Review: Berlin Jazz Festival

Six days of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation pleases an attentive audience as well as an initially uncertain Brian Payne

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d heard that Berlin jazz audiences can let artists know what they think in no uncertain terms. Two years ago there was a fracas and walk out when the audience objected loudly to Kurt Elling’s performance with the WDR Big Band. In 1969 Cecil Taylor was famously booed by traditionalists. So how would the audience react to this year’s six-day programme of avant-garde jazz and free-form improvisation?

As it turned out there was no cause for concern. In the words of the festival’s artistic director, Richard Williams, jazz is the art of conversation: an exchange of fresh thoughts between individuals, generations, nationalities and genders. The conversation was central to the festival and the audience engaged attentively.

The festival was opened by Monika Grütters, the government’s culture minister. Between 1 and 6 November there were 22 performances. More than half were led by women. Most were held in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, a 1000-seater theatre of post-war modernist design where action on stage can be equally seen and heard from any seat in the building.

One of the first to perform at the theatre was the young Norwegian saxophonist and contemporary music composer Mette Henriette (pictured right). Henriette stood centre stage throughout bathed in eery lighting - a spectral figure with her 11-piece ensemble silhouetted behind. All her compositions were original. All were unannounced. With a background of strings and bandoneon the mood was ethereal. At times it was dark, unrelenting and Wagneresque. Whilst an acquired taste for some, the delivery was certainly memorable.

The singer Michael Schiefel presented his version of Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook at Berlin’s Institut Français together with the Wood & Steel Trio. Roland Neffe was on marimba and vibes, Christian Kögel on Dobro steel guitar and Marc Muellbauer on bass. This was a strange but beguiling performance. With alternating tenor and frenetic falsetto voices Schiefel was almost manic in parts. The audience was riveted.

The Julia Hülsmann Quartet collaborated with saxophonist Anna-Lena Schnabel. The pieces for the performance were especially composed by all five musicians. With Hülsmann on piano her quartet comprised British trumpet and flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs, Marc Muellbauer on double bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. As with Henriette earlier, Schnabel is a young saxophonist to look out for.

The Hülsmann set was followed by one of the elder statesmen of modern jazz trumpet, Wadada Leo Smith (pictured left) and his Great Lakes Quartet. This comprised Jonathon Haffner on sax and clarinet, John Lindberg on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums.

Again no words were uttered during the performance but at its close Wadada did deliver a little homily to the audience. He said that “love is the most powerful word on the planet” and that Ellington’s last words were “Kisses, kisses, kisses.” No one seemed sure of the relevance of this to the music they’d just heard but he was warmly applauded nevertheless.

On Sunday afternoon, Wadada performed again, this time in a duet for trumpet and pipe organ with Alexander Hawkins in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche. In his youth Hawkins had trained as a church organist before turning to piano. The original kirche was virtually destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943 and had later been rebuilt with the damaged spire preserved as a memorial against war and destruction. The church was full for the performance.

Oddarang took one of the festival’s late night slots. This experimental Finnish band, influenced by classical and post-modern rock as well as jazz, was formed in Helsinki 10 years ago. It had an unusual line up of trombone, cello, guitar, acoustic bass and drums. Each member also had a keyboard and laptop to contribute electronically to the output. Led by its drummer, Olavi Louhivuori, the net result provided a mesmerising but at times melancholy landscape interspersed with startling buildups in volume.

The sax/piano duo of Joshua Redman (pictured right) and Brad Mehldau took to the stage next day. Their musical relationship has spanned over 20 years. Mehldau was a member of Redman's quartet in the 90s before becoming a bandleader himself. This was an arresting performance combining originals with reworkings of Monk and Charlie Parker numbers. Both players were clearly feeding off each other throughout the set - their dialogue seemed almost telepathic at times.

Fifty years ago the pianist and composer Alexander von Schlippenbach applied the improvisation of free jazz to a larger format at the Berlin Jazztage with his Globe Unity Orchestra. This year he led the band’s jubilee performance at the festival. Original members Gerd Dudek and Manfred Schoof were there plus other free jazz exponents from successive years including Tomasz Stanko, Evan Parker, Rudi Mahall and Paul Lovens. Essentially the performance boiled down to 16 high-calibre brass and reed free-jazz musicians casually lined up across the stage between piano and drums awaiting their turn to step up to the central mike for individual solos. Schlippenbach came off his piano stool to conduct the grand climax of what was an altogether absorbing concert.

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret performed a suite inspired by the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano and his history of Latin America, Memory Of Fire. As the music progressed a back screen projected dramatic visuals of historically related events - indigenous tribes subdued, fire storms, modern city scapes and rushing trains in tunnels. Melford was eclectic on piano - playing with elbows at one point. With Ron Miles’s tour de force on cornet, Liberty Ellman’s intricate soloing on guitar, the inventive bass of barefoot-hopping Stomu Takeishi and the precise expertise of Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the set was absolutely superb. It was one of the best in the festival.

At the A-Trane, a cosy little jazz club on Pestalozzistrasse, a series of performances entitled Brooklyn-Berlin Dialogues featured three overlapping duos with Mary Halvorson on guitar and Ingrid Laubrock on soprano and tenor sax the first night, Laubrock and pianist Aki Takase on the second, then Takase and alto saxophonist Charlotte Greve on the third. These were close-up performances in a great venue. It’s a jazz club worth checking out if you visit Berlin at any time.

Yazz Ahmed’s Family Hafla supplied another of the festival’s late-night performances. British-born trumpeter Yazz (pictured left) is partly Bahraini. The band’s name, Hafla, means celebration. With George Crowley on bass clarinet, Naadia Sheriff electric piano, Ralph Wyld vibes, Dudley Phillips bass, Corrina Silvester percussion and Martin France drums they delivered an unusual fusion of jazz with Arabic harmony and rhythm. Yazz's soloing on trumpet and flugelhorn was impressive.

On the Saturday, Polish born saxophonist Angelika Niescier and German pianist Florian Weber led a driving quintet with Americans Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Eric Revis on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Alessi and Revis were outstanding. They were followed by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (known in Germany as the hr-Bigband). A central objective of this innovative band is to work with figures in contemporary jazz and in this instance they combined with pianist Nik Bärtsch and his zen-funk band Ronin. All the set’s compositions were rhythmically complex, to say the least.

Jack DeJohnette’s trio with Ravi Coltrane on sax and Matt Garrison on bass was loudly appreciated by the theatre’s sold-out audience. DeJohnette had played drums with both their fathers - John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. This sometimes haunting set included a contemporary version of John Coltrane’s civil-rights elegy Alabama. I thought Garrison’s looping electronics were a little overworked at times and Ravi Coltrane’s sopranino sax sometimes too shrill to bear. But this was a powerful performance and the audience loved it.

In the last of the festival’s late night slots, singer Lucia Cadotsch and her trio with Otis Sandsjö on tenor sax and Petter Eldh on double bass performed contemporary takes on classic numbers such as Don’t Explain and Strange Fruit. The absence of a harmonic or rhythmic instrument didn’t detract from the delivery.

Steve Lehman’s Octet opened on Sunday night. He was voted top jazz artist and top alto saxophonist in last year’s Downbeat critics’ poll. He has also been described as “One of the transforming figures of early 21st century jazz”. Such accolades were supported by his performance on the night.

It fell to Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra to close the festival. Risser (pictured right) is a Paris-based pianist and composer. Straddling both jazz and modern classical styles her compositions for the band had been inspired by the emotional shock she experienced upon seeing the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico for the first time. She realised the extreme geological damage that had been caused to the earth. The performance was both intense and exhilarating. The climax was apocalyptic.

This was a superb festival with some great programming. I’m looking forward to seeing what Richard Williams pulls out of the hat next year. 

Photos by Brian Payne

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