(Hamburg, 31 May/1 June 2019. Festival Round-Up by Stefan Hentz*)
Hamburg-based writer Stefan Hentz recently won the most prestigious award for writing about jazz in Germany, the Preis für Deutschen Jazzjournalismus. Here we publish his thoughtful round-up of Elbjazz, the main jazz event in his home town, which returned two years ago in a new form after a one-year hiatus. He writes about the festival’s impressive settings, but makes it clear that the search for exciting music (he does find some near to the end of the piece!) was a far from simple one. He writes:
Many roads lead to Elbjazz, which had its ninth edition in 2019. On the left bank of the Elbe, in the shipyards of Blohm & Voss, you can wander around the places where the German Kaiser once had his fleet of warships riveted together. The official hub of the festival lies between impressive cranes, massive hammers, all decorated and festooned for the occasion. Or alternatively, you can take a stroll upstream to the right bank of the Elbe, where Elbjazz events are staged in the two halls of the Elbphilharmonie and also in the recently renovated Katharinenkirche. These are venues where attention is given to ensure that there is good sound.
Or you can just restrict yourself to the events of the Umsonst & Draußen (free and outdoors) programme. That’s where participants of the jazz course of the Musikhochschule (conservatoire) out on the square in front of the Elbphilharmonie raise their meek “Jazz in Hamburg” banner and set themselves against the strong winds of all the well-known names.
Or finally, you can try to pick out your own personal highlights from the full and substantial programme, and go back and forth between the different festival centres using the barges on the Elbe, or go by foot or bicycle. But if you do that you run risks: not only that you spend a lot of time in transit, but also that when you get to an event which you want to hear, you can’t actually find a place. Indeed, Elbjazz does force you to make choices.
A festival for jazz newbies
When Elbjazz co-founders Nina Sauer and Tina Heine developed the concept of a jazz festival in Hamburg almost ten years ago, they knew that they were building it from the ground up. The idea from the very beginning was that the River Elbe and normally inaccessible parts of the harbour would be the bait that would persuade the Hamburg audience to get involved in jazz. At the same time, it was clear that the jazz programme in their festival had to be not just diverse but also crowd-pleasing, i.e. that they would have to sprinkle the programme with pop acts, and that perhaps the less accessible areas of jazz could really only be given their place on the fringes of Elbjazz. Sauer and Heine, who had made their own way to become festival producers got their festival started in cooperation with the two big Hamburg concert and festival organizers Karsten Jahnke and Folkert Koopmans.
Then, however, Sauer and Heine’s luck ran out: the combination of poor weather in Hamburg and a Champions League final decimated public demand, and the argument was put forward that festival, which involved a panoply of small and even smaller events on several small free-stages was all just a bit too much for the Hamburg fans, and after five years a substantial debt had accumulated. Heine, who had served as artistic director until then, was shorn of her responsibilities and the festival’s annual cycle was halted. There was a one-year break in 2016. and since June 2017 Elbjazz has been trying to pick up momentum again under new management in a significantly leaner and musically more straightforward form.
The Right Bank of the Elbe
In ten concerts taking place over two festival days, Elbjazz offered an ambitious mixture of big events and a number of selected and rare delicacies in the two halls of the Elbphilharmonie. These included an orchestral tribute to vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter, who was a pivotal figure on the Hamburg scene for more than half a century, right up until his sudden death last autumn; there was the quartet led by veteran hardbop saxophonist Benny Golson; and a solo concert by pianist Jason Moran; in addition the spectrum extended to the Beatles project of the quartet of pianist Julia Hülsmann, who was this year’s “Artist in Residence”. Among the highlights from the younger scene were the quartet Die Verwandlung led by Cologne trumpeter Frederik Köster and the trios of Menorcan pianist Marco Mezquida and his Spanish mainland colleague Daniel Garcia. Not far away, in the Katharinenkirche on the mainland (the Elbphilharmonie is on the Grasbrook peninsula), there were seven more appealing acts on the bill, for example a duo of Julia Hülsmann with vibraphonist Christopher Dell, Cologne-based pianist Hans Lüdemann playing solo (he is originally from Hamburg) or the Saarland guitar virtuoso Susan Weinert – she offered a set consisting of some improvisation, it was characterized by the calm way she created it, but nonetheless exciting.
But this all of this music was played out on the subsidiary rather than the main stages of Elbjazz, and, of the official total of 30,000 visitors – marking a new record this year – it can be assumed that only a small minority can have attended the concerts in the Elphilharmonie complex, where access numbers are restricted.
The left bank of the Elbe: the main tide of the festival
The main tide of the festival flows through the Blohm & Voss shipyards, where, to continue the metaphor, it sloshes between two large open-air stages and a smaller one in one of the huge ship-building halls. The main Elbjazz stages are dominated by bands that are sometimes more groove-oriented, like Jungle by Night, a cute and boy-ish outfit from Amsterdam, or sometimes they go for more of an electronic and digital-echo loop vibe, like the band of French drum star Manu Katché, or sometimes more song-oriented, like Swiss songwriter Sophie Hunger.
The performance by English singer/pianist/entertainer Jamie Cullum, on the other hand, at the busiest hour on the main stage on the Friday evening, had served as a reminder that entertainment plus a mixture of charm, style and professional assuredness have always had their place in the DNA of jazz. But as regards improvisation, interaction and an openness for what happens, his show didn’t have much to do with any of that; but in truth I wouldn’t have wanted it either.
By contrast, we also saw projects on the main stage that unpack historical jazz forms out of an old trunk and give us a more or less literal re-airing. This was the case with the NDR Big Band. Their project with Randy Brecker offers the veteran star trumpeter the opportunity to once again present virtuoso funk from another geological era: it was rousing, groovy and impressive – but so ’80s. There was also an 80’s vibe with funk technocrats Tower of Power. They have always celebrated high-pressure collectivism, music based on precision-engraving from the horn section plus serviceable and appropriate work from the rhythm section. All fine and good, but enlightenment, say, or emotion were really nowhere to be found.
Going beyond the predictable
But there was more: for those with the desire to experience rather more than the predictable could find good value here – for example when Michael Schiefel let his singing voice find its way out of the curve with Julia Hülsmann’s laconic arrangements of familiar pop songs in her delicate octet with its three singers, two string players and a rhythm section playing entirely acoustically. When they really let go it was not just very classy, it was fun too.
As for the Michael Wollny Trio, in their current form they are something like The Who of German jazz, a kind of maximum rock’n’roll, based on the rich repertoire they have accumulated as a piano trio which has now known success for nearly 20 years. You know that something’s going on when you see the sides of the stage suddenly filling up with people. What is happening is that all the crew and production team who have been hovering in the backstage area reckon they have picked up that something special is afoot. It’s a moment which transcends professional routines, something which will be gone if you don’t get to hear it. However, it would have been better if these two concerts could have taken place on a stage which put the musicians in a context where attention was properly focused on the stage, and the musicians don’t have to fight quite so hard to be heard. This rousing concert was overwhelming, but nevertheless a bit one-dimensional.
Hamburg Jazz Prize Winner 2019: Bassist Lisa Wulff
It is not really a surprise that one of the highlights of the festival on the Blohm & Voss shipyards didn’t take place on either of the two main outdoor stages, but away in the semi-darkness of the Maschinenbauhalle (engineering hall). On the occasion of the presentation of the Hamburg Jazz Prize 2019 during the festival, the double bass player Lisa Wulff played her prize winner’s concert with a quartet specially put together for the occasion. A first encounter can be fascinating, and this one definitely was.
Wulff, who will be 29 on 25 June, has oodles of maturity and self-confidence. And what she excels at in her compositions is to play with speed of reaction and assuredness. And with her fellow band members, Hamburg’s local hero Gabriel Coburger on tenor and soprano saxophone, the lively percussionist Christin Neddens and the sensitive pianist Benjamin Schaefer, she is able to create spaces and gaps in which all four musicians keep on developing the music incrementally, with both clarity and sensitivity, to relish details and to encourage and complement each other again and again in all kinds of ways.
This to-ing and froing with ideas and impulses, in which four equal musicians spin a common thread, it creates something far more substantial and totally engaging than one would expect. In these moments of openness, when the music is flowing and both the musicians and the audience in the Maschinenbauhalle listen as if spellbound to what is happening, jazz really comes into its own at Elbjazz. And it gives one cause to ponder about other parts of the festival which were all too predictable.
* Translation by Sebastian.