A change in the directorship guard at the Berlin Jazz Festival, one of Europe’s oldest and most intriguing “off-season” fests, always brings speculation about how the specific aesthetics might. After five strong and artful years helmed by Peter Schulze, Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren returned this year to the post he manned in 2001. Not surprisingly, the program was splashed with elements dear to Landgren: Over the long weekend, we heard trombonist-led projects (the rousing old-new gambit of Roswell Rudd’s Trombone Tribe, the slick-funky Bonerama), and a carefully plotted sidebar tribute to Landgren’s acknowledged funk muse (a cause of worry, in fact, for more cerebral festivalgoers and observers). Here, Landgren worked six degrees of Herbie Hancock, bringing the Headhunters-with charter members Mike Clark and percussionist Bill Summers now leading the retro funk-jazz charge-and former Headhunter Bennie Maupin’s group (though Maupin is currently in a more reflective project, featuring the dazzling Polish pianist Michal Tokaj).
Finally, on Sunday night, the headliner was Herbie himself. But ironically, “Chameleon” encore high jinx notwithstanding, Hancock was in a much more expansive and free-spirited mode-with Terence Blanchard and harmonica wizard Gregoire Maret, bassist James Genus and drummer Kendrick Scott-than the crowd-pleasing package he has been touring with so far in his post-Grammy afterglow this year. David Sanborn opened that show, but even he is presently deviating from his standard funk/R&B vein, instead investigating a more vintage and jazz-enriched, Hank Crawford-leaning project with the extra meat of added horns.
Director-centric tastes aside, 2008’s model offered a fine example of what makes Berlin’s festival special. For one, the art of contemporary big-band notions thrives here, and the pinnacle of arrived at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele stage early, with Vince Mendoza’s warm and captivating Blauklang project, with an ensemble splitting the difference between a large jazz ensemble and classical chamber forces, and a sophisticated score to match.
For more party-ready purposes later that night, the WDR Big Band, with special guest Maceo Parker and led by Michael Abene, paid swinging tribute to Ray Charles. It was this ace big band, two years ago in this space, which rattled the room and our craniums with an extra-special Joe Zawinul big-band project (with some charts penned by Mendoza). The memory still reels from the sound and sight, with Zawinul’s killing gaze and sharp musical focus at the nucleus of a full stage. That project turned into Brown Street (Heads Up), Zawinul’s final recording before he passed away in 2007.