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Review of Jazzfest Berlin 2020

Jazzfest Berlin was livestreamed from various venues across Berlin and New York, 5-8 November 2020. Review by AJ Dehany:
Y-OTIS Remixed at Jazzfest Berlin

Y-OTIS Remixed. Photo credit Camille Blake

The 57th edition of Jazzfest Berlin was completely online via livestream and on demand, with four distinct focuses, centring on the “transatlantic dialogue” between the creative centres of New York and Berlin. As events in the US election flipped from despair to joy during the course of the festival, the emotive power of a challenging and thought-provoking programme took on a palpable emotional charge. After twenty-six hours of livestreams over four days, the festival’s artistic director Nadin Deventer concluded: “Music is all about emotions in the end. I have been moved today quite often, I hope it was the same for you.”  It’s natural to feel a bit stunned by the quantity of events. In Jazzfest Berlin–New York, twelve formations from New York and Berlin livestreamed from Brooklyn’s Roulette and silent green in Berlin-Wedding. For a UK comparison, the programme could be said to straddle the left-field jazz programming of the Vortex and the art-noise stylings of Cafe Oto. These concerts were the main substance of the live feed. They were scrupulously shot and produced, with high quality cameras tracking across some extremely ambitious setups. For some the stream might have been a victim of its own success, coming across as televisual rather than embracing the virtual audience. Thus, the experience of the livestream didn’t feel too different from the pre-recorded segments. The Jazzfest Berlin Radio Edition component included nine concerts from eight radio studios of ARD and Deutschlandradio in seven cities throughout Germany with regional bands; the full concerts were only available on demand, but to be honest half an hour is often enough in a daunting festival stream. Covid travel restrictions led to the cancellation of cellist Tomeka Reid’s quartet. Berlin duo TRAINING performed live with US guitarist John Dieterich across the pond, overcoming the lag problem by walking around his house and doing an abusive guitar solo and a hell of a lot of experimental cooking. Dan Nicholls and Ludwig Wandinger were forced to reimagine the band Y-Otis as “Y-OTIS Remixed” (pictured above). Downbeat and ambient, with synth washes and bird sounds and dripping sounds, it felt like 5am electronica, abstract and hauntingly empty, embodying this past year, and, before the news came from the US, the possibility of further loss, even catastrophic loss.
silent green, Berlin, Sunnosphere

L-R: Lina Allemano, Nick Dunston, Siska as part of Sunnosphere in Berlin. Photo credit Camille Blake

British composer/pianist Alexander Hawkins also couldn’t get to Berlin and sought a technological solution. A sextet was split between Hawkins with Shabaka Hutchings and Matt Wright in England, and in Berlin Nick Dunston (in for Petter Eldh), Lina Allemano and artist and rapper Siska. Hawkins explained: “SUNNOSPHERE is a wide bright name that we came up with as a starting point – the space that exists between the sonic and visual spheres and to really experiment with visual and sound,” another important theme explored throughout the weekend. The SUNNOSPHERE commission was obviously radically reimagined for these circumstances, making use of timed graphic scores and suggestions and trying to avoid the sense of “karaoke”. As with Y-OTIS Remixed, there was some impassioned playing, but it felt materially thin and long at an hour, a relentless monochrome more like an installation than a musical composition, with heavy and intriguing use of video footage. A minute’s silence going out to victims of the recent catastrophic explosion in Beirut offered pause for both thought and breath. Reflective moments were cherished in a festival experience somewhat overshadowed by the US election, even among a roster of artists many of whom are politically committed. It happened during MEOW! While the hilarious quartet were grabbing the feline with their feisty mixture of performance art antics, whimsical but well-realised pastiche and parody, the US election was called. The next couple of bands were a blur, then during Ingrid Laubrock’s duo with Kris Davis the pianist recalled the situation last time: “Four years ago we were overwhelmed with grief. Now there are cars honking and people screaming outside for joy. It’s so wonderful to be here in this moment.” A mock announcement during Beyond w/ Bernhardt brought in a sort of Trump joke, introducing musicians and forgetting their names but just saying they’re ‘very beautiful’. It seemed to have been overtaken by events.  Besides the main two musical strands, the two more art-heavy strands of the festival were more electronically, and perhaps more naturally, suited to streaming. Jazzfest Berlin Outer Spaces included multimedia commissioned works by Joel Grip (pictured below), Witch ’n’ Monk and Alexander Hawkins and Siska. In Jazzfest Berlin Off Stage, nine commissioned video works were streamed by Jason Moran, Camae Aweya (aka Moor Mother), Matana Roberts, TRAINING feat. Dieterich/Karataş and KIM Collective. During the opening interviews of the festival, Bodi No Be Fayawood said: “Most livestreams are trying to replicate something, but it’s a chance to find new perspectives to look at the world.”
Joel Grip

Joel Grip. Photo credit Camille Blake

During Miya Masaoka’s performance “An Ultra Moment: Excerpts in Isolation”, the sound artist performed a series of manipulations of objects and one-string instrument and electronics and visuals. Being sound rather than conventional music, it benefitted from having the full stereo picture for the detail and better than being in room, but at the same time in streaming lacks the physical presence and wallop of sound in air. There were some immense concerts though. It was a pleasure to hear Berlin Jazz Prize winner Silke Eberhard’s project Potsa Lotsa XL: “Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold”. Henry Threadgill’s music is revered by deep jazzers who wonder why he’s not a household name. The style is unmistakable. Richly flavoured but direct, it shares the intricacy and excitement that we saw throughout the weekend – primal, intellectual but not academic as such, intellectual but physical. That’s what the music is about. It gets your brain dancing.
That’s what the music is about. It gets your brain dancing.
The final concert of the Radio Edition was a belter. Beyond w/ Bernhardt, electronic artist Micronaut and the Meuroer Mandolinenorchester drew together all the threads of the weekend’s deep dive into electroacoustic music. The ritual early music sound of the lutes and mandolins sets the scene with electronics popping in wide stereo. Brass swells up in frenzied group blowing over a simple base/bass torn out of the Radiohead National Anthem playbook. Synth sounds snap us into post-genre minimalism, then all these elements reconfigure with a symphonic scale and grandeur of Eve Risser: riot jazz with electronica and dance, early music and contemporary classical. A whole continuum of musical time is integrated together. During Anna Webber Septet’s performance “Clockwise” the exceptional saxophonist and composer emphasised the joy of live performance. “We’re playing to an empty room almost but it feels incredible to be playing music together. I’ve been so starved to play with other people. This might be the one chance that we have for a long time. Diving back in felt really good.” Exploring crossovers between jazz and classical music, and between improvisation and notation, Webber made an argument that’s getting truer every year but still seems to have a long way to go; nonetheless, she says, “the boundary between those things is thin these days. There’s a lot of overlap between people who do both things. It’s false to think there are just two scenes.”  Elsewhere, polarisation into tribes was immediately addressed by a new US president-elect calling for unity. At Jazzfest Berlin, Jim Black, drummer and unofficial artist-in-residence and omnipresent presiding genius of the weekend, said: “It is great news about the election. This is where work has to begin because it’s very serious. We have to work. We have to fight for this.” As the London phrase has it “we are jazz”, but what can jazz do? In 2018, Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung of Savvy Contemporary gallery gave a speech asking this very question. Asked again in conversation while curating the Jazzfest Berlin Off Stage programme in 2020, he said: “It’s a question I’m struggling with. Sound spaces can unify people and be a healing factor. In healing moments we hold to something as fickle as music. In the first lockdown it became evident that culture is a stronghold. Culture gets the smallest budget of the national income. Culture can bring us together, it can make us fight but also give us the possibility of licking at our wounds.” AJ Dehany is based in the UK and writes independently about music, art and stuff.  LINK: All events are available to stream for free on ARTE Concert and Berliner Festspiele on Demand.

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