REVIEW: WDR3 Jazz Fest 2018 in Gütersloh and Bielefeld

Karolina Strassmayer soloing with the WDR Big Band
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

WDR3 JazzFest 2018  (Theater Gütersloh and Bunker Ulmenwall, Bielefeld, Germany. 1-3 February 2018. Round-up by Sebastian Scotney)

During my three days at the WDR3 Jazz Festival I kept noticing the mind going into overdrive. The reason for it is that the festival not only presents a programme of music embracing many diverse strands in jazz. And because it also includes several brand new, previously unperformed commissions. But there’s more: there are a whole load of other contexts, purposes and meanings to unpack and to unravel.

Firstly, there’s the festival’s centrepiece, the annual WDR Jazz Prize Concert. This event has significance as the main annual gathering to celebrate the exemplary, long-term way in which jazz in this region of Germany is supported. Second the festival is also a demonstration and validation of the broadcaster WDR’s role as one of the leading and most committed and effective of those supporters, not least via the continuing exposure it gives to previous prize-winners through commissions which receive their premieres at the festival. And thirdly, the festival has an agenda constantly and incrementally to raise its game in production values. Each year, WDR makes a genuine, focussed and committed attempt to gainsay those who invariably like to moan that jazz will always lets it self down through poor presentation. But first to the music.

L-R: Alan Pasqua, John Goldsby, Peter Erskine
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR


For me there were two stand-out performances I was able to attend during the three days – there was much that I couldn’t – and they both involved piano trios. On the first night I was completely captivated by a set in which regular, Los Angeles-based co-conspirators pianist Alan Pasqua and drum legend Peter Erskine were joined by bassist John Goldsby from the WDR Big Band. What was so special? It was a quite astonishing demonstration of how gently, almost weightlessly, a trio can play. Peter Erskine’s tune On the Lake, originally recorded with his trio with John Taylor and Palle Danielsson, tested the boundaries of the light-footed, and Alan Pasqua kept casting inspired, in-the-moment reharmonisations – always with a smile – like pebbles sent off to skim in the calm pond of Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman. 

The quiet trio set was a deliberate contrast to what was to follow, a set from the same musicians with the WDR Big Band, in which the toothsome twists and turns of Vince Mendoza’s harmonic and textural imagination held the attention throughout. A particular word of praise for Mendoza’s wonderful flute-writing for Karolina Strassmayer – and her playing of it.

Michel Wollny
Photo credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The other piano trio that caught my ear was that of Michael Wollny on the final night. He has an agenda and basic philosophy to court the unexpected and constantly to be testing new possibilities. Wollny’s short trio set was a demonstration of that process in action. The ability to move as one into a new mood or feel, to traverse from melodic into abstraction and back again, those sixth senses that musicians who work a lot together possess, were all on display, as well as the humour, the wish to surprise each other.

The Wollny trio were then joined onstage by 24 members of the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. The parts I enjoyed above all were the most serene, the most Brucknerian, the most stately moments in which all those on stage seemed to breathing together as one, sharing the improbably, mesmerisingly slow pulse.

Among the new commissions, I enjoyed the sense of logic and construction in the set of new pieces commissioned from bassist/composer Hendrika Entzian in her role of 2018 Composition Prize winner – she has been mentored by Vince Mendoza and is one to watch. The director of the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra Marco Lackner had also written a suite of new pieces with the theme of adopting a new country to live in, and the most effective piece in his suite was one recalling his rural past, the high mountain grasslands of Austria, entitled Alm. I think I was in a minority but was disappointed with the set I heard from the Finn Timo Lassy‘s band, who seemed to be all too content to dwell comfortable in prog-rock-ish predictability. And then there were the things one missed. I liked the little I managed to hear of Jean-Claude Bourelly‘s late night bluesy Kiss the Sky project. And I was very grateful for pianist Florian Weber‘s leavening of Markus Stockhausen’s intensely serious Wild Life. And I wish I could have teleported myself to Bielefeld to hear the new trio of that immensely fertile-minded composer Sebastian Sternal.

The Bunker Ulmenwall team receiving their prize


Amid the roll-call of prizes and speeches of the Prize Concert, one completely memorable and  emotionally charged moment stands out. One could feel the complete involvement of the whole audience as WDR3 station controller Professor Karl Karst delivered the citation speech about the initiative of the Bunker Ulmenwall club. A full year before the “welcome culture” for refugees became widely established in Germany, this club set up a weekly music session for newly arrived young people.

The speech was truly moving. Here is an extract from it: “Here – protected in a community of young people who share a similar fate – they were encouraged to sing and make music together, regardless of their musical preferences and educational background – and were even permitted to fail. There were no content specifications, Bunker Ulmenwall restricted itself to the aim of supporting the young people as much it possibly could. An offer extended to everyone: have fun with playing, feel free to try out new ways, just see what happens. This is how jazz was born. And that perhaps is what explains the success of this initiative, which welcomes the new immigrants as individuals.”

Tim Köhlerof Young 7Teen Orchestra
Photo Lutz Voigtlaender / WDR

Another of the prize-winners, awarded the younger generation prize, was the Young 7Teen Orchestra. They have a remarkable back-story. The instigator is Tim Köhler from Olsberg in the Sauerland. He assembled players, completely on the basis of his own initiative, independent of any organised school or existing club, on a project basis to form a 19-piece big band. The results were highly impressive. Look no further for a  demonstration of the depth and the reach of big band culture in Germany.

One other theme that emerged was concern over the future of public radio. The Swiss are about to have a public referendum on 4 March 2018 on whether to continue to support public radio. The Austrians with their newly installed right-wing government may be given a similar opportuunity. The ripples of concern about the possible dismantling of the cultural fabric, of what has been built in Germany in the 60 years since the founding of the Federal Republic, is an abiding theme in Germany at present, and were much in evidence here. The MC for the ceremony, Götz Alsmann, is one of the most adept people anywhere when it comes to delivering a powerful message about the intrisic value and significance of jazz. He does it effortlessly, passionately and with good humour.

A WDR brodcasting van alongside Theater Gütersloh
Photo Lutz Voigtlaender / WDR


Virtually the whole of this year’s festival was live-streamed, and there was a palpable enjoyment as presenters, notably the urbane and endearing Götz Bühler,  criss-crossed the live TV broadcast from one stage or venue to another. The fact that this involved flights in the mind from Gütersloh to events also going on Bielefeld and then back again added to the sense of drama and excitement. WDR’s progress each year in developing the liveliness and immediacy of its coverage is impressive.Just as with its artist support, WDR sets an example of sensible and thought-out ways to shed light on the music and to draw people to it.

Sebastian was the guest of WDR at this Festival

LINK: Arte Concert TV relays from the WDR3 Jazz Festival

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