The best jazz festivals embed themselves in a place, draw upon its distinctive qualities, and come to represent it. The Umbria festival is synonymous with the cobblestone piazzas of Perugia. Newport means a seaside venue with free views from the water for boaters. But no jazz festival is more intimate or adventurous with its landscape than Südtirol Alto Adige.
Now in its 34th year, it is based in Bolzano, Italy, at the foot of the Dolomite mountains. From June 24 to July 3, the festival spread itself up those mountains and all over the Alto Adige region (just south of Austria), to 23 communities and 60 different sites. Some venues were very unusual. For example, one festival day began with a spectacular funicular ride, 4,000 feet up to Soprabolzano, over a brilliant green, sometimes nearly vertical terrain. Below the cable car, chalets somehow clung to the mountainside. From the high plateau of Soprabolzano, a train traveled to the famous glacial formations called lahntürme, or earth pyramids. A marching jazz band from Munich, Jazzrausch, got on board the train along with the festival crowd and kept right on riffing.
Jazzrausch is nine young players who dance and twirl to their own infectious beats even as they snap off intricate arrangements. The energy began with drummers Sebastian Wolfgruber and Marco Dufner and tuba player Jutta Keess. (The tuba is the hottest new/old instrument in jazz. More on this subject later.) Within the ecstatic celebrations, alto saxophonist Raphael Huber and tenor saxophonist Moritz Stahl took sharp solos. The band marched from the train, the audience following, and lined itself up along the railing of an overhang above the Katzenbach Creek gorge and wailed tunes like “Dancing Wittgenstein.” The crowd could see over the band to the earth pyramids and vast green mountain vistas.
In addition to its unique environments for music, the Südtirol festival is known for its programming. Many of the big jazz festivals of Europe share some of the same names in any given year. (It is partly because the same American groups are on tour in Europe in any given summer.) And some festivals tend to bring back the same acts, year after year. (Umbria, for all its deserved prestige, is famous for it.) Südtirol, under the leadership of director Klaus Widmann, has a different idea. It may be the only major jazz festival in the world without any stars. Even knowledgeable jazz fans (especially if they happen to be from the United States) might look at the Südtirol program for 2016 and not recognize a single name. Yet it is a large, well-funded, high profile, thoroughly professional 10-day festival with a history that goes back to 1982.
Widmann has an atypical day gig (he is a practicing physician in Bolzano) and an atypical attitude about what a jazz festival should be. He says, “Südtirol probably reflects my own nature. I am someone who seeks out new experiences. For example, I am a skier, and my skiing friends always want to go to the same famous resorts. But I want to go to resorts I’ve never been to before, even if they are more difficult or riskier. I believe that jazz is music of change, music that must constantly renew itself. Also, I gravitate toward young people. I like their energy and enthusiasm.”
Widmann sees his festival as a large, loose workshop. He likes to create new volatile encounters, to find out what happens. He is proud of the fact that 22 ensembles performed at the festival who were new to one another, in whole or in part. He says, “I know there are more jazz schools than ever before, but I don’t think of jazz as music for the academy. I think it is music uniquely qualified to express the real texture of our time.”
Every year, Südtirol adopts a country theme. This year it was two countries, Austria and Italy. A festival based on young emerging artists only works if those artists are mostly exceptional. Case in point: two bands from Austria, Random Control and Kompost 3. Random Control is David Helbock on piano, Johannes Bär on brass and Andreas Broger on reeds. They are an extreme example of current day multi-instrumentalism. Bär plays trumpet and flugelhorn but also tuba (there’s that horn again), sousaphone and euphonium. He occasionally hauled a 12-foot alphorn on stage. It looks and sounds like a didgeridoo on steroids. Broger plays tenor saxophone but might use four additional reed instruments in the course of one solo. Helbock (like virtually every other pianist at the festival) augments his primary instrument with secondary electronic devices. The mind-boggling variety of tones and voices was part of the band’s “random” aspect. The “control” started with compositions and/or arrangements by Helbock, a formalist of almost classical sternness until his two colleagues sucked him into furious, madcap contrapuntal confrontations. Deadpan sing-songs, first motivated by Bär’s tuba blasts, broke down into chiming, grunting piano/alphorn duets.
Helbock is preoccupied with two dissimilar composers, Hermeto Pascoal and Thelonious Monk. Pascoal tunes like “Música das Nuvens e do Chão” became occasions for outbreaks of complex rhythmic energy. The interpretations of Monk were unique. “Trinkle, Tinkle” was spattered across tuba, trumpet, four wind instruments, piano and toy piano.” “‘Round Midnight,” dead slow, was very gradually discernible amid electronic noises and horn chirpings. (The band performed on a stage set up on planks over the swimming pool of the elegant Parkhotel Laurin in Bolzano.)
Kompost 3 played the overflowing bar of the Sheraton Hotel in Bolzano and provided ass-kicking grooves for partiers and musical substance for listeners. They are Martin Eberle on trumpet, Benny Omerzell on Rhodes and Nord Electro 3, Manu Mayr on electric bass and Lukas König on drums. In the new jazz generation, especially in Europe, instrumentation lists don’t mean what they once did. The reason is digital technology. Mayr sometimes hit a switch and his bass played guitar scales. Eberle’s electronically distorted and multiplied mournful calls only sometimes sounded like a trumpet. European bands like Kompost 3 achieve what often eludes comparable ensembles in the United States: They mix jazz and rock without compromising either. Kompost 3 was capable of nailing everything from filthy blues to symphony rock (assisted by electronics) to dark, oscillating trance music.
Another under-the-radar band with a highly developed novel concept was Edi Nulz, from Austria (Siegmar Brecher, bass clarinet; Julian Adam Pajzs, tenor and baritone guitar; Valentin Schuster, drums and piano pocket). Like Kompost 3 but with their own manic zeal, they made a blend of raunchy rock and edgy jazz sound organic. Most of the rock came from Pajzs, with his vicious hooks, and most of the wild jazz skronk came from Brecher. Pieces like “Hundshübel Hot Tub” merged the intellectual with the visceral.
One of the many successful examples of the festival’s commitment to cross-pollination took place at an elevation of 7,200 feet, at the base of Mount Putia. The personnel were Benny Omerzell from Kompost 3 on Nord Electro 3, Valentin Schuster from Edi Nulz on drums and 10-or-so cows on percussion. The keyboard and drums were set up on a small platform in a mountain meadow, with power provided by an adjacent restaurant. The cows wandered freely through the yellow buttercups and blue forget-me-nots, clanging their neck bells. With a towering gray Dolomite rock face behind him as a sound baffle, Omerzell flung notes in waves that rang across the meadow. In keeping with its dramatic setting, the music swept and climbed. The cows were the avant-garde element, augmenting Schuster’s rhythmic patterns with their displaced accents.
Another high concert (6,900 feet) took place at an inn on Rittner Horn mountain. The band was Giovanni Falzone Mosche Elettriche (“Electric Flies”). The concert could have been billed as “Jazz Above the Clouds.” The location was high enough to look down not only on clouds but on a serrated Dolomite massif. Falzone’s band has a Nirvana project underway. They played “Sifting” and “Blew.” Once again at this festival, it was notable how naturally rock (grunge in this case) fed into jazz improvisation. The guitar of Valerio Scrignoli snarled the rock while Falzone’s trumpet was the voice of jazz reason. Their set was mostly about energy, but the best piece was Ennio Morricone’s theme from “The Sicilian Clan.” Falzone, who is from Sicily, let his trumpet linger on the romantic melody. Scrignoli took a hard/soft solo.
Two artists who loomed over this festival were Dan Kinzelman and Francesco Diodati. They kept turning up and playing their asses off. Kinzelman was one of very few Americans on the program, but he is now considered part of the Italian jazz underground. He left for Europe immediately after graduating from the University of Miami in 2004, and stayed. The word on the street is that Diodati, a member of Enrico Rava’s new quartet, is the hottest young guitar player in Europe. He appears on Rava’s latest ECM album, Wild Dance.
Kinzelman’s most important appearance was in Museion, Bolzano’s museum of contemporary art, with his own collective project, Hobby Horse. (Of their five strong albums, the most recent is Rocketdine, on Parco Della Musica.) Kinzelman plays reeds, Joe Rehmer (another American expatriate from the University of Miami) plays bass and Stefano Tamborrino plays drums. Of course, Kinzelman and Rehmer also employ electronics-in Rehmer’s case a vintage 1980s Casio.
If any further evidence were necessary, Südtirol provided final proof that samples, filters, loops and myriad digital and analog synthesizers are now as much a part of jazz as drum kits. Electronics can turn a lone singer into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and turn trios into orchestras. Hobby Horse has bought into the current digital domain, but they use electronics judiciously, sometimes for cloudy backgrounds, sometimes to add hum and rasp when things get crazy.
And things do get crazy with this band, even if tunes are just as likely to unfold quietly, in rapt requiems. Kinzelman has become a fascinating tenor saxophone player. A single solo might start with slow forms, barely evolving. Rehmer, often arco, is with him in these deep atmospheres, yearning and murmuring. But such songs usually escalate into ensemble cacophony-Tamborrino lashing, Kinzelman erupting. It is perhaps his understanding of music as ritual that most identifies Kinzelman as an Italian jazz musician. In Italian jazz, bel canto lyricism can coexist with turbulence. At the end of the Hobby Horse set, Edi Nulz came on stage to make a double trio, and a glorious din arose. Kinzelman and Brecher incited one another into sublime rages. A joint drum solo by Tamborrino and Schuster was a brutal onslaught upon the Museion audience, who hollered for more.
Diodati’s most significant moments also came with his own band, Yellow Squeeds. Klaus Widmann’s festival spreads itself far beyond Bolzano, to obscure little Südtirol communities like San Lorenzo di Sebato. The biggest jazz event of San Lorenzo’s year is when, for one night, the festival comes to town. Widmann dares put jazz in unlikely places. The manager of a local warehouse, E. Innerhofer AG, has loaned his loading dock to the festival for the last 10 years. Yellow Squeeds set up on the dock: Francesco Lento, trumpet; Glauco Benedetti, tuba; Enrico Zanisi, piano; Enrico Morello (also in Enrico Rava’s new band), drums. For this concert, two guests joined, Filippo Vignato on trombone and Elias Stemeseder on Rhodes.
Against all odds, the loading dock worked for music. The band was up high, for good sight lines, and the concrete space had fine acoustics. The audience sat at tables covered in white cloths on the warehouse floor. The tables were provisioned with bowls of antipasti and bottles of vino and acqua minerale. Only Italians could turn a warehouse work zone into Birdland.
Diodati’s guitar language is original, diverse and totally contemporary. He can rock out, but he is first an impressionist and colorist who functions best in open spaces. In Yellow Squeeds, no one, not even Diodati, dominated the solo time. The music mysteriously coalesced out of silence. The first piece gradually assembled itself from the hesitant offerings of separate horn voices (trumpet, tuba, trombone). Diodati’s occasional chords were like sighs. The concept of intricate, dynamic ensemble form was reminiscent of Henry Threadgill. As in Threadgill’s bands, a tuba bumping along the bottom was a unifying factor. (Of all the tuba players at this festival, Benedetti was the quickest and most articulate.) But whereas a Threadgill band is urban and jagged, Yellow Squeeds is suave and Italian.
The highlight of the evening, perhaps the highlight of the festival, was a brand new composition by Diodati, “Here and There.” As with everything this band plays, there was a lot going on: top lines; submerged lines; strange, rich harmonies; internal collisions. When solos occurred, they only half emerged from the ensemble, whose background seething eventually overtook the soloist. It was startling when Diodati was suddenly alone. He released a solo like a flock of birds. Eventually Vignato’s trombone and Lento’s trumpet picked up some of Diodati’s figures and the band cohered around the central theme, growing louder and louder, ascending to a dramatic final crescendo.
The band’s excellent debut album is Flow, Home., on the Auand label. The only regret is that Vignato and Stemeseder aren’t on it. Vignato has been called “the new Gianluca Petrella,” high praise for any trombonist. Stemeseder, who appeared in many different contexts at the festival, is a talented 25-year-old pianist from Austria, currently residing in New York.
Südtirol did something so cool you wonder why more festivals don’t think of it. They called one night “Jazz Labs” and gave it over to new collaborations. Five different ad hoc ensembles played quick two- or three-tune sets in a commercial exhibition center in Bolzano. Players discussed above (e.g. Kinzelman, Diodati, Brecher, Stemeseder and Rehmer) found themselves in unfamiliar contexts and sparks flew. Other players who have not been discussed but deserved to be (e.g. trumpeter Mario Rom, guitarist Tobias Hoffman, vocalist Anna Widauer and drummer Francesco Cusa) all treated their new situations in “Jazz Labs” as opportunities to interactively wail.
Given that Südtirol is willing to go all in on new acts, it is not surprising that some of them went bust. Vocalist Maja Osojnik (from Slovenia, now based in Vienna), accompanied only by her own electronic devices, gave a midnight solo concert that was sabotaged by her obsessive knob-twisting. (Digital technology can be a trap.) A lakeside performance by Max Andrzejewski began with promise: From rowboats, instrumentalists and singers serenaded the audience onshore. When the real concert began, an ensemble of jazz quintet plus 10 vocalists should have been interesting. But the songs, all by drummer Andrzejewski, were weak, with stilted English lyrics. (Virtually all the jazz musicians of Andrzejewski’s generation want to be composers. Some would be much better off doing standards.) Peter Evans gave a solo trumpet concert in the Museion for an audience sprawled on huge pillows on the floor. It was an impressive novelty act, full of multiphonics and feats of trumpet athleticism, but not art. (Full disclosure: The onlookers, on their pillows, loved it.)
But this festival had many more hits than misses. The freshness and vitality of the music, all from players not yet household names, revealed the depth and strength of the European jazz scene. There are some bad cats out there, lying in the weeds, just waiting to strike. Italy and Austria, apparently, are full of them.