Review : Michael Wollny and Nguyen Le at Jazzdor Berlin 2012

First night of Festival Jazzdor Strasbourg-Berlin
(Kesselhaus, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. 4th June 2012. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

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Here, in the reclaimed industrial buildings of the Kesselhaus in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, the organizers of the sixth Festival Jazzdor Strasbourg-Berlin 2012 had something of a coup to celebrate on their opening night.

Festival Director Philippe Ochem had been trying patiently to persuade German pianist Michael Wollny to work in a duo with a French artist for some years, and to bring the resulting collaboration to this festival. Last year the name of the French guitarist of Vietnamese origin Nguyen Le came up in one of their conversations, and the gig was booked for tonight. The pair met just yesterday, but the vibe of their musical interaction already looks for all the world like a firm friendship. There is very nearly a twenty-year age difference between them, but notwithstanding that and their very different cultural hinterlands, the quality of listening and the matching of their two different sound worlds held the interest throughout , and the virtually full-to-capacity audience, which had listened intently from start to finish, cheered the pair to the echo.

For my ears they saved their very best till last. In Nguyen Le’s touching, elegaic piece Thăng Long, named after the ancient name for Hanoi, one sensed in Wollny’s expression one of those moments in the life of a western artist when a spark of inspiration comes from appreciation the art of the orient. Like Monet discovering japanese woodblock prints, or Mahler and the Chinese Flute translations by Hans Bethge, or Debussy and gamelan, it seemed a new door had been opened.

There was a fascinating range of sound worlds on display, from the filigree to the anthemic, from straight sounds through to synth guitar a and prepared piano, but always with a sense of interaction, they seemed happy to share, trade and bounce melodic hooks with each other in a way which had this listener, er, hooked.

Day two of a collaboration is too soon to judge, but to say that this pairing has promise would be an understatement. The most which Siggi Loch, the proprietor of the ACT label which releases the records of both artists would say, when I suggested that he had a fascinating new collaboration on his hands, was: “We shall see.” He did have a grin, though.

The discovery of a new narrative stole the show. The second band on tonight, the Francois Corneloup trio in which the baritone saxophonist works with Helene Labarriere on busy bass and Simon Goubert on free drums  have a strongly individual band idiom, and many admirers. The third set, by alto saxophonist Wanja Slavin‘s group “Lotus Eaters” had been due to feature French trumpeter Mederic Collignon as guest, but since he had become a father a few hours before the gig, he – understandably – stayed away. Despite a balance which didn’t favour him, my ears were constantly caught by the piano playing of Rainer Böhm, one of those pianists like Kenny Drew Jr, or our Gareth Williams, for whom the ideas are flowing so fast, his concentration seems to be applied to selecting, editing and placing a pre-existing lava flow of inspiration. I’d love to hear more of him.

A highly auspicious start to the four-day festival. Vivement mercredi!

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