ROUND-UP REPORT JazzFest Berlin 2016

Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra
Photo credit: Camille Blake Berliner Festspiele

Jazzfest Berlin 2016 
(Berlin, Berliner Festspielhaus, November 4-6. Report by Henning Bolte)

Jazzfest Berlin is a six-day festival that started with a run-up of two special projects this year: Matana Roberts’ “For Pina”, a homage to the extraordinary German choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009) in the context of an exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau (running until January 9th, 2017- LINK) and Michael Schiefel’s rendition of Songs from German composer Hanns Eisler’s (1898-1962) Hollywood Songbook. The Berlin conservatory, Hochschule für Musik (LINK), is named after Hanns Eisler.

The festival was officially opened on November 4th by artistic director Richard Williams, together with Monika Grütters, Minister of State and German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, a strong advocate for jazz who has been effective, and delivered a lot of practical results. She does not omit an opportunity to explain the merits this art form, which she did again in a cool and impressive way at the Berlin Festival (write-up of opening HERE).

My highlights

The highlights of the four days I attended were Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet, Myra Melford Snowy Egret, Achim Kaufmann SKEIN Extended and Eve Risser White Desert Orchestra.

The artists involved in these groups were an ascent from four (Great Lakes) to six (Snowy Egret) to eight (SKEIN) to ten (White Desert). Three combinations were led by a pianist, two of them female, and one by a trumpeter. Two of the groups were North American combinations and two were European, an older generation and a younger generation leader sandwiched the middle generation leaders and the naming of the groups remarkably reflects nature as a major inspiring source. Seen as a whole a line is clearly discernible, a line with Wadada Leo Smith and Eve Risser as strong cornerstones and a line with gradual transitions through bold and soulful shapes and scapes of freeing sound in space. It can be considered as the backbone of a consistent programming.

It started from strong signals and music of great acridity and intensity (Great Lakes) reflecting wide open landscapes filled with echoes of mankind’s voices, hopes, expectations, antagonism, struggles, uniting and unifying. Next day the music reflected and crossed landscapes of human struggle and conflict, of violence but also rural tranquillity, acquiescence and identification (Snowy Egret). Unmistakably, the trumpet had a central role (Wadada Leo Smith, Ron Miles) in both cases. The third day it zoomed in from macro perspective into the micro perspective of SKEIN with its dense and wild sound gardening, purgatory excursions and bursts into trance states. It all came together, culminating on a higher plane in the astonishing sensational collective musical efforts of the White Desert Orchestra as concluding act of the festival. Highly concentrated and connected, playfully acting, unflaggingly nourishing every move, every attack was of great immediacy and became fully significant, in place. Its wondrous proceedings evoked astonishment and deep thrills finally pouring out into sheer pleasure of all senses. It became new music in the purest way and fullest sense.

Unfortunately the Brooklyn-Berlin Dialogues, an attractive program of duo-performances at Berlin’s small jazz club venue A-Trane (LINK) could not be included in this round-up. Not too far away from the Festspielhaus (a ten minute walk) it was programmed parallel to the main stage program. Making a choice was no problem but the very limited capacity of the small club was a serious obstacle. The program started with the duo of guitarist Mary Halvorson and Ingrid Laubrock and continued with duo’s of two outstanding female saxophonists of German origin, Ingrid Laubrock and Charlotte Greve, both residing/working in Brooklyn with renowned Berlin pianist of Japanese origin, Aki Takase.

Wadada Leo Smith (foreground) and Marcus Gilmore
Photo credit: Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

Highlights and Thematics 1 – Thursday 3rd

The trumpet is the instrument par excellence of beginnings and endings connecting both by breath and projection into physical and mental space. Wadada operates within that force field serving the eternal renewal of the life cycle in and by sound. His playing is a search for connecting us with the past in order to free us for things to come, to happen, to make happen. Every performance is a piece of work on it, not only within fossilized patterns but around those instead with multiple sources absorbed or referenced to.

Wadada, in an extraordinary good mood, concluded Thursday night with his fellow musicians, long time companion John Lindberg on double bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums and newcomer to the group, reedist Jonathan Haffner. With great spirit, they played an intense, solid and incisive set which had a strong impact on the audience. With great spirit they played an intense, solid and incisive set rendering deep impact. Glowing ember and majestic hymn-like parts alternated with earthquake like eruptions and tribal echoes. Jonathon Haffner surprised with solid and creative playing neatly and wonderfully interacting with Wadada. The fundamental force appeared to be Marcus Gilmore with his rolling thunder, undulating motion and blooming cymbals. The sound of his cymbals was casted back in great clarity from the opposite side of the large concert hall – a wonderful rare thing to accomplish and to experience.

The night commenced with the proven unit comprising Berlin pianist Julia Hülsmann, Marc Muellbauer (b), Heinrich Köbberling (dr), Tom Arthurs (tr) and as guesting musician young German saxophonist Anna-Lena Schnabel. The excellently blending horn frontline effectuated a slight but decisive change of the sound known from the quartet. It turned out more rhythmically driving and sparkling, a welcome alternation to the intricate colouring of Hülsmann. Hülsmann excelled in a stronger rhythmical role and in the virtue of laying out in a significant way. It was also a good introduction to Schnabel’s capacities who seems to have quite fierce modes of playing in her armoury too.

Sandwiched between Hülsmann Extended and The Great Lakes Quartet Berlin Jazzfest presented a world première, the long awaited first live appearance of the large 12-piece-ensemble of young Norwegian composer and saxophonist Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg performing the ‘Ø’-part of her one-year-old double album on ECM (reviewed on LJN HERE) with boundary transcending music thoroughly, carefully and masterfully directed and assembled by Manfred Eicher as a producer. Henriette and the ensemble comprising a first class string section brilliantly executed the music of the album in all its delicate facets, contrasts and transitions. The kind of music and its rendition was apparently new and fascinating for the Berlin audience that consequently received it with great enthusiasm. It was a good beginning thus for the deeper settlement and more freely grow and variable, more energetic emergence of this music in live performances. Now it came across still like an illustrious wild beast in a cage – a bit like in the Nightingale tale of H.C. Andersen. Henriette is on the way to reaching further realms.

Liberty Ellman of Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret
Photo credit: Henning Bolte

Highlights and Thematics 2 – Friday 4th

Friday night’s highlight, Myra Melford Snowy Egret, was a part of a mixed bag between the virtuosic and sophisticated Redman/Mehldau duo, the fifth decade celebrating free jazz veterans of the Berlin originating Globe Unity Orchestra and the young seven-piece Oriental music ensemble Hafla (Celebration) of British Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed. The original intensity of the Redman/Mehldau duo at its first appearance at Heidelberg’s Enjoy Jazz Festival ten years ago has been crystallized, transformed and proven in maturation. In fast, clearly articulated runs, like in skating or free running, jumping to and fro, they hit an even narrower degree, connected bop in a razor sharp way to our days and kept the ears awake and keen. Unfortunately the slightly jingling quality of the grand piano in the higher register stayed through various performances.

Snowy Egret comprising Myra Melford on piano/melodica, Ron Miles on trumpet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums supported by the visuals of David Szlasa continued on the line initiated and intoned by Wadada’s Great Lakes Quartet in its very own way. Inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) Snowy Egret explored the emotions, characters, sociocultural and geological landscapes evoked by Galeano’s work “Memoria del Fuego”, a history of the Americas, as worked out in the well-organized suite “Language of Dreams”. Melford is a master of collaging heterogeneous sources and working multi-perspectival with a high degree of coherence offering listeners/ watchers a multitude of personal access and handhold. At the same time the music is highly dynamic and full of passion. The concert had a great, dreamlike way of balancing and crossfading progressing and dwelling at certain points, of runs, slow down, bursts and tranquility unrolling the epic. The finest part of the performance was the captivating embedded  solo- and duet work of these brilliant musicians as well as the way Melford conjures up styles from different (latin, stride, blues etc.) fell into it and deeply immersed. Melford provided a firm rotating plane while trumpeter Ron Miles’ great tone and line secured the view on the horizon.

This richly unfolding, blooming imaginative music contrasted (sharply) with the other concerts that varied from questionable to underdeveloped. The appearance of The Globe Unity Orchestra, drifting, rudderless tableaux of repetition of tousling old moves, was legitimated for historical reasons. Anyhow, one solo (Evan Parker)  received deserved applause, and all the talk afterwards was about the band members of The Red Hot Chili Peppers who had been having big fun backstage at the Festspielhaus, enjoyinh to the full the tumultuous ructions of the 15 horns and the three-piece rhythm section. I was disappointed by the concluding appearance of Yazz Ahmed’s Family Hafla on the smaller Seitenbühne hall. The group stuck to a quite simple restricted format, underused the potential and fell behind the development which other groups have reached in this kind of crossover music. I admit I was in a minority – the audience’s appreciation seemed to grow strongly as the set progressed

Matt Garrison and Jack DeJohnette
Photo credit: Henning Bolte

Thematics 3 – Saturday 5th

The Saturday highlight, the concert of SKEIN, was an afternoon event that took place at Institut Français Berlin (Salle Boris Vian) situated at Kurfürstendamm. Institut Français has regular series of jazz concerts of German musicians and musicians from various other countries. The aforementioned festival concert with Eisler-songs also took place there.

SKEIN – it is the name of the ensemble and a composition by Berlin pianist Achim Kaufmann – was commissioned by the festival. Kaufmann who was awarded the biannual Albert Mangelsdorff Prize (named after the renowned German trombonist) at last year’s festival decided to restructure and extend the original 6-piece ensemble that had recorded an album for Leo Records with two more musicians. Drummer Tony Buck was subbed by Gerry Hemingway and cellist Okkyung Lee substituted by trumpeter Liz Albee from Berlin. Added up Achim Kaufmann on piano, Frank Gratkowski on clarinets/alto saxophone, Richard Barrett, electronics and Wilbert de Joode, double bass, were guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi on electric guitar and daxophone and the voice of reciting poet Gabriele Guenther.

The live performance of SKEIN was an excellent example of the high art of collective real time creation. What it made a highlight was an amazing combination of density and transient volatility, of introversion and extraversion, of micro and macro, of unlimited and pointed action and the rapid way of generating great dynamics from it with impeccable timing. It led into greatly rotating parts and highly trancing parts interspersed with Guenther’s conjuring voice. The ensemble went the way of sound into a mycelium of lines and knots patiently and quickly uncovering firing connections. It did not own the epic qualities of the two other highlights from North-America but focused on the process of interiorisation itself, the interchange of the inner and outer side of human minds and feelings with poetry as an essential part in it. Every musician clearly had a particular role in the whole of the creation.

The evening program at the Festspielhaus brought the New York quintet of German musicians saxophonist Angelika Niescier and pianist Florian Weber comprising trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver followed by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin joining forces with the radio Big Band of Hessischer Rundfunk from Frankfurt, another large ensemble. The night concluded with two trios, first the trio of Jack DeJohnette with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bass guitarist Matt Garrison, the sons of John Coltrane and the son of John Coltranes bassist Jimmy Garrison, in the big hall and then in the small hall the trio of Swiss vocalist Lucia Cadotsch with Swedish saxophonist Otis Sandsjö and Swedish bass ace Petter Eldh, all residing in Berlin. The Niescier/Weber New York unit excelled in fast forward, now and then acrobatic pieces, major part of its performance. It apparently fitted Niescier’s impetuous temperament the best. Spiked with the humorous announcements of Niescier and Weber it was an ideal drive on for the evening. Their performance found a perfect continuation in the great drumming of ultimate master drummer Jack DeJohnette in conversation with his younger family members Matt Garrison and Ravi Coltrane DeJohnette’s drumming is still a wonder of nature (see also my recent review of the trio HERE). The middle part, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin joining forces with the radio Big Band of Hessischer Rundfunk led by Jim McNeely, however was an unexciting, fad affair at most complaisant – an infelicitous combination or a missed chance. The Swiss-Swedish trio from Berlin then was something else. Cadotsch, among others known from multinational group Schneeweiss und Rosenrot, presented her stripped down, de-smoothed, understated renderings of ‘known’ songs almost in the dark.

She articulates the tunes very pure with a lot of space and the very own voicing of Eldh and Sandsjö. Eldh has an almost gruff tone with a melodic interior and Sandsjö has developed a very own voice with his cooing, burbling, gurgling saxophone. She took high risks by giving her interpretation of Abel Meeropol’s “Bitter Fruit” that has evolved into the famous “Strange Fruit” as well as “Willow Weep For Me”. Cadotsch indeed purified the songs and the real touchstone came when she intoned John Jacob Niles’ “Black Is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair” – convincingly. She surely can still win depth.

SKEIN: Wilbert de Joode, Achim Kaufmann
Photo credit: Henning Bolte

Thematics 4  – Sunday 6th

The last day started with a duo of Alexander Hawkins on he organ of the (Kaiser Wilhelm) Memorial Church at Kurfürstendamm and Wadada Leo Smith. Last year this special church was the locale of a concert of The Necks. Alexander Hawkins is familiar with and skilled in a lot of things, including the church organ. It became a memorable concert included the casual but serious communication of the two artists with the numerous audience at the sold out event.

Wadada Leo Smith and Alexander Hawkins
Photo credit Henning Bolte

The opener of the evening was singer-songwriter Julia Holter & Strings. It was the only real miss reinforced by an announcement unnecessarily claiming the label jazz for the music of this pop artist. The music of Holter, who added two Berlin string players to her regular accompanying group, surely is no mainstream pop singer but it is a bit strange that she is programmed by a growing number of jazz festivals that apparently regard her music as an exponent of a more daring, edgy kind of pop with jazz affinities. The performance clearly showed that this is more belief than grasping reality. It seemed that a greater part of the audience was not comfortable with her appearance. It is even more of a mystery as there are plenty of good alternatives as the likes of Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Susanna Wallumrød, Kate Havnevik, Mariam The Believer, Emilie Lebros, St. Vincent, Eggs Laid By Tigers, The Young Mothers, the great Austin band of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, or even Oscar Noriega’s Banda De Los Muertos (with Chris Speed, Jim Black, Jakob Garchik and others) to name just a few.

Contrast is the spice of a good festival and there was sharp contrast with the Steve Lehman Octet as subsequent act. Lehman is a good example of the way ‘found’ music is reworked and transformed in jazz. It is programmatically expressed in the title of Lehman’s newest album Sélébéyone, a word from the Senegalese Wolof language, referring to a liminal field where fixed entities meet and mutate into something common new heretofore unknown. Strange enough Lehman did not perform with the album’s line-up comprising two vocalists, one working in Wolof and one in English. Besides Jonathan Finlayson, Mark Shim, Tim Albright, Chris Dingman and Jose Davila from the old crew, there was bassist Drew Gress as the only overlap between the two line-ups, and Jalon Archie, a new drummer. Lehman’s music is a complex of fast repetitive overlapping runs interlocking and rotating in a highly refined manner. Remarkably the music this line-up played had more surface and sound colour than earlier editions and went into a more sliding bounce at the end. Unfortunately the music proceeded in old school soloing routine, which undermined the interlocking movement and the confluence of the sound colours. The level of energy and flow did not reach a level to get it into the soul full force.

With the stupendous and revelatory performance of the deeply interconnected ten musicians of the Wee-Dee-Oh, the White Desert Orchestra, the line of highlights reached its apotheosis. The White Desert Orchestra is a strong collection of younger musicians who all are leaders/members of numerous thrilling and interesting groups: Eve Risser (composition, piano, leader), Sylvaine Hélary (flutes), Antonin Tri-Hoang (clarinets, alto sax), Benjamin Dousteyssier
(saxophones), Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), Eivind Lønning (trumpet), Fidel Fourneyron(tromb), Julien Desprez (el. guitar), Fanny Lasfargues (acoustic bass guitar), Sylvain Darrifourcq (drums/perc). These ten musicians carried the music in exemplary togetherness to a still higher level and were released into joyful conclusion. The audience was flying high and the artistic director’s plan and hope came off.

The White Desert Orchestra is an omnipresent ethereal entity of high density, fluidity, empathy, telepathy, of good measures of gentleness, elusiveness, playfulness, exactness and humbleness, permeated by effects of delight, joy, humour, colour, great hairdos and beautiful shoes.

After a longer series of concerts this culmination point coincided with the release of the ensemble’s debut album on the renowned Portuguese Clean Feed label, which carries the telling and incisive title Les Deux Versants Se Regardent – an impossibility as mission statement? Or is it just something to infuse confusion? By all means it is something to initiate and stimulate realistic out of the box perception and reasoning. The biggest achievement here however is that the group of musicians succeeded to create something together based on the contribution of every musician’s individual capacities and special knack fully in service of the shaping and shining of the greater whole. Contributions must prove themselves and function in refined and lively ways in a bigger orchestrated whole. It was remarkable how each piece genetically emerged from the orchestral organism. The significance of each move was filled up step-by-step. It kept the tension and the audience prepared to follow at a high degree and was nourished by the emotional load of the progressing sounds.

Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra acknowledging the applause in Berlin
Photo credit: Henning Bolte


As the line of the festival’s highlights and thematics demonstrate, artistic director Richard Williams created a program of high coherence with clear contrast, content and themes as nature/landscapes, history and historical art figures. The celebration aspect was confined to 50 years Globe Unity Orchestra. The program was quite well balanced geographically and with respect to age and gender as well as to seize of the groups/ensembles and related artistic ambition. The musicians/groups were fairly well distributed over the US and Europe, spread over Germany Switzerland, France, UK, Norway, and Finland, and the festival presented a fair amount of groups/ musicians residing in Berlin. There was a clearly higher portion of female leaders and female musicians on all kinds of instruments. Younger musicians were represented emphatically and almost half (9 out of 22) of the performing units happily were large(r) ensembles (>5 musicians). This last statistic is symptomatic of more widespread trend. Large ensembles pose special requirements, lift musicians and music to a higher plan and have a lot to offer to audiences. There was a bit interdisciplinarity, but folk based and inspired music, live-remixing, extended vocal art and edgy variants of transitional pop/rock were absent or underexposed. Nonetheless the festival had some outreaching qualities to further build and expand on, especially into public space. I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Categories: miscellaneous

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