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JazzFest Berlin (4-6 November 2022): Berliner Festspiele

Review by Tony Dudley-Evans 

This year, JazzFest Berlin, presenting its 59th edition, returned to its natural home, the Berliner Festspiele, a venue near perfect for a jazz festival due to its size and flexibility. The programme, as in recent editions, was based on four elements, the Artist in Residence, the focus on particular regional or city scenes, the Playing the Haus programme, and key projects of the moment from various countries.

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The Artist in Residence: SvenÅke Johansson

Sven-Åke Johansson: “MM schäumend”. Photo credit: Anna Niedermeier

Sven-Åke Johansson is a Swedish drummer, composer and performance artist, long based in Berlin, and one of the pioneers of the European free jazz scene, although less well known than key figures such as Peter Brötzmann or Misha Mengelberg. The residency began with Johansson’s Overture for 15 Handheld Fire Extinguishers, a performance art piece with fifteen extinguishers held by eight performers on the left and seven on the right. On cue from Johansson, the eight on the left sent liquid foam into the stage centre; then after a reality show length pause, the seven on the right sent a spray into the centre. Then individuals or small groups were cued, again after lengthy pauses, to send out foam or spray. It was all great fun, lasting just fifteen minutes, before the whole group and the pool of foam they had created rotated off the stage.

A film about Johansson, directed by Antoine Plum and entitled Blue for A Moment, brought out both Johansson’s seriousness as an artist and his dry, laconic humour. A particular highlight of the film was its showing of Johansson’s tractor project in which twelve tractors form a semi-circle, and, similarly to the fire extinguisher project, start their engines in unison and then individually and in groups to create another bizarre but witty performance.

Johansson also performed as a bandleader and a highly thoughtful and sensitive drummer, initially in a trio with saxophonist Rüdiger Carl and bass player Joel Grip, and then in a new work, 6 Stumps for a quintet with Axel Dörner on trumpet, Pierre Borel on saxophone, Simon Sieger on piano and Joel Grip on bass. This work consisted of six pieces, named simply 1 to 6, and presented a kind of minimalist improv set, albeit based around compositions of one, two or three notes played in turn by the horns and piano over a repeated rhythm on Johansson’s cymbal. Each composition led into extended solos by the horns, piano and bass. Again, this was an entertaining set that brought out Johansson’s humour. The whole residency provided a fascinating insight into the work and life of a lesser-known artist.

Regional Focuses

L-R: Hamid Drake, Majid Bekkas & Peter Brotzmann. Photo credit: Roland Owsnitzki

The 2022 programme focused on both Eastern Europe and Chicago. KOMΠOUSSULĂ presented songs from Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Turkey, and a large ensemble with representatives from those countries, but also from France, Belgium and Australia. In the pre-concert interview, parallels were drawn between the songs and the music of Ornette Coleman in their rhythms and energy; this came out very clearly in the final song performed by the singers from Poland and Ukraine which was matched with free jazz intrusions from the three horns. This led into a piano solo before ending with a rousing unison rendition with voices and instruments of the final song.

There was an extensive focus on musicians from Chicago, not suggesting that there is a particular Chicago sound, but demonstrating the flexibility of musicians from that scene. Drummer Hamid Drake had led his Turiya project honouring Alice Coltrane the day before I arrived. On the following day The Catch of A Ghost concert featured him alongside Moroccan gimbri player Majid Bekkas and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann in a set that was the highlight of the evening. In recent years Brötzmann has occasionally been collaborating with musicians from other genres, e.g., with pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh and the avant-rock band Oxbow. Here he created a sound mixing aspects of the blues with a touch of Arabic music on alto sax and clarinet, and high-energy free jazz on tenor sax. The music in this set transitioned through various passages, vocals in Moroccan Arabic with Brötzmann weaving in and out on the sax and clarinet, and duets between Bekkas and Drake in which the latter showed how he can integrate into, and add to, any genre.

In another highlight of the festival Chicagoan saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts presented Chapter 4 of her Coin Coin series in what I believe was the first and only live performance. Through a potent mix of blues, spirituals and free jazz, the piece tells the story of Liddie whose father was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan and whose mother died in a home. A particularly moving sequence came in the rendition of Roll the Old Chariot, with Roberts prompting audience participation.

Perhaps the most Chicagoan set came from Ben Lamar Gay and his quartet comprising tuba, guitar, drums and Lamar Gay himself on trumpet and keys. The music is essentially a reflection of Lamar Gay’s extrovert personality with rapid movement between structured and free passages. The set had many good spontaneous moments, but overall jumped about too much, and lacked any real cohesion.

Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few go back to the spiritual jazz of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Their set was the only real high-energy, intense and loud set of the festival, but the balance of the group was often wrong with the drums too loud. As a result the saxophone lines did not come across clearly, and one could hardly hear the piano and bass.  When it quietened down and all the instruments were audible, the music and its energy really came across well.

The festival also continued its links with South Africa with a beautiful set from Asher Gamedze Dialectic Soul Quartet, and with Brazil through an equally beautiful set from Quartabě, a quartet with two clarinettists doubling on straight and bass clarinets, plus drums and keys.

Playing the Haus

Elsa Bergman & Anna Lund. Photo credit: Anna Niedermeier

One of the advantages of returning to the Berliner Festspiele, which has been refurbished in recent years, is that it is a flexible venue and the programme makes full use of this. The backstage area is huge so the pattern of the evening is that the main featured concerts take place in the main auditorium from 6 or 6.30pm finishing at about 8.30/9pm. Then after an hour or so the backstage is converted into a flexible space with groups in different parts of the room. There is also a second venue just outside the main building, so all this creates a Stroller Programme in which one can move around and catch parts of different sets, or one can stay and hear the whole of a particular set. This makes for a nice contrast with the early evening where one is sitting in a particular seat and cannot move around. 

Highlights of this Playing the Haus programme include a strong piano trio set from Ullén, Bergman and Lund, and an Austrian group, Synesthetik4, that combined vocals from Vincent Pongracz in a made up language, and interesting solos from guitarist Peter Rom. The Umlaut Big Band played a strange mixture of dance band music (including Tea for Two) with surprises.Quartabě, Sven Ake Johansson’s Trio and Isaiah Collier’s The Chosen Few described above were also in the Playing the Haus programme.

Round Up 

There were also a number of excellent gigs that did not fit into any of the particular festival themes but were there as happening groups of the moment. Two piano trios stand out: Karja Renard Wandinger from Estonia, France and Germany respectively, and the Borderlands Trio from New York with Kris Davis on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums.  Both trios showed the range of what is possible in a piano trio.

Finally, Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra with its three drummers, three double bass players, seven saxophonists, two trumpeters and two trombonists brought the festival to its conclusion with a rousing full-on set.

JazzFest Berlin remains one of Europe’s leading jazz festivals.  It presents a real snapshot of the international jazz scene, eschewing the big names and jazz-tinged pop bands in favour of bands at the forefront of the creative international scene.  

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