A sizable slice of the entire world was watching Berlin recently, as the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of the “fall of the Wall” and German reunification on Nov. 9. Of a lower profile but also worthy of attention on a global cultural scale was an event leading right up to the anniversary, JazzFest Berlin, which enjoyed its 45th edition. Up until twenty years ago, this festival was a prime example of the kind of proud cultural energies bubbling up in the western sector, almost as a taunt to the privations just over the Wall. For many years the festival’s home was at the Haus de Culture, not too far from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, where much of the anniversary wingding was based.
By now, the festival’s center of gravity in the city is still west-leaning, with the festival anchored at the Festival Hauspiel compound in Charlottenburg, with smaller shows at the clubs Quasimodo and the A-Trane, and, starting this year, at the Jewish Museum. On a grander scale, the jazz festival can be seen as a symbol of continuity.
Berlin’s festival is well-established as one of the finer “off-season” festivals on the jazz scene, emboldened by creative and resourceful programming. In 2009, the second year programmed by a still-new director, Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren, the schedule was strong and blessed with the diversity necessary for any jazz festival, in terms of artistic cred and financial muscle. As he did last year, Landgren managed to strike some workable and impressive balances in programming, mixing up subgenres and positioning the commercial alongside the more esoteric. Not surprisingly, he also stirred in music of the Scandinavian and trombone-oriented sort.
Two of the main evening programs this year, for instance, made obvious the polarized nature of the festival. Sunday night’s sold-out show, featuring John Scofield’s N’Awlins-geared “Piety Street” project and prototypical soul man Booker T., left an impression of “what’s jazz got to do with it?”
During the night before, however, the emphasis in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele was on more jazz-centric matters, specifically on masters of the low tones: Eberhard Weber was granted the special Verleihung Deutscher Jazzpreis; Barry Guy led his exciting and largely free-minded New Orchestra (with guest guitarist Elliott Sharp neither adding nor subtracting from the whole); and Dave Holland was an undeniably centering force in the fabulous “new” Overtone Quartet, despite the fact that the group is by design a democratic unit.