JazzFest Berlin 2019
(Haus der Berliner Festspiele. 31 October- 3 November 2019. Round-Up by Alison Bentley)
This is the first of Alison’s three-part Round-Up of JazzFest Berlin 2019
Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society/Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood (Fri 1 Nov)
KIM Collective/Anthony Braxton’s ZIM Music/Marc Ribot (Sun 3 Nov)
The theme of Jazz utopias was major in this year’s Festival, and saxophonist, composer and philosopher Anthony Braxton explored this through music and discussion. A key figure in jazz and improv since his ’60s work with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he spoke at the Festival of how artists play a role in “establishing a healthy foundation for society”. His concert with ZIM revealed his original methods of composition and improvisation, as he directed the band through different phases with subtle gestures. With two harps (Jacqueline Kerrod, Brandee Younger) accordion (Adam Matlock) violin (Erica Dicker) tuba (Dan Peck) and once-London-now-NY-resident Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, the ensemble playing was as intricate as a cathedral made of spun glass. The heart and emotion came from Braxton’s solos on four saxes, full of jazz history, from sopranino to a bass sax that almost matched him for size. The others punctuated his statements with musical question marks; there were complex improvisations played at speed and slower, more beautifully meditative moments. Some of the graphic scores on Laubrock’s music stand could have been drawn by Matisse – you could hear the shapes being played delicately over the ursine tuba. Musicians improvising together with such sensitivity felt close to utopia.
German drummer Christian Lillinger brought together nine musicians in his Open Form for Society to “re-compose” his compositions. They responded, adapted and improvised: Lillinger sees this process as a model for society. The music sounded like a constant cycle of falling apart and coming together again in a kind of constructive interference, where notes seemed to group spontaneously. Lillinger’s solo was full of restless, intricate ideas. Kaja Draksler and Cory Smythe dripped piano notes in among funky drums, raw arco cello (Lucy Railton) and two sets of glowing vibes (Roland Neffe, Christopher Dell). Two double basses (Petter Eldh, Robert Landfermann) duetted like animals playing dangerously: one languid arco; the other, ferocious pizzicato. Elias Stemeseder’s synth reworked some of the sounds, adding eerie overtones.
The KIM Collective describe themselves as “a fungus permeating Jazzfest Berlin.” The concert hall became experimental theatre in the round, as they drew on electronic music, choir, vocalisations, and sax and trumpet improv on the theme of fungus in its many forms: their fungus opera. Film collages on huge screens considered toadstools in time lapse photography, echoed by the performers’ punky costumes. The patterns of Steve Reichian grooves, with four vibes players, seemed to mutate like the onscreen biological forms. The destruction of nature, a sci fi dystopia, faded into elegiac sax sounds. One musician intoned: “Give your heart to it, it’s nature. It’s beauty, it’s the flow of things.” They delivered their message with a creatively surreal humour.
Like Nina Simone, the deep vibrato of Angel Bat Dawid’s voice held anguish in her tone. Also influenced by the AACM, she has spoken of the role music played in the civil rights movement, and still has to play in society. The six-piece Brothahood were not so much a band as a musical family, drawing the audience in – they were standing as close to the stage as possible, swept up by the musical energy and feeling of freedom. Powerful grooves veered from Afro-Latin and blues to dubstep, while Julian Otis and Viktor Le Givens harmonised, rapped and danced. Angel danced through the audience, playing clarinet, and improvised freely on keyboard. She had a preacher’s cadence in her singing and chanting : “You can change things… we are shining so brightly.”
US guitarist Marc Ribot sang to invoke his heroes, from Lenny Bruce to Gandhi, to return to “…speak your truth to the power that is poisoning our souls”. Bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Chad Taylor seemed to be playing in different time signatures, creating a powerful tension. Each note of Ribot’s solo was weighted with intent, with a John Lee Hooker bluesiness and strong angular shapes. Jay Rodriguez’ saxophone had a white-hot visceral force. Another piece had urgent, breakneck swing, sax multiphonics as distorted as Hendrix’ guitar. A country-folk anti-war song became a rocky Afro-Latin piece in 7, the guitar full of earthy, bluesy directness. A yearning for utopia.