(Kesselhaus, Prenzlauer Berg, 4th June 2012. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
When you walk in the streets here in Berlin, you wait with the others at the road crossing. Together, you watch out for Ampelmann. Ampelmann signals that it’s time to cross, with a jauntily angled arm conveying the German spirit of “Weitergehen” – off we go now. Europe may be constantly portrayed by the UK media as “in crisis,” but here it never feels like that. And attending a French jazz festival, with the combined support of Bureau Export , the Institut Francais, SACEM – the French rights collection agency, AFJIMA – the federation of French Jazz Festivals, and others such as Deutschland Radio Kultur and the jazz magazine Jazzthetik …. there does seem to be a spirit of quietly getting things done.
The co-ordinated French effort from all of these partners supports bands, puts its collective trust in effective bandleaders and allows them to deliver. Tonight’s programme presented a triple bill of such bands. I heard two of the three.
Clarinettist / bass clarinettist Louis Sclavis brought a varied set from his Atlas Trio with Benjamin Moussay piano, Fender rhodes and keyboards and Gilles Coronado on electric guitar/ effects. Their album Sources , recorded last autumn, is Sclavis’ ninth for the ECM label. The previous one L’Imparfait des Langues was recorded three years before that, at the end of 2008, and that in turn was three years after its predecessor ECM album Dans la Nuit, recorded at the end of 2005. As in the previous transitions, it is a band with new personnel (one player performed in both the 2005 and 2008 recordings, the two this time are both new), and Sclavis takes on new approaches, keeps an element of surprise in each project, while bringing his own experience and dynamism.
Sclavis’ last project as leader had more of an overt influence from North Africa. A warm Mistral wind seemed shape many of its contours. In this new project, several musical worlds are explored. One number picked up the Messiaen of the faster movements of Quartet for the End of Time. Près d’Hagondange was a skittering jazz-folk reel. But the Atlas trio was perhaps at its strongest – and certainly at it most appreciated by a healthy audience – in the encore. Sclavis came right to the front of the stage and delivered a circular breathing spectacular on bass clarinet, completely acoustically, followed by a plunge into the early 1980’s electric Miles/ John Scofield world of Decoy or Star People.
After the break came Stephane Kerecki’s quartet with Tony Malaby and Mathieu Donarier on saxophones and Thomas Grimmonprez on drums.
When I interviewed Kerecki in 2010, he was particularly eloquent on thesubject of leading a band. He told me: “I’d been a sideman for years, played all kinds of different music in different contexts, for Djamel Allam, in big bands, all over the place. But it was’t enough. To really flourish, to develop my own identity, I knew I wanted, needed to lead. What is special about the bassists I admire and listen to the most- Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, and above all Dave Holland – “l’identite le plus grand”- is that they have defined who they are. Dave Holland can play in any context, and you know it’s him. I needed to define my own musical identity. I’ve done that through leading. Leading defined what i was, and how I reacted to others.”
He has been given trust to take the group on his CD Houria (the Arabic word for freedom) further, and the vibe of the band is established. There are extended free sections, with Malaby in particular exploiting squeals, over-blowing and multiphonic resources of the saxophone. I appreciated one moment in particular, when Kerecki, steered the number Lunatique out of the storms of abstraction and freedom back into safer territory, with the understated but clear, firm, leader-like statement of a bass figure. He did it with the same quiet authority of friendly Ampelmann as he brings another batch pedestrians – safely, surely – to the other (sunny? – today it was, and the forecast is good) side of the street. Incidentally, and you never know when such things can come in useful… there is a chain of no fewer than four shops in Berlin which sell nothing but Ampelmann souvenirs.