program, which would have been a nice touch, given the trombone-friendly tenor of this festival, directed for years by the late Albert Mangelsdorff. But he couldn’t make it, and German player Gerhard Gschlößl did a fine job as a sub. Drummer Nick Mason’s piece was the low point, in musical terms. The Pink Floyd drummer bashed away smartly enough, but the dumbed-down score, with its shameless paraphrasing of the Floyd’s “Money,” is of questionable worth. Maybe that one was done for the “money.”
Sometimes, you find the darnedest American things while abroad. Take, for instance, the Twin Cities-based trio known as Fat Kid Wednesdays, who stormed the club Quasimodo in the best way. Another inspired oddball trio outta the Midwest, akin to the Bad Plus and Happy Apple, Fat Kid Wednesdays (fiery good saxist Michael Lewis, bassist Adam Linz and drummer JT Bates) asserted their wit and ferocity, and their jazz, rock and punk-jazz chops, in a snappy new way. They bravely illustrated the secret free-jazz cred contained in the great American band, the Shaggs, with their version of that band’s “Little Red Sportscar,” and offered an earnest version of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts,” implicitly showing the connections between Ayler and the Shaggs. Why not? Remember that name: Fat Kid Wednesdays.
Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima, now living in Berlin, showed his unusual versatility in a series of nights at the popular Kreuzberg club known as A-Trane. Perhaps the most fetching, or offbeat, was the night dubbed K-18 “Some Kubricks of Blood,” built on darkly witty—and just plain dark—Kubrick film-inspired tunes. Of particular note were the fine Finnish players Kalima assembled for that project, from veteran bassist Teppo Hauta-Aho to young sensation Mikko Innanen on sax and, for this accordion-lover’s money, the star of the show, accordion virtuoso Veli Kujala.
From the German jazz scene, the pickings included the varied aesthetics of the micro-big band Florian Ross 8Ball and the free meets post-hard-bop urgings of German-in-NYC Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research. The former, mostly from Cologne, is essentially a brassless big-band format, making for a leaner, fresher ensemble sound, and featured sleek arrangements by Ross. Highlights: a tastefully reharmonized “My Foolish Heart” and the maze-like sprinter, “Run.” Ullmann’s agenda, in a band featuring saxist Steve Swell, was more about finding the sweet spots between structures and improvisational energies.
Sunday’s attendance dropped a bit due to attendees traveling back to their lives in other parts of Germany and beyond, compared to the packed houses earlier in the festival’s run. But, on the whole, the best came late this year. The most exciting set came from Django Bates, the wily, wild-card British keyboardist-conceptualist who has lately been teaching at the Rhythm Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. Hence, the name of his new band is stoRMChaser, and is stocked with gifted and suitably limber young Danish musicians, as well as the beguiling vocalist Josefine Lindstrand (so impressive on Bates’ jewel-like “standards” album, Quiet Night, on Screwgun).
Bates’ elastic experiment in new, Zappa-flecked big-band writing is a variation on the theme of his old large ensemble, Loose Tubes. His new model is big yet light on its feet, anarchic and vaudevillian at times, and a new member of the progressive big-band scene which includes Vienna Art Orchestra.
Sunday’s festival program, in fact, was well stocked with talented young Danes, which became a kind of sub-theme for the day. In the afternoon, in the evocative reformed Prenzlauer brewery now known as the Kulturbrauerei, gifted twentysomething pianist Simon Toldar led his nine-piece band (also including ever-flexible vocalist Lindstrand) through a shifting musical landscape, sometimes resembling Kurt Weill, and sometimes heading north for a more spacious, Scandinavian cool.
Wrapping up the festival in a woozy, party-ready style, the Danish band Radiostar infused bluesy barrelhouse energy into its grooves. Leader-saxist Michael Blicher wears his Tom Waits-iness honestly, while also peeling off a nice Fathead Newman turn on the tune “Fathead.” Guitarist/lap-steel player Niclas Knudsen was tasty and tough, too. Blicher introduced “Traffic” as “our most hated and confusing song,” before launching into a fast, nervous ditty with a ’60s rock beat with echoes of Blood, Sweat and Tears (with extra blood).
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Sunday’s schedule was another visit from the “chamber” muse, working through the inspired German saxophonist-leader Ingrid Laubrock. Her nonet, featuring members of the “jazz” and “classical” worlds, maneuvered beautifully through the leader’s adventurous charts, including the multi-moduled “Cracker Barrel.” Through it all, drummer Tom Rainey was the solid centrifugal centerpiece in the band, whether veering abstract or locking onto grooves and a swing factor, the all-important underlying jazz pulse important in a contemporary jazz ensemble—or a good jazz festival, for that matter. And this clearly is a good one.