The Berlin connections here are various. The rhythm section (pianist Ludwig Hornung, bassist Tom Berkmann, drummer Mathias Ruppnig) lives there. The leader, tenor saxophonist Tobias Meinhart, moved from Germany to New York 10 years ago but spends his summers in Berlin. Kurt Rosenwinkel, a major American guitarist who plays on five of the nine tracks, teaches at the Jazz Institute of Berlin, where Hornung, Berkmann, and Ruppnig were his students.
Berlin People gets off to an unpromising start. On “Mount Meru,” Hornung plays a block chord monotone for eight minutes. The melody, portrayed in tight unison by Meinhart and Rosenwinkel, is apparently meant to be mysterious. All you hear is Hornung’s tortuous piano. But things improve. Rosenwinkel lights up this album every time he touches it. His penetrating guitar sound is intensely electric, yet human and personal.
Meinhart, like so many of today’s young jazz musicians, wants to write his own stuff but is a better player than composer. “It’s Not So Easy” is typical, all hard angles, spikes and lurches. The skill required for Meinhart and Rosenwinkel to maneuver it together is impressive, and the energy is fierce. But the achievement sounds more technical than aesthetic.
“Childhood” (for his mother), “Malala” (for Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winner whose story touched hearts all over the world), and “Alfred” (for his grandfather) are compositions with deep meaning for Meinhart. But their nondescript melodies are merely pleasant. This album gets truly interesting only when the solos start. Rosenwinkel takes the major triads of “Childhood” and soars with them. Meinhart is also an accomplished improviser. His best moment is his relaxed, rolling, wide-ranging excursion on Joe Henderson’s “Serenity.”
By the way, Hornung redeems himself. On his own “Früher War Alles Besser,” a pretty ballad with a sublimated groove, his piano is rapt and radiant.