Live reviews

REPORT: jazzahead! 2019 in Bremen

Hall 6 at jazzahead! 2019
Photo credit: M3B GmbH / Jörg Sarbach)

Sebastian writes:


jazzahead! 2019, the fourteenth, was (and has been confirmed officially as) the largest ever: people from 64 different countries were there. There were 3,408 professional participants (+4% year-on-year), and 18,114 visitors ( again +4%) attended either the concerts or the trade fair.

There is a particular energy, a hubbub, a maelstrom about the whole four-day event. In the years since it started in 2006, the organisers have done a remarkable thing in creating the largest gathering of the jazz industry anywhere in the world. We interviewed the main organizing wheel behind the whole operation, Sybille Kornitschky a couple of years ago.

There is basically an ideal context in Hall 6 to cater for “industry people”, i.e. those who don’t want to listen to any music at all; and then there are music venues on-site at Messe Bremen, in Hall 7, at the nearby Schlachthof, and elsewhere in the town, for those who actually do. The pace and the energy of the former can be quite daunting, whereas the audiences in the gigs are mercifully quiet and supportive. One can make the choice of one or the other, or one can flit between these two opposite worlds.

Loz Speyer at jazzahead!
iPhone snap by Sebastian

One noticeable trend has been a big increase in musicians prepared to try their luck to forge contacts in Bremen. Some can find it a very fruitful place to be: the drummer Marton Juhasz (whom we featured here) managed to get very high-profile exposure indeed for his album on Alex Dutilh’s show Open Jazz on France Musique. I liked trumpeter Loz Speyer‘s approach. He went outside, managed to get away from all the frantic business card-swapping, greeting and unfinished conversations,  and took refuge in playing some beautiful-toned crystal-clear bebop lines for passers-by (above).

jazzahead! is a place where the buzz about musicians can get around very fast. Perhaps it helps if there is already some profile, and unsurprisingly singers Simin Tander in the German showcase and Elina Duni in the European showcase were much talked-about. And then there are the sudden discoveries. Alex Dutilh in his radio show from Bremen described the “coup de foudre” for him. on hearing Japanese-born, Denmark-based pianist Makiko Hirabayashi.  He wasn’t by any means the only one to mention that showcase gig. Her lively set with percussion legend Marilyn Mazur really did make waves.

John Surman and Karin Krog
iPhone snap by Sebastian


There was a massive presence from this year’s partner country, starting with John Surman and Karin Krog bringing class, subtlety, experience, artistry and gentle humour to the opening.

One concert from the Norwegian programming strand stood out from everything else at jazzahead! this year as my unquestioned musical high-point. It was the ten-piece Trygve Seim Large Ensemble who were given the opportunity to present an event in ECM’s ongoing 50-years celebration in the wonderful acoustic of the Sendesaal. Siem’s compositions are remarkable for their logic, clarity and development. And for a large ensemble to play with this degree of understanding of an idiom, with such a natural organic flow of music, balance, a combination of making individual statements but also contributing to the greater picture… this was a concert to remember. The absolute heroes of this band were the bass clef inhabitants: contra-bassoon, tuba and bass sax who underpinned the ensemble wonderfully. Siem himself and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen also proved to be the gentlest, subtlest of conductors. All of these players have such a serendipitous sixth sense for pacing, level and dramaturgy, all that was needed is the occasional flick of the hand to bring total unanimity.

I have been able to track down a personnel listing, but actually, honestly, have no idea what music they were playing. That said, everyone in this list deserves praise: Trygve Seim – saxophones/compositions, Håvard Lund – clarinets, Torben Snekkestad – saxophones, Embrik Snerte – bassoon, Eivind Lønning – trumpet, Øyvind Brække – trombone, Lars Andreas Haug – tuba, Svante Henryson – cello, Frode Haltli – accordion, Per Oddvar Johansen, drums.

Botticelli Baby from Essen
iPhone snap by Sebastian 


 I attended all eight of the German showcase bands on Saturday afternoon. The conference organizers have been highlighting the availability of specific funding streams for exporting German jazz, but that news of that somehow hasn’t been seeping through.

The liveliest crew were the Essen band Botticelli Baby. Their showcase set held the audience enthralled right to the end, even if a couple of commentators told me they found it all a bit circus-like and in-your-face. It was a touch of Madness meeting the Négresses Vertes. Singer Marlon Bösherz can monologue, stream-of-consciousness, or indulge in 1950s hipster patter, switch to Clark Terry mumbles and Langston Hughes incantation. They are a loud and boisterous crew, but essentially also a tight band with a powerful drummer. And they were fun.

Der Weise Panda
iPhone snap by Sebastian

I also enjoyed Simin Tander‘s quiet set with cellist Jörg Brinkmann. The portrayal of emotion, the shaping of elegaic songs are a thing of wonder. Another singer who has a lively presence, an individual and quirky stance on life, and a really positive and gentle way of engaging the audience is Maika Kuester from Cologne with her band Der weise Panda (the wise panda).       

The jazz piano trio is perhaps the hardest place of all to establish presence and evidence of interest and originality. Within Germany, there are already units such as Michael Wollny’s trio and those of Pablo Held and Sebastian Sternal. So Johannes Bigge, who has clearly fallen under the spell of Brad Mehldau, has perhaps chosen the hardest route of all to get noticed.  Drummer Peter Gall’s Quintet has a new album on Traumton which implies something of a following wind, because this label that does not believe in the one-hit wonder, normally committing to making three records. There are players here with an original sound and presence, particularly saxophonist Wanja Slavin. I also enjoyed the fluent guitar improvising of Reinier Baas. 

Olga Amelchenko is Russian alto saxophonist, a very strong and asssured player technically, but I wondered if she was ready yet for this raising of her profile. Edi Trio were giving rock power, always landing with force. With their unusual instrumentation of drums, electric guitar and bass clarinet they have developed their sound –  and above all their power.

Stefan Hentz
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski


I witnessed a fascinating discussion on developments in German radio. The big story recently has been a radical switch at the Cologne radio station WDR3 from “moderator”- led programmes to presenters introducing a playlist as in the norm in commercial radio. After such a brutal, sudden and un-reflective dumbing-down, the shock is still there; the conversation was civilised but unsurprisingly got quite heated.

This meeting led straight into a well-deserved award for a friend of LJN. Stefan Hentz is one of the most trenchant and best writers in Germany about music. We have worked together – he as writer, me as translator on a few projects together, notably this interview from 2010 which he had done for Die Zeit, that most heavyweight of German broadsheets, with Herbie Hancock. As was commented widely, Stefan absolutely deserves this prize.


The 15th jazzahead! will run from 23 to 26 April 2020. The announcement of the next partner country, normally made at the end of the fair, is due to be made shortly.

Categories: Live reviews

1 reply »

  1. Trygve Seim unlocked the mystery with a post responding to this review on Facebook:

    The music we played at this concert, LondonJazzNews, was a four movement composition named “Reis”, commisioned by – and premiered at Vossa Jazz many years ago, but unfortunately never recorded or released (hopefully that'll change … ). The encore was Ulrikas Dans from the CD Different Rivers (ECM 1744, released in 2001).

    Thanks to ECM Records, Sendesaal Bremen, Music Norway, Norsk jazzforum, Kulturrådet, Fond For Utøvende Kunstnere and Vossa Jazz for making this concert possible and thereby also this music available (again … ).

Leave a Reply