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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Matthew Shipp

Would it be blasphemous to suggest that a highlight of this year’s Berlin Jazz Festival was a kitsch-swaddled and almost improvisation-free Japanese chanteuse singing peculiar French cabaret tunes?

So be it.

Miharu Koshi hit the stage at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on opening night, scantly clad and donning a black cowgirl hat. She sang in precise, pearly tones, sometimes playing accordion and, briefly, piano, while ballerinas twirled exactingly about her, and a pianist and bassoonist interacted with prerecorded musical washes. Art and racy camp met-and got along famously. Some of us were wowed. Others made haste to the ausgang.

If jazz is still the forum for surprise, and many of us still cling to that notion, Koshi’s ironic music hall act was just the ticket. She fit into the Berlin Jazz Festival’s admirably eclectic artistic agenda, especially following the opening night’s first act: the bizarre and loveable French entity known as Arfi, whose tight and theatrical presentation featured an actual magician, stage maneuvers, Dadaist humor and, not incidentally, doses of strong jazz playing (they later focused on that aspect in a late set at the comfortable basement jazz club, Quasimodo).

Though controversial amongst those seeking straighter goods, Berlin’s festival is an important off-season, and offbeat, entry on the European scene. This year’s model, programmed by newcomer Peter Schulze along with stalwart Ihno Von Hasselt, offered fresh ideas and a few twists-such as Koshi. They also provided requisite, sturdy jazz pillars, including David “Fathead” Newman, whose band featured the fine impressive vibist Bryan Carrott and special guest Lonnie Liston Smith, churning out steamy B-3 work. Smith also played his own set with Hank Crawford at the comfortable basement jazz club the Quasimodo. Mainstream jazz also got an odd spin through the quirky, postmodern swing loving energies of New York’s Ballin’ the Jack, another festival hit.

The festival also lent an ear to several Japanese visitors, including Jun Miyaka and his postelectric-Miles trip, Masabumi Kikuchi’s sing-along abstract impressionism and the almost jazz-headbanger intensity of pianist Satoko Fujii and drummer/vocal noisemaker Tatsuya Yoshida. Fujii and Yoshida effectively turned Quasimodo into a wind tunnel of musical energy. If perhaps first alienating casual listeners, they managed to win the packed crowd over to the power of uncompromising ferocity, mostly improvisational but also with scarily tight punches.

More importantly, the 2003 festival lent a flattering spotlight on three important artists on the ECM label. While the label that Manfred Eicher built is German, the artists hailed from elsewhere. What they had in common was a delicate balance of earthy intensity and ethereal poetics, whether Norway’s evocative Jon Balke and Magnetic North Orchestra, the Frenchman Louis Sclavis’ captivatingly feisty Napoli’s Walls Quartet or, closing the main festival, Poland’s eloquent Tomasz Stanko, whose distinctive trumpet sound is sacred and profane, weary and hopeful all at once.

This was also a good year for the art of the squeezeboxing. The accordion is a grand instrument deserving wider attention and more adventurers like we heard here. Frankfurt-based Rudiger Carl joined longtime collaborator Hans Reichel on his mutant bowed instrument known as the “daxophone,” in a deliriously good free-ranging set, including a snippet of “Ring of Fire.” American accordionist extraordinaire Guy Klucevsek’s duet with Philip Johnston was more structured but notably ambitious.

Concurrent with the festival, as a kind of fringe festival setting, is the Total Music Meeting, presented by FMP (Free Music Productions) for many years at the art center known as Podewil, in the former East Berlin. They’re fighting the good fight there, trying to keep the strong free-music cause alive, through the FMP label and live shows. Cecil Taylor showed up with percussionist Tony Oxley, an encore after last year’s tribute to the late bassist Peter Kowald. Closing night at Total Music Meeting was the ambitious King Ubu Orchestra, featuring a stage full of improvisers and vocalists (including the ever-rubbery Phil Minton) riffing off Alfred Jarry’s famous, protoabsurdist play Ubu Roi (part of the Pere Ubu trilogy).

After the surprisingly subtle Ubu ethos, one could hop on the U2 and go to the Trananpalast, a former emotional zone on the brink of East and West Berlin. There, the headliners were DJ Spooky and Matthew Shipp, who did their idealistic free-play-meets-hip-hopping-turntable hybrid-joined by bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown-into the wee-est of hours. While the music didn’t always congeal happily, you have to admire their gumption and the sonic-action-painting process.

It’s fitting that the jazz festival usually takes place around the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989. Walls of stylistic bias keep falling within the festival’s aesthetic ideals, which makes for polarized opinions and keep ’em guessing creative fervor. That’s jazz for you, however and wherever you slice it.

Originally Published