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.
Off in the fringes of the large ensemble cause at the ’08 Berlin festival was the fascinating and quirky large ensemble from Germany known by the cheeky handle Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra. Led by imaginative composer-saxist Daniel Glatzel, the group exerted a cool jazz/minimalist/rock reckoning force, with echoes of Zappa and Steve Reich.
Free jazz and its descendents have a say in this festival, even if in small doses (especially compared to the freedom-principled “Total Music Meeting,” which carries on simultaneously with the official jazz festival in Berlin, and boasted its 40th anniversary in November). The words free, jazz and Berlin add up to a cultural equation inevitably leading to the dignified and stentorian tenor madman Peter Brötzmann. One late night, he pumped out the boldest sounds in the beloved jazz club Quasimodo in this festival, in the “Wertmüller Project,” a group led by commanding Swiss-Berliner drummer Michael Wertmüller and including Japanese angst-meister Keiji Haino.
Also from German musical soil, an impressive Sunday afternoon concert showcased formidable Freiberg-based bassist Dieter Ilg, in a solo context, and a sensitive duo of veteran saxist Heinz Sauer and pianist Bob Degan.
Another musical front dear to Landgren’s heart, the cause of Swedish musicians, translated to some of this festival’s more memorable moments. A highlight of the festival came between the trombone acts on Saturday night, with the arrival of the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson’s trio, featuring longtime bassist Anders Jormin and the wondrous, wily young drummer Jon Fäit. Who else but Stenson would, and could, find poetically logical musical through lines from Scandinavian introspection to music of Ornette Coleman, his old comrade Don Cherry, Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and English Baroque composer Henry Purcell?
Another Swede, the intriguing and unabashedly eclectic Lina Nyberg, has long been respected in her home country but was making her Berlin debut. She was dressed to impress, sartorially and musically. Fortified by an artful band (also with the nimble drummer Fäit on board), Nyberg cooks up new flavors in the vein of jazz-inspired art pop, a fresh sound very much worth seeking out. Also off to the left of normal rock traditions is the Gothenburg, Sweden voice-and-drums duo Wildbirds & Peacebirds, primal and modern, by turns.
As for cross-cultural treats, the high point had to be the steamy, exotic and lyrical band led by jazz accordion master Richard Galliano, featuring Cuban Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Czech bassist George Mraz and New Yorker drummer Clarence Penn. Late on Sunday night, after the main stage show closed up shop, bari sax master Ronnie Cuber and band hunkered down in Quasimodo and ended the program on a high low note.
The verdict on Landgren’s Berlin Fest? So far, so good, and mostly well balanced. On geopolitical terms, the mood in Berlin in the heady days after Obama won the election-like elsewhere in Europe and around the planet Earth-was decidedly tilted towards hope, and also more noticeably American-kindly. A hastily made banner reading “Jazz We Can” was hung beneath the official old festival banner, befitting the German taste for puns and whimsical phraseology. Oh, and to that list we can add Germany’s strong, undying taste for jazz, with and without funk attached.