11/26/09

JazzFest Berlin

Various Venues, Berlin, Germany; Nov. 4-8, 2009

A sizable slice of the entire world was watching Berlin recently, as the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of the “fall of the Wall” and German reunification on Nov. 9. Of a lower profile but also worthy of attention on a global cultural scale was an event leading right up to the anniversary, JazzFest Berlin, which enjoyed its 45th edition. Up until twenty years ago, this festival was a prime example of the kind of proud cultural energies bubbling up in the western sector, almost as a taunt to the privations just over the Wall. For many years the festival’s home was at the Haus de Culture, not too far from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, where much of the anniversary wingding was based.

By now, the festival’s center of gravity in the city is still west-leaning, with the festival anchored at the Festival Hauspiel compound in Charlottenburg, with smaller shows at the clubs Quasimodo and the A-Trane, and, starting this year, at the Jewish Museum. On a grander scale, the jazz festival can be seen as a symbol of continuity.

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Berlin’s festival is well-established as one of the finer “off-season” festivals on the jazz scene, emboldened by creative and resourceful programming. In 2009, the second year programmed by a still-new director, Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren, the schedule was strong and blessed with the diversity necessary for any jazz festival, in terms of artistic cred and financial muscle. As he did last year, Landgren managed to strike some workable and impressive balances in programming, mixing up subgenres and positioning the commercial alongside the more esoteric. Not surprisingly, he also stirred in music of the Scandinavian and trombone-oriented sort.

Two of the main evening programs this year, for instance, made obvious the polarized nature of the festival. Sunday night’s sold-out show, featuring John Scofield’s N’Awlins-geared “Piety Street” project and prototypical soul man Booker T., left an impression of “what’s jazz got to do with it?”

During the night before, however, the emphasis in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele was on more jazz-centric matters, specifically on masters of the low tones: Eberhard Weber was granted the special Verleihung Deutscher Jazzpreis; Barry Guy led his exciting and largely free-minded New Orchestra (with guest guitarist Elliott Sharp neither adding nor subtracting from the whole); and Dave Holland was an undeniably centering force in the fabulous “new” Overtone Quartet, despite the fact that the group is by design a democratic unit.

Clearly a high point of this festival, and heard here in only its fourth performance, the Overtone Quartet—with Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and pianist Jason Moran—has an intriguing back story, with seeds in the Monterey Quartet. The band, originally featuring piano dynamo Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was assembled for the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival and was one of that particular festival’s prime aesthetic offerings, as heard on an MJF/Concord live album. After some touring with Rubalcaba last summer, a change was made (artistic? personal? It’s not clear), and Moran was wisely added to the group, completing the powerful, empathetic math of its members: Holland and Potter have played together for years, and Harland and Moran have a deep connection, as Houston-ites and from working in Charles Lloyd’s band. It all adds up to one of the more engaging new groups in jazz.

In 2009, Berlin joined the ranks of jazz festivals paying tribute to Blue Note Records’ 70th anniversary. Opening night included Terence Blanchard, stirring up his “Requiem for Katrina” project with the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg, and Lionel Loueke. Robert Glasper cancelled, as did Joe Lovano, the latter on the heels of an injury, but Lovano’s planned partner, the unstoppably graceful veteran Hank Jones, did go on with his trio, bringing out veterans Curtis Fuller (part of the trombone tribe in Berlin) and trumpeter Don Sickler for cameos. It’s always a treat to hear Jones, a true model of taste, elegance and timeless hipness. That same night, the Blue Note focus continued, once removed and European-ized, as the NDR Big Band offered a tribute to Horace Silver with Jacky Terrasson in the piano hot seat (where he sounded distinctly unlike Silver).

In a way, the most memorable programming strain in this festival—at least to these recently Nordic-tilted ears—was the Norwegian contingent, lending affirmation to the brewing notion that Norway has become, once again, a power spot in the jazz universe. We may have known what to expect from seasoned bassist Arild Andersen, whose chordless trio with saxophonist Tommy Smith and drummer Paolo Vinaccia proved sensitive and pictorial and ECM-ready. Speaking of ECM and its younger brigade, notable trumpet sensation Mathias Eick put his quartet through alternately atmospheric, melodic and muscularly abstract, post-electric Miles paces at Quasimodo one late night. In another corner, we heard the wild, taut and sometimes whimsical Norwegian big band Ensemble Denada, led by trombonist-composer Helge Sunde.

But a fresher gust of Norwegian inspiration, at least for this listener, came in a late set by Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, the best “non-jazz” event of this festival. Susanna Wallumrød (sister of noted ECM artist Christian Wallumrød) is a potently moody and quietly commanding vocalist, working in an inspired electro-acoustic symbiosis with her multi-keyboarding partner Morten Qvenild. Whether on originals or evocative covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Rush and AC/DC (yes, AC/DC, defanged), the duo conjures up a seductive sound with a great Northerly mystique.

A new venue in the mix this year was a vast courtyard in the Jewish Museum, the acoustical openness of which swallowed up the sensitivities of Aaron Parks’ trio. The space fared beautifully, however, with the expansive sonorities of electro-acoustic trio MST (electronician Murcof, tabla player Talvin Singh and Jon Hassell-ish trumpeter Erik Truffaz).

German musicians were in short supply at the festival, which is often the case, although the masterful saxophonist Christof Lauer flexed his versatile, assured and sometimes abstracting voice in a trio with tuba at another new festival venue, the JazzInstitut Berlin. Another strong sax-led trio, this one from the British contingent, was Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio. Garland, who has played with Chick Corea and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, seized his role nicely, moving from lyricism to bluster, from “Blue in Green” to his fiery tango-influenced original “Storm and Order.”

Over at the cozier A-Trane club, jazz and funk and freedom merged nicely in the band known as Reut Regev R*Time, led by the dazzling trombonist-bandleader Regev. The band was spiced up by the presence of a special guest, the soulful guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, too little heard on the scene lately.

Over the course of several November days, cultural walls kept falling during the festival, as often happens here. The skies tend to be gray this time of year, but the indoor enterprises of the jazz festival—in its better moments—invite blue-sky mindsets. So far, so good, in the Landgren era.

[Home page photo of Nils Landgren by Steven Haberland]

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