Live reviews

Jazzfest Berlin 2023

Jazzfest Berlin
(Various venues in Berlin. 3-5 November. Festival Round up by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa XL. Photo Camille Blake/ Berliner Festspiele

One of the strengths of JazzFest Berlin – this year presenting its 60th edition – is that it provides a insight into many of the key developments in contemporary jazz, and a confident selection of some of the most creative groups playing today.

Many of the groups at the festival were in post-free jazz mode in which certain structures and notated passages were integrated into the free improvisation. It was also apparent that many groups, including those playing a totally improvised set, were adopting a minimalist approach with repetition as a way of building up tension and of leading up to a climax.

The integration of composition and free playing was a feature of the joint project between Henry Threadgill’s Zooid from the USA and Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa XL from Germany.  A commission for Threadgill to write for the joint ensemble had arisen from a previous contact between him and Eberhard, and involved several days in Berlin of rehearsal and working out of the music.  The resulting piece with the title Simply Existing Circus allowed plenty of space for individual soloists, but also alternated between the solos and structured passages for the whole 15-piece ensemble.  Both the  structured passages and the accompaniment to the solos featured the very distinctive harmonic and textural elements characteristic of Threadgill’s writing for his various groups.   Through the movement between the soloists and the joint ensemble, the whole group developed an identity of its own, subtly different from the identities of Zooid and Potsa Lotsa XL on their own.  This flagship project was a triumph for the festival and the development of an important new work.

Eve Risser’s Red Desert Orchestra. Photo Peter Gannushkin/ Berliner Festspiele

Another triumph for the festival came with the presentation of  Eve Risser’s Red Desert Orchestra whose music has developed from a series of workshop sessions, and retains the atmosphere of spontaneous interaction.  Risser spoke in a pre-concert interview of her wish to integrate academically trained musicians with musicians from other traditions, in this case percussionists from West Africa.  The combination  of the percussionists’ rhythmic pulse and the improvisations of the rest of the group made this a joyful set that showed the potential of bringing together different musical traditions alive in France.

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Another integration of traditions came in the set presenting a film about Egyptian singers from the period between 1918 and the 1930s to which Egyptian composer Nancy Mounir has added a score played at the festival by a live group with both Egyptian and German  players. Despite certain difficulties with the audibility of the soundtrack on the film and the subtitles for the Arabic, this was a moving performance that gave an insight into a very different period of Egyptian history.

A focus on the contemporary Chicago scene featured three key groups, Mike Reed’s Separatist Society, Bitchin Bajas and Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, plus short informal sets from mixed groups drawn from these ensembles. It was good to hear the Separatist Society live after reviewing their album (see review published on Monday 6th November on LJN).  Marvin Tate’s hollering came across well with its powerful delivery and witty lines such as ‘your soul is a mosh pit’  on Your Soul, and on One Of Us a description of a neighbour whose hand gestures always gave away the fact that she was lying.

Tate builds up tension in his vocals through the repetition of key lines, and this use of repetition, albeit in a much more minimalist style, was a feature of the set by the Natural information Society led by Joshua Abrams on the guimbri string instrument.  This set grew gently through this minimalist repetition into a more intense climax featuring solos by band member Jason Stein on bass clarinet and guests Axel Dörner on slide trumpet and Mia Dyberg on alto saxophone.

This set and a short trio set with Mike Reed and Joshua Abrams introduced me to the playing of 79 old tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, whose blending of boppish lines and more spiritual free playing was a revelation. 

This approach of a gradual minimalistic build up to a powerful maximal climax was also there in the impressive solo piano set by Marlies Debacker.  She revels in the different sounds that can be drawn from the piano, both on the keys and inside the piano, playing carefully chosen single notes and clusters as she builds up to the climax.  It was also apparent in the fine piano trio set at the A-Trane club given by the Omawi trio, a key part of the Dutch scene with Marta Warelis on piano, Wilbert de Joode on bass and Onno Govaert on drums. 

MAria Portugal, Fred Frith Susana Santos Silva. Laying Demons to Rest. Photo Berliner Festspiele

There is so much more to mention:  a set by Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus with its line up of young improvising Norwegian players, a set featuring the gentle, seemingly sad vocals of Swedish singer Ellen Arkbro.  There were a couple of excellent trio performances, one a powerful freely improvised set by Fred Frith on guitar and effects, Susana Santos Silva on trumpetand Maria Portugal on drums, the second, a highly rhythmic set by Clay Kin, a trio with Julian Sartorius on drums, Dan Nicholls on keys and Lou Zon on visuals.  There was also a duo set rooted in the jazz tradition given by Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone and Andrew Cyrille on drums.  

Dan Nicholls was one of only two British players playing at the festival, the other being cellist Lucy Railton who is a member of Ellen Arkbro’s group.         

Tony Dudley-Evans was a guest of the festival

LINK: LJN coverage of Jazzfest Berlin

Categories: Live reviews, Reviews

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