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Festival Review: jazzahead!, in Bremen, Germany

European innovation at the fore

Christine Jensen

Come late April, it seems that most all European jazz roads and entities lead to Bremen, Germany, the lovely western German city which has hosted the go-to jazz convention known as jazzahead! for nine years, and is poised to celebrate its 10-year success-story milestone next year. Often compared to the lost, lamented IAJE conference in the U.S., jazzahead! is a vibrant convergence of all matters jazz-mostly from the European perspective, for now-and a three-day time-place umbrella during which musicians, record labels, festival people, cultural attaches and tourist boards, reps from jazz academia, journalists and sundry other parties with links to the jazz cause and commerce, gather. And in growing numbers: 2014’s model was the biggest and best attended yet, with expansion plans in place for year 10.

Even so, although business is transacted, the networking buzz is palpable and the trade show element is energetic and central at jazzahead!, good and provocative music flows with a great and inspiring density for two days and three nights. In my second year there, after having plunged into the orderly cavalcade of half-hour showcase sets by mostly emerging and deserving-wider-recognition status artists, and having caught some 37 acts (by my loose count), I am once again awash in affirmation about the strength, inventiveness and vision of jazz from across the Atlantic.

This year, as has happened in the past, the environmental setting around the massive Bremen convention-geared Congress Center was fueled with an extra, peripheral spirit of festivity, courtesy of the adjacent Bremen Easter fair and carnival sprawled around a vast parking lot. In a strange way, the juxtaposition of business, culture, deal-making and music-making with a neighboring amusement park atmosphere was reminiscent of the annual NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif., across the boulevard from Disneyland. In Bremen, convention-goers trekked across the parking lot, past a massive Ferris wheel, between the main convention center halls and the large and well-equipped showcase club called Kulturzentrum Schlachthof, actually a repurposed old slaughterhouse.

Incidentally, that very venue’s past life was an ironic, site-specific feature of this year’s musical fair, including the fine, crazed and conceptual Dutch group (is that an oxymoron?) piano trio called Tin Men and the Telephone, who played an homage to the cows slaughtered in this very building. An animated cow on the screen turned its head, tennis tournament style, as the musicians traded fours.

Gags aside, Tin Men’s performance was one of several impressive “New Piano Trio” showings here, also including the engagingly contemplative Swiss Colin Vallon Trio (already matriculating into the international jazz world, via notable recordings on ECM), and the Belgian trio Too Noisy Fish-the rhythm section from the Flat Earth Society-which flexed Monk-ish elasticity, playful humor and subversive asides in a tradition becoming ever-less traditional in the post-Bad Plus era. From the Danish jazz contingent, we heard the flexible and already fairly established trio Phronesis, and the straighter, clean-burning Danish Soren Bebe Trio.

Thursday night’s roster, in fact, was devoted to the Danes, the featured nationality this year, after last year’s focus on Israel: next year, France. The Danish fare ranged from the Arabic-tinged new big band ventures of Blood Sweat Drum + Bass to the post-mainstream, Wynton-ian business of the Snorre Kirk Quintet, and from the Björk-meets-jazz set of Live Foyn Friis Trio with Strings, and the pleasantly bubbling, ambient world-beat groove team of Girls in Airports. Danish music continued in more full-fledged concert settings during the convention, as when veteran Danish-Swedish vocalist Gitte Hænning impressed in song with the ace Aarhus Jazz Orchestra (Aarhus, Denmark was her hometown), in the beautiful 1920s-era downtown Bremen theater, Die Glocke (where, incidentally, Keith Jarrett recorded his famous Bremen concerts in the ’70s).

German artists were presented on Saturday, a strong crop that included the genre-bending post-fusion trio called CNIRBS, with rangy keyboardist Matthäus Winnitzki, trumpeter Stephan Meinberg and drummer Konrad Ullrich (yet another refreshing change-up on standard jazz instrumentations). Joanna Borchert, an intriguing and intrinsically flexible pianist-vocalist who is busy crossing over presumed idiomatic borderlines in various projects, here presented an inventive variation on the solo piano mode, which included projections on the upraised piano lid, improvisatory pirouettes over minimalism, and art-pop vocal tunes. It all came together in a beautiful and blissfully hard-to-categorize way.

The “Overseas” night included a handful of North American acts, including Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra (from Montreal), fine Canadian pianist Marianne Trudel’s Trifolia, a solo show by bassist Charnett Moffett, Marc Carey’s Focus Trio and the rigorous, tight piano trio led by Shai Maestro (from Avishai Cohen’s band, a featured performer in last year’s Israeli spotlight). But the main emphasis, at this point in the conference/showcase’s history, anyway, is on acts and creative thinking from locales off the Americas, as epitomized in a potent group like German trombonist Nils Wogram’s Root 70 (and strings), with players from Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand (solid alto saxist Hayden Chisholm).

Well-chosen end-of-night brainy/party bands this year, with a twist on the organ trio tradition, included the beloved Danish group Ibrahim Electric on Friday night, and Norwegian powerhouse Elephant 9 (with ever-wowing organist Ståle Storløkken and guest guitarist Reine Fiske) rattling the rafters of the Schlachthof as Saturday melted into Sunday morning.

For all the many impressive acts encountered, three-drummer Christian Lillinger, pianist Kaja Draksler and gymnastic vocalist Andreas Schaerer-stood out. All are young musicians with a solid sense of mission and voice, and blessed with a spirit of the inside-outside approach to balancing abstraction and structure in contemporary jazz frameworks.

Opening the Friday “German Jazz Expo” programming, drummer/bandleader dynamo Lillinger’s band Grund was a lively septet with piano, bass, drums, two alto saxes and two double basses (a recurring motif in the German sector, as it turned out, including the band Double Trouble, led by saxist Peter Ehwald, and underscored by potent German bassists Robert Landermann and Andreas Lang). The group boasted an inspired synthesis of structured and free ventures, with humor on the side, as when the drummer, who studied with legendary German drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer, deployed a toy megaphone in the line of expressive/creative duty.

In another case of a dazzling opening, Saturday’s “European Jazz Meeting” showcase series started with a mindful bang with the remarkable young Slovenian pianist Draksler (my vote for most striking first impression of jazzahead!, the “best of fest”). Also an established classical composer and player in various settings, Draksler brought a bracingly fresh and powerful perspective to the solo piano context, moving from abstract gestures-inside the piano and out-with folkloric colorations and genuinely virtuosic sweeps across the keyboard, all connected to some essential and deep musicality beyond mere pyrotechnics. She’s someone to watch.

Lastly, vocalist-and beat-boxer, scatter and extended vocal sonic morpher-Schaerer showed his nimble versatility and virtuosity in two separate formats on Saturday. In the Borgward Saal venue in the Conference Center, he teamed up in with texture-centric drummer Lucas Nigglie, in a set roving from wild free-noise chatter to Bobby McFerrin-esque sweetness of being, and late that night, hit the slaughterhouse stage in a trio with trumpeter/flugelhornist Martin Eberle and guitarist Peter Rom, in a set including bop lines and African-esque groove machining (sans machines-the vocalist is a great oral tradition “drummer”).

These were a few of my favorite things at jazzahead! this year, and served as further reminders-as if a reminder was needed-that European jazz musicians think differently, and are making a special noise to add to the grand pageantry of the modern jazz moment.

Originally Published