JazzWerkstatt Berlin-New York Festival

January 8, 2011

Brooklyn, N.Y.
November 26 – 28, 2010

By Ken Waxman

Berlin came to Brooklyn with a bang on the weekend of November 26 to 28, with eight different bands from the German capital played at the Irondale Cultural Center. Much of that bang – not to mention ruffs, rolls and rebounds – came from Günter Baby Sommer, Michael Griener and Christian Lillinger – three of Germany`s top percussionists, each featured with several bands. At the same time terrific Teutonic technique wasn`t restricted to drummers. The festival exposed New Yorkers to a cross-section of Berlin`s best improvised music from elder jazz statesmen and innovative younger players alike, who record in the main for the JazzWerkstatt label.

One electrifyingly stylist was alto saxophonist Henrik Walsdorf playing in a trio alongside bassist Jonas Westergaad and Lillinger. With a harsh tone that was as renal as it was razor-sharp, the saxophonist bit off great raw note chunks and chewed them over before regurgitating them as shredded split tones. He often did this while in a wrestler’s squat, his legs splayed and his torso bent at a 45 degree angle from the floor. Lillinger, whose rockabilly quiff and frequently frenzied motions make Hyperactive Kid – the name of his own trio – fittingly descriptive, draped his body over his kit, while smacking snares and toms with brushes and sticks, shaking a bell tree and occasionally yowling through a megaphone to complement Walsdorff’s vocal grunts. Picking his strings at the bridge or thumping them, Westergaad bemusedly kept the beat going.

Inventive as well as impulsive, Walsdorff turned from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll on the final tune, first honking a Charlie Parker blues in straight time and then evolving into a version of “Everything Happens to Me” that replicated a cool jazz tone for a point before concluding with fortissimo reed biting.

Sommer, Lillinger’s mentor, demonstrated the rhythmic ingenuity that allowed an East German like him to play with accomplished Western free jazzers long before reunification. Not only did Sommer and his cohort of many decades, pianist Ulrich Gumpert, demonstrate live the extrasensory teamwork captured on their recent excellent duo disc Das Donnernde Leben on Intakt, but he also helped pilot Der Moment, a trio with the younger bassist Johannes Fink and the even younger trombonist Gerhard Gschlössl.

Gumpert and Sommer’s set was as far ranging as the music they have individually and mutually played in careers of over 40 years. The pianist slid some Monkisms into the turnaround of a funky blues; a medieval German air was tweaked into modernity when the drummer’s martial rhythms met the pianist’s rolling cascades; a dedication to Don Cherry came complete with an Ornette Colman-like dancing rhythm; and an anti-war song by East German dissident Wolf Biermann was simultaneously celebrated and deconstructed as Gumpert’s rolling staccato chords joined Sommer’s hard-handed parade ground beat and police-whistle shrilling.

Slinky slides, capillary whinnies, tremolo flutter-tonguing and elephant-like snorts characterized Gschlössl’s solos with Der Moment, Meanwhile Sommer ranged widely, here emphasizing a beat with an upturned elbow, there leaping in front of his bass drum to solidly hit it; frequently shaking maracas and waving his drum sticks in the air; and at one point pounding his toms with faux American Indian war party beats. Ending with a gospelish original with embellishments provided by Gschlössl’s plunger work, the performance encompassed Saxony marches, 52nd Street styled swing and a Bavarian take on the new thing.

With an identical instrumental make-up and just as spectacular in performance was Squakk: trombonist Christof Thewes, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Griener. Squakk’s set featured demarcated crescendos and finales, and overall was tighter then Der Moment’s. Like Gschlössl’s, Thewes’ ‘bone work included gutbucket guffaws, rugged cup-muted blasts and tailgate-styled chortles. Thewes was also capable of fluent smoothness when blowing legato timbres from an open horn. Low-key, Roder’s rounded tones and delicate finger-picking provided perfect accompaniment, though he didn’t eschew walking. Seconding the others, while forging a unique rhythmic path, Griener offered up rolls, drags and ratamacues, sometimes buzzing staccato abrasions from drums rims and sides.

All of Squakk was integrated into the Gumpert Workshop band, whose series of suites climaxed the JazzWerkstatt festival. Thewes’ composition “The End of Dow Jones” was more provocative in title than execution, but it did give space to tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff’s smears and shouts; slippery altissimo runs from Walsdorf; and harmonized riffs from the alto saxophone or clarinet of Michael Thieke. More substantial as an arrangement was “Worlds Apart”, written by trumpeter Paul Brody, who the day previously with his Sadawi quintet used the rhythmic talents of Roder, Grenier, Michael Winograd’s liquid clarinet airs and Brandon Seabrook’s note-shredding guitar licks to link improv, Klezmer and Balkan music with an overlay of ferocious rock. Brody’s Workshop piece took advantage of the colors available from the octet, succeeding with a polyphonic invention rather than a string of solos.

But the festival’s ultimate sound was reserved for compositions by band leader Gumpert, who with Sommer – and clarinettist Rolf Kühn, whose otherwise young Trio-O featuring Lillinger, forged a path blending 1950s cool jazz with contemporary sounds the evening before – confirmed that the facility for creating worthwhile jazz, forged in opposition before many of the improve tyros featured in the festival were born, is still fully functioning.

Gumpert’s bravura recital successively touched on Teutonic marches, primitive blues and sophisticated layers of jazz from many eras, while in true workshop fashion, he utilized each musician’s strengths. As the pianist economically comped and key-clipped, his mostly linear arrangements contrasted Thewes’ laughing brays with Brody’s pure tone; or tongue-slapping clarinet from Thieke with frenetic, reed-biting intensity from Walsdorff, then succeeded by an episode of subterranean flutter-tonguing from Kempendorff. With Grenier proving himself as adapt at time keeping as free time and Roder moving from to walking to intricate spiccato with the same facility, the pianist’s alternating impressionistic harmonies or kinetic patterning pushed the band to multi-faceted crescendos and magisterial sonic climaxes. Overall these sounds were as distinctive and notable as most of the music played during the festival itself.

— For All About Jazz New York January 2011