By Ken Waxma

The KulturBrauerei’s music space Kesselhaus in East Berlin was a fitting site for the eighth annual Jazzdor-Strasbourg-Berlin (JSB) festival June 3-6. With jazz and improvised music’s universality now a given, a festival presenting mostly French jazz taking place in what had been one of Berlin’s oldest breweries, now repurposed from industrial to artistic use, doesn’t seem that much of a stretch.

Overall its all-inclusive musical theme was confirmed by the programming of JSB’s artistic director Philippe Ochem and his team, which already host Strasbourg’s annual Jazzdor festival. Over four nights, JSB presented musician from different parts of Germany, Belgium and the US plus proudly delineated Basque and Corsican players, all of whom worked with improvisers from France’s major musical centres.

Perhaps the prime instance of this admixture was the set by Hans Lüdemann’s T.E.E. Ensemble. Building on the foundation the Köln-based pianist has established with his trio of French bassist Sébsastien Boisseau  and Serbian-German drummer Dejan Terzic, the other members included Germans: alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Silke Eberhard and guitarist  Ronny Graupe; plus three musicians from France: trombonist Yves Robert   tenor and soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and violinist  Théo Ceccaldi. Using both acoustic and electric pianos, Lüdemann’s arrangements were neither Teutonic nor Gallic, but added those musical strains to suggestions of African, experimental, Rock and straight-ahead sounds, resulting in taunt, swinging improvisations. Polyphonically centred on round-robin soloing and contrasting motifs, the head-turning power of the ensemble was as apparent in its nuanced organization as its pumping climaxes. Ceccaldi’s spirited fiddling spots ranged from hoe-down to classically harmonized, for example, while at points Robert’s trombone would be linked to widening bass tone resonance from the lower-pitched instruments, and in another instance given space to quack and bite. Even the contrast between Eberhard’s smoother warbles and Grimal’s vinegary slurs became an essay both in separation and synthesis. Eventually, the octet reaches a crescendo of whirling reed tones and drum pumps to settle into a sizzling finale.

The night previously the quartet Die Hochstapler not only consisted of players from both Paris and Berlin, but proved its individuality by combing themes by Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton . Consisting of alto saxophonist Pierre Borel and trumpeter  Louis Laurain   from France plus German drummer Hannes Lingens  and Italian-in-Berlin bassist Antonio Borghini, Die Hochstapler’s most profound contribution was to prove how wedded to the bedrock Jazz tradition Coleman’s heads actually are. Infusing a collection of long-lined improvisations with broken-octave logic, the four used a collection of reed tongue slaps, expelled brass flutters, slap bass and a percussion output that could sound like kettle drum pressure or toy xylophone peals at different junctures, to prove its point(s). Continuously emphasizing either Braxton’s spiky experimentation or Coleman’s down-home folksiness, the group could have been playing modern Second Line music. Disjointed but jumping, Die Hochstapler’s set demystified supposedly difficult sounds by stripping the compositions to their swinging essence(s).

Revamping another musical category to his own ends was the trio of French bass clarinetist Louis Sclavis  a day previously. The category is Jazz-Rock, but despite his combo being filled out by guitarist Julien Desprez and drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq, even at its most brusque, the results moved with a melodious lilt not arduous clumps. Part of this redefinition could be attributed to the veteran clarinetist. Although his playing has the same intensity he exhibited in other situations, molecules of buoyant passion overcame a tendency towards coldness he exhibits in other bands. With each tune based on following the peaks and valleys of parallel creation, Sclavis roused jagged overblowing and spinning split tones from his horn when necessary. Often Desprez’s sinewy friction created pressured runs that referred Jimi Hendrix’s influential treatment of “Fire”; otherwise the guitarist contended himself with accompanying via swift finger-tip improvising. Instructively as well, Darrifourcq’s purposeful drumming was more pitter-patter than pile-driver, leading to a studied interaction that mixed its strength with subtly.

Another younger group, whose heritage includes Rock as well as Jazz, was French drummer  Edward Perraud’s  Synaesthetic Trip. His percussion command, which included busy slaps, sophisticated Bop-like pacing and astringent drum-top rubs with a saw-harp, was spectacular and constantly in motion. Still the cohesive program gained its shape as much from Benoît Delbecq’s  ambidextrous skill on piano plus live-processing and the floating vibrations of Belgian Bart Maris on trumpet flugelhorn and electronics as Perraud’s percussion discursions. In the background, bassist Arnault Cuisinier’s judicious arco or pizzicato strokes helped define the program. At one point, in fact, menacing swipes from his strings joined with suspenseful piano lines to outline a particularly tricky passage. Other times a basic asymmetrical figure was propelled by thick bass string vibrations, drum rubs and bent notes from Maris’ horn, only to turn in a new direction when the theme was slightly distorted by electronics. Too tough in his configuration to give into ethereal whispers other plugged-in brass men favor, Maris’ playing included its shares of smears, screams and chants as well as haunting passages.

Haunting in its own fashion and immediately preceding Perraud, was the dramatic presentation and poetry – sound and verbal – of Basque vocalist Beñat Achiary assisted by Erwan Keravec on bagpipes. As much an actor as a singer, Achiary’s delivery was so all-encompassing that his gestures frequently were all that was needed to express the emotions implicit in his performance, despite vocals that were variants on growls, yodels and cries. Matching his tremolo pumping to Achiary’s oral cadences, Keravec’s sympathetic squeezes made certain sequences stand out even more. Later his lip-bubbling on the chanter confirmed that like Achiary, his performance was attached to modernism without neglecting traditionalism. By the finale, the singer was animated enough to extend his performance with movements that might have come from a sailor’s hornpipe as his vocals included an approximation of Hindu devotional chanting made unique with Europeanized melisma.

Another band putting a new spin on a traditional formation was the trio led by violist/violinist Théo Ceccaldi, who is also a member of Lüdemann’s T.E.E. Ensemble plus the Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) which closed the festival. Joined by his brother Vsalentin Ceccaldi on cello and Guillaume Aknine on acoustic and electric guitars, Ceccaldi turned the classical string-trio concept on its head without resorting to any overworked Hot Club or Roma clichés. Aknine’s intelligent use of hand-tapping on the electric guitar created a drone on which provided the other two could base their improvisations. Similarly Valentin Ceccaldi frequently negated the cello’s conventional role as a downcast commentator to infuse it with walking bass lines or spiccato swipes. Théo Ceccaldi’s skill is such that his fiddle motions were often a mere blur, but his multi-stopping and scrubbed chords went beyond flashy poses. Effectively and recurrently he combined timbres with the others for a confident swing; then to demonstrate the trio’s commitment to versatile traditionalism, lead the three in downshifting to passages that were almost indistinguishable from a canon played by a baroque ensemble.

Reconstituted with all new members – including leader/guitarist Oliver Benoit – the ONJ’s confident performance here was more than a triumphant conclusion to the JSB festival. As one of the very first concerts of its four-year term, the extended set established that the 11 French musicians of varied ages and backgrounds were gelling into a first-rate ensemble. Given over to the second public performance of Benoit’s “Europa-Paris” suite, ONJ members injected individualized strategies into the multi-faceted narrative. What that meant was that the churning string torque which Théo Ceccaldi brings to his bands plus the distinctive strained tones that characterize Alexandra Grimal’s reed work were injected into the arrangements for added excitement. Benoit’s composition takes full advantage of churning Rock-styled rhythms as well as the exalted Jazz-inflected harmonies that result from a well-integrated horn section, so that power pummeling was the raison d’étre of the ONJ’s electric bassist Bruno Chevillon  and drummer Eric Echampard.  Happily their joint muted bluster was well integrated into the composition unlike the excesses of the night previously when the overriding rumble of Chevillon’s electric Caravaggio quartet trafficked in the worst excesses of Metal Rock.

Back to the ONJ recital, other soloists who demonstrated cooperative consistency included Fidel Fourneyron, equally sympathetic whether his lowing trombone was extending a mellow passage or his euphonium burps were creating a ostinato foundation; pianist Sophie Agnel, whose staccato passages and intense keyboard smacks referenced her cerebral Free Music styling; and clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier whose slim textures squeezed out a unique place for reed expression among unison horns riffs on one hand and Frank Zappa-like jangling guitar and jumping Rock-like beats on the other.

Concluding with a burst of polyphonic cacophony, with seemingly every reed, brass and string squeaking and sliding to a chromatic, accelerating climax, the strength of the ONJ’s playing confirmed the constantly developing power of the Gallic musicians. Moreover, the often impressive and in a few instances, frankly unsatisfactory collaborations among compatriots and between French improvisers and those from other countries showcased during the JSB’s four nights, substantiated why a festival such as this one is necessary and continues to thrive.