Postcards from Cologne (2). The WDR Jazz Prizewinners Concert

Pablo Held receiving the Improvisation Award at the WDR
Prizes concert from Dr. Bernd Hoffmann, Head of Jazz=Redaktion, WDR.
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The big night of WDR’s four day autumn festival WDRjazz.cologne2011 is the Friday. The showpiece event is the WDR Jazzpreis concert. Three prizes – each of 10,000 Euros – are handed out, one for improvisation, one for composition, and one for the “Nachwuchs,” which means the up-and-coming, the next generation. The concert was relayed as part of an ELEVEN-HOUR (!) marathon jazz broadcast at the weekend. WDR3 does one of these “long nights” each month….

A highly impressive contribution to this special evening – at one of the organizations most committed to jazz broadcasting anywhere in the world – was made by host Götz Bühler. Bühler is not just a talking head. He is completely passionate and knowledgeable about the music, and is also one of the programmers of the Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg.

He declares in an interesting video, in German about Elbjazz an ambition “to show what a lot of jazz there is out there, to show how different jazz can be – so there can’t be ANYBODY out there who can ever say ‘I don’t like any jazz’ “.

Amen to that, I say.

Pablo Held
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The winner of the Improvisation Prize was pianist Pablo Held. I had chatted to him earlier in the day. The softly spoken 24-year old is originally from the small town of Hagen. The buzz about him in Germany has already been around for quite a while. Held has been awarded several prizes, although, as he told me, competitions don’t really feel like they have much to do with music. Held is less ambiguous about the benefits which his association with WDR has brought him. To be able to hear his trio professionally recorded, already at the age of 18, to be paid well, treated well, was of fantastic benefit. After an experience like that, he said, “I could improve”.

Held is due to make a London appearance next spring in the Pizza Express Dean Street Two Steinway Festival with Kit Downes. Held and Downes are musicians with a similar sensibility and sound, and the inner confidence to follow their own musical instincts, and not much more than a year apart in age. Held explained to me that his trio with bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel is the unit into which his energies, particularly for composition, are devoted- another similar charateristic with Kit Downes. Held had among his teachers the mercurial John Taylor, and spoke with deep gratitude of Taylor’s influence.

All three of the musicians in Held’s trio are bringing out the superlatives from German critics. A profile of Burgwinkel in Die Zeit entitled “Swingt wie die Hoelle” (swings like hell”) and “the German jazz musician of the hour.” I found the degree of rhythmic independence between hands was mesmerizing.Landfermann is a positive bassist with strong presence and a great ear, who also makes extensive use of flautando harmonics.

Held appeared before the Prizewinners Concert in a septet which consisted of his trio plus trumpet, saxophone, harmonium/celesta and guitar. The compositions were a festival commission. One of the highlights of the whole day was a spellbinding piano introduction to one of his septet pieces, but his comment afterwards was self-effacing. He said that the most pleasure had come to him from sitting back from the keyboard, and listening to and enjoying what the other players were doing.

His trio had a twenty-minute set in the main concert. The final piece, Klartraum, featured on Held’s most recent album Music (Pirouet Records, 2010) stays in the mind for its clever, repeated use of caesuras ( // ) within the same phrase.

Nils Klein, winner of the WDR Jazz Composer Award,
playing as part of the Pablo Held Septet
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

Winner of the composition prize, and also recipient of a festival commission was 30-something saxophonist Niels Klein. He had a series of new compositions played by the WDR Big Band, without doubt one of the top big bands in the world. The pieces were inspired by science fiction. Skylift, the last and most ambitous, told the story through music of a group of space travellers who leave orbit and drift into the void. The eerie sounds which characterized that moment definitely stay in the mind. I’d love to hear an edge-of-the seat British Big Band like Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra lift the roof of Ronnie Scott’s with that one.

The WDR Big Band at the 2011 WDR Jazz Prizes Concert
Performing work by Niels Klein
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The Big Band of the Duesseldorf Fachhochschule,
Directed by Georg Niehusmann
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The “Nachwuchs” prize was neither last – it was first in the concert -nor least. It featured a big band from the Fachhochschule – technical high school, directed by Georg Niehusmann. For a band of non-specialist musicians the standard reached was exemplary. I found myself talking to the baritone player Karim Kahtan, an employee of the Ford Motor Company (far right in the photo above). Niehusmann himself had been billed as baritone player  in the programme, and Kahtan, who had only recently started playing baritone, was already giving Ronnie Cuber a run for his money in those powerful opening honks of Mingus’ Moanin.

There were also prizes for educators at Folkwang University in Essen and Cologne Conservatoire.

WDR Prizewinners concert host Götz Bühler
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

WDR3 online

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Pablo Held is also appearing at Jazz @ the NLT on 18 March – Kit has booked Calum and James to complete his trio, so that should be good..!

    ps. Would the WDR like to move to London?

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