European Jazz Jamboree

November 16, 2009

Berlin, Germany
October 2009

By Ken Waxman

Like one of those novels of speculative fiction that posit a scenario in which the South wins the American Civil War; or perhaps like a variant of Superman Comic’s Bizzaro planet where everything is the reverse of earth, 2009’s European Jazz Jamboree (EEJ) offered an alternate view of jazz history. Here the music was essentially in the tradition, but, in the main, interpreted by Europeans rather than Americans.This led to some spectacular performances taking place during the series of concerts in selected Berlin venues during mid-September. But as Superman found when he visited the Bizarro world, altered history can sometimes be disconcerting. Similarly some of the EJJ combinations failed to live up to their expected promise(s). In a further Bizarro-like irony, some of the fest’s best sounds came from aggregations whose music had very little to do with the EJJ’s stated theme.

Arguably the most profound exercise in extrasensory perception and creation involved two Swiss: saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and pianist Jacques Demierre, plus American-in France bassist Barre Phillips. Presented at an Institute Français concert on Kurfürstenamm, the trio music was as abstract as it was breath-taking. Also notable on the EJJ’s first evening was a foyer set at the Kino Babylon, in the city’s Mitte area, which matched reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky – one of the founders of East German Free Jazz – with youngish drummer Michael Griener in a duo called The Salmon. Griener also drummed in the Workshop Band of Petrowsky’s long-time associate, pianist Ulrich Gumpert, which in an auditorium concert at the Kino, successfully recast the work of one of the pianist’s mentors, American bassist Charles Mingus. Consisting in the main of classic Mingus compositions, the program allowed members of Gumpert’s eight-piece aggregation to add distinctive sonic flourishes while expanding the bassist’s familiar lines.

With tunes such as “Boogie Stop Shuffle” anchored by subterranean rumbles from Ben Abarbanel-Wolff’s baritone saxophone, these low pitches set the pace more so than the piano’s chromatic chording or the in-the-pocket rhythms from Griener and bassist Jan Roder, who plays more freely in other circumstances. While the arrangements of classics such as “Good bye Pork Pie Hat” and “Fables of Faubus” took full advantage of the harmonies and counterpoint available from three saxophones – Christian Weidner and Henrik Walsdorff were the others – the outstanding individual soloist was trombonist Christof Thewes. He was equally impressive constructing sophisticated Lawrence Brown-style obbligatos or letting loose with plunger-pressured, near-gutbucket growls. The performance coalesced into high intensity on the final number with churning rhythmic power encompassing Roder’s thumping bass, Griener’s brush-propelled pulses and the pianist molding single note clusters into portamento runs and pseudo honky-tonk clanking. Following an episode of pumping and popping horn vamps, the rhythm section members traded fours then twos, with Roder scraping his instrument’s wood and Griener smacking his drum tops bare-handed. As the climax exploding every which way beneath a triplet-laden solo from trumpeter Martin Klingeberg, the group was nudged back into straight time by churning piano chords.

Using unusual quartet voicing that united tenor saxophone (Daniel Erdmann), alto saxophone, clarinet and alto clarinet (Michael Thieke), bass (Johannes Fink) and drums (Heinrich Köbberling), the band Dok Wallach, set up in the Kino lobby the next night, with its distinct version of Mingus material that had been composed earlier or later than the tunes tackled by the Workshop Band. Running one piece into another almost without pause – a strategy also used with varying success at other points by Monk’s Casino and Silke Eberhard/Aki Takase’s Ornette Coleman Anthology duo – the four managed to suggest Mingus’ links not only to advanced mainstream jazz, but to the R&B and Latin traditions that nurtured it. Done this way, the tunes also pinpointed how the bassist’s advanced voicing foreshadowed Free Jazz, which would continue to draw on Mingus’ musical evolution.

Tunes such as “Hobo Ho” and “Weird Nightmare” benefited from Erdmann’s heavily breathed tongue stops and honks on the one hand, and Thieke’s running changes with dissonant and atonal cries on alto clarinet on the other. Some of the most interesting counterpoint appeared when Thieke and Fink adopted a contrapuntal Eric Dolphy vs Mingus dialogue with the other two laying out. Spicatto, Fink whipped tautly pinched strings with his bow, as the alto clarinetist blew undifferentiated air, warbled and tongue-stopped. Later Köbberling would clobber his snares and toms to match sustaining timbres from Fink’s strings, while Erdmann moved to strident bird calls and resounding tongue-slaps to maintain the proper solemnity when duetting with Thieke. Throughout the set there were examples of intuitive call-and-response patterns developed into thematic reed interface, as well as sharp rubato passages that bounced among the four as melodies and improvisations were conflated into generic unity.

Eliminating expected rhythm section incursions, Swiss alto saxophonist Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa, had saluted Mingus’ favorite saxophonist – Dolphy – in the same location the day previously using only horns – her own alto saxophone, Patrick Braun’s tenor saxophone, Nikolaus Neuser’s trumpet and Gerhard Gschlössl’s trombone. Rather than being limited by the instrumentation, this layered polyphony added new tinctures to Dolphy’s best-known music, which sadly had been created in less than half a decade. The compositions were re-harmonized canon-like with trumpet grace notes at the top and Braun’s deeper sax tones providing the ostinato glue holding together the undulating improvisations. Distinctive touches included Gschlössl adding downcast moans to a reading of “Out to Lunch”, which otherwise bounced along on rubber-mute fanning from the brass; and blustery vibrations from the saxophones in broken octaves, as they worked through pieces from Dolphy’s storied Five Spot-recorded LPs.

Re-interpreting another’s material to make it your own was also demonstrated during two sold out sets later in the week at Charlottenburg’s Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop and Café by the Eberhard/Takase duo. Playing alto saxophone and clarinet, the reedist now takes more liberties with the Coleman material than she did in the past. So does the pianist, whose advantage is that Coleman rarely played with keyboards. At the club, Takase’s hard-driving bounces, bustles and bangs both on the internal strings and the key themselves – not to mention her pointed and clever techniques – a appended a sense of surprise to the idiosyncratic compositions. Perhaps relieved to share leadership chores, Takase’s improvising was more relaxed and better focused than what she offered the night before with her Fats Waller-tribute combo. Essentially, Coleman tunes such as “Blues Connection” and “The Face of the Bass”, which already reference tonality, were wedded to an accompaniment that highlighted stride’s unison arpeggios and the double pumps and moderato, bluesy chording. Feeding the saxophonist kinetic runs and walking bass lines, Eberhard in turn became liberated enough in many instances to expose glossolalia and hardened flutter-tonguing. For instance, pieces like “Una Muy Bonita” and “Beauty is a Rare Thing” provided a study in contrasts. The later joined behind-the-beat boogie-woogie-like runs with saxophone triple-tonguing; while the former mixed Eberhard’s altissimo cries and note-bending with Takase humming in time with her playing as single notes ranged all over the keyboard. At points Takase even smashed the keys with sharpened elbows. While there was a curiously unfinished quality to some numbers – as if the two had yet to agree on a definitive performance strategy – interpolations of other Coleman lines and sympathetic double counterpoint during both sets – plus two encores – confirmed the duo’s future.

The night’s most unusual timbres were fished from the strings during one tune when Takase manipulated a wire through the piano’s wound internal set. Meanwhile Eberhard’s only bow to New music invention was a single clarinet cadence respired onto the piano strings. As individual as her saxophone playing, this woodwind brought out more legato soloing from Eberhard. Moderato and trilling in execution, she evidently reserved tone-splitting, peeping and pressured vibratos for the saxophone.

One person very familiar with extended technique such as those while utilizing the properties of a legit woodwind is bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall. His straightforward and joyous inventiveness was the most satisfying – and purely musical – portion of the Fats Waller program the night before. More naturalistic, his improvising smarts two nights previously as part of Monk’s Casino locked in with the game plan developed by trumpeter Axel Dörner, drummer Uli Jennessen, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and bassist Roder to restructure Monk’s over-familiar oeuvre so that the sonic edifice could be appreciated on its own. Both shows took place in the Kino’s auditorium. Role-playing appeared to dominate Takase’s Waller project, with drummer Paul Lovens channeling Baby Dodds two-beat rhythms; trombonist Nils Wogram’s wah-wah wails wavering between the styles of Kid Ory and Tricky Sam Nanton; and Takase wedding the sophistication of Duke Ellington’s touch to Waller’s boisterous pounding. American banjoist/guitarist/singer Eugene Chadbourne’s shtick is an acquired taste, and while his girth is now approaching that of Waller’s, his humor – like some of Takese’s keyboard interpolations – occasionally seemed no more than monochrome reflections of Waller’s multi-colored performance and personality. The overall impression given by Chadbourne’s vocalizing was that he couldn’t decide whether to treat the songs – which Waller himself often burlesqued – as parodies or to sing them straight. It was the same with Takase’s soloing. Given her head, as on “Honeysuckle Rose”, she constructed a fantasia with cross-handed jumps, chromatic chording and staccato, forte rebounds. But by exposing this blindingly swift technique and expanded range, she almost reduced the Waller tribute to a series of well-remembered heads without extension.

That’s why the work of Mahall – who played Gene “Honeybear” Sedric to Takese’s Waller – was so refreshing. Someone who is not averse to spicing up his solos with a bit of Charleston-like leg wobbling or Elvis-like hip-shaking, he’s never anyone else than his own man whether the musical subject at hand is Waller, Monk or spiky Free Jazz originals. Like Waller in his prime, Mahall always looks like he’s having fun at the same time as he continues to output superior improvisations. His stance could be seen as a more profound celebration of the tradition characterized by the EEJ than Chadbourne suddenly donning a blonde wig, and mimicking Marilyn Monroe or Bob Dylan while he sang. Another question was why the entire combo felt nostalgia like “Way Down South Where the Blues Were Born”, “I Like Oysters” and “Just a Gigolo” had to be played more-or-less straight.

Monk himself recorded “Just a Gigolo”. But luckily von Schlippenbach, whose pianistic approach suggests gravitas rather than gaiety, eschewed that particular number with Monk’s Casino. Instead, like Eberhard/Takase with the Coleman tunes, this quintet’s increased familiarity with the material, through microscopic examination of it, meant that no whiff of imitation hung in the air. Although the quintet still appears to be cramming an overwhelming number of Monkish heads into its performance, this sprightly flip-through-the-pages-of-the-fakebook approach allows for interpolations of other tunes and motifs as the set unrolls – just the way Monk would have done it. While von Schlippenbach may have been playing some of these tunes for 50 years, he never attempted to imitate Monk’s style either. With an expansive reach, and a tendency for double-gaited piano cadences, glissandi, key clips and kinetic waterfalls of notes, von Schlippenbach utilized the entire keyboard; Monk concentrated on a few select phrases and particular note clusters. Meanwhile, Dörner played in an understated, Miles Davis-like fashion at selected spots and elsewhere wailed plunger-expanded blues lines. A master of minimalist brass exploration in other situations, Dörner subtly united every peep and cluck so that they eventually combined and mated with Mahall’s preference for broader-based, irregularly vibrated thrills. As for the bass clarinetist, he was his quirky self; at one juncture it sounded as if he was playing “Lady Be Good” apropos nothing. Another time Mahall’s diaphanous timbres contrasted tellingly with the double bassist’s scrubs and swipes. Drummer Jennessen, following the Monkish cannon, confined himself for the most part to time-keeping with pops, rebounds, rolls and flams. However Roder’s rock-solid plucking was the locus of the band’s one vaudevillian trope, as one band member after another deserted the stage during his solo. Following some raucous backstage vamping from the horns, the others returned, with tremolo note-burbling from the trumpeter and sibilant tongue-stops from Mahall.

Other homages expressed during the week came from American pianist Dave Burrell’s solo salute to Monk and Duke Ellington and Celebration Wayne Shorter by a quintet featuring saxophonist Wolfgang Schmidtke, both at the Kino auditorium; plus Swiss soprano saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder’s solo homage to Steve Lacy at the Instiute Français. Professionally played, Schmidtke’s by-the-book sounds ranged from Hard Bop to Free Bop, but never seemed to inhabit this subject’s music the way other performers in the EJJ did with their choices. Making his Berlin debut, Wickihalder celebrated not only Lacy, but the late saxophonist’s mentors Ellington and Monk. Combining half-echoed glissandi, lyrical asides, mountainous piles of splayed notes and reverberating duck quacks, Wickihalder managed to touch on Lacy’s many musical identities. Taking the improvisations one step further, at junctures Wickihalder up-ended his horn, blew into the saxophone bell, and rasped timbres by applying the reed to the side of his mouth. Viewing his expression cumulatively, with this showcase Wickihalder confirmed that he should be carefully followed musically in the future. A veteran Free Jazzman first prominent in the 1960s, Burrell, sporty in peaked cap and leather coat, ran through an understated series of tunes which expressed the links between Monk and Ellington with side excursions into the compositions of James P. Johnson, an admitted influence on both. Moving among rags, stride piano, a bluesy “Blue Monk” and a hyper-sophisticated “Prelude to a Kiss”, Burrell managed at various time to suggest parlor piano noodling, supper club accompaniment and formal grand piano recitals. Segueing from one tune to another, he would sometimes alter a familiar theme with a walking bass undertow, rag a melody unexpectedly or conversely inject a flourish of lyrical prettiness into otherwise primeval interpretations. Inevitably it seemed, Burrell touched on the neo-con’s rallying cry, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing”, but the only official bow to the Swing Era was clarinetist Rolf Kühn’s second set at the Kino auditorium. That was when he and the NDR Big Band, conducted by Jörg Achim Keller, saluted Benny Goodman’s 100th Birthday.

Old enough at 80 to have actually played with Goodman during his American sojourn in the 1950s and 1960s, the Leipzig-born Kühn gamely ran through an expected set of Swing classics. Notable was a three-clarinet arrangement of “Just Friends” and a point when guitarist Ronny Graupe, from Kühn’s Tri-O, was added to the band to limn the guitar part of some Goodman-associated tunes. Nonetheless, Graupe ended up approximating Wes Montgomery’s poppier big band efforts rather than Charlie Christian’s work with Goodman. A final “Swing Swing Swing” featuring both Keller and Tri-O’s Christian Lillinger on drums was rhythmically exciting, but ultimately exhausting. Someone who has continues to explore new musical areas even as he ages; Kühn appeared to enjoy the interaction in his initial EJJ appearance that night, playing with his Tri-O sideman, each slightly more than one-quarter his age. An additional guest was his baby brother Joachim Kühn, 65, who added his own variation of hard single notes and romantic flourishes to the music. Considering that reedist Kühn’s angled twittering melded impressively with Graupe’s flashing guitar lines, clanking bass licks from Fink –who also played in Dok Wallach – and Lillinger’s stacked drum beats, there were points at which the pianism seems superfluous. Visually striking with his leonine head of hair, the blurred fingering Joachim Kühn exhibited often translated into dynamic chord layering and pumping pedal portamento. Yet it seemed divorced from how the rest of the players stuck to connective moderato lines.The situation was further complicated when trumpeter Matthias Schriefl – complete with a Beatle bob and wide trousers imprinted with a spider-web motif – joined the combo. Initially playing muted trumpet, he harmonically complemented Kühn’s clarinet. Passing chords and backwards moving vamps from the rhythm section distinguished the sextet’s finale. But while Rolf Kühn’s feather light vamps extended the interlude, Schriefl gathered all his strength to fire off triplet-laden refrains.

Trying to push too many ideas into a foreshortened concept – plus the showiness of another trumpeter’s playing – was what ultimately weakened the performance of The Earth is A Drum by Jürgen Scheele and the Independent Jazz Orchestra. This was advertised as a suite dedicated to the memory of pocket trumpeter and pioneering American World musician Don Cherry. Positioned at the Kino auditorium to be a festival highlight, Scheele’s composition bristled with concepts. Unfortunately, while combing the contributions of a mainstream jazz big band, a string quartet, additional Third World percussion via drummer Dudu Tucci and two star soloists – British tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore and Danish trumpeter Jens Winther – may have seemed visionary years ago, this type of cross-cultural mixing has become commonplace, even clichéd. For a start, many of the suite’s parts played seemed singularly undigested. The standard big-band arrangements swung, but swung towards bombast, complete with screaming brass triplets, in a way that could be honoring Stan Kenton’s so-called Progressive Jazz more so than Cherry organic compositions. This impression was further reinforced when Tucci turned from triangle-bashing, guiro scraping, maracas shaking and triangle pinging to pound Latin rhythms from his conga drums. More distressingly, the strings brought mostly 19th Century romantic tonalities to the show, complete with mournful cello sounds and unheard pizzicato plucks. If the first violinist’s weeping arco solo was thought of as original as well as technically perfect, someone was ignorant of the advances in string writing brought to jazz language by many Europeans during the past couple of decades. At points it also sounded as if there was a vocalized or pre-recorded ostinato vibrating the “Om” phrase in the background. In the 21st Century this brought back uncomfortable memories of Flower Power. As for the soloists, Skidmore was impressive in spots when given enough space to push a style influenced by mid-period John Coltrane into more elastic Free playing. Probably the concert’s highpoint came when he was able to open up emotionally into a reed-biting frenzy which also goosed the drummers to work harder. The lingering impression left was of Skidmore exposing longer and longer note patterns, while the big band members riffed contrapuntally, collectively and almost wildly behind him. Winther was another matter. Dressed in a shocking red smoking jacket and silk trousers and sporting a hairstyle that made him resemble the male half of Abba, the subdued timbres and low-key whimpers from his often muted trumpet suggested Miles Davis of the 1960s and 1970s rather than Cherry. Winther is a respected composer and veteran of aggregations such as the Danish Radio Big Band, German Radio big bands such as NDR, WDR and SDR plus the Århus Symphony Orchestra. But his unruffled, highly technical professionalism was the antithesis of the instinctive music Cherry helped create, first with Ornette Coleman in the United States, then on his own in Europe.

Another ensemble which stuck out like a sore thumb in a gathering full of snapping fingers was American pianist Uri Caine’s Bedrock Trio plus vocalist Barbara Walker. This was the concluding act at the Kino auditorium, two nights before the Independent Jazz Orchestra had the same spot on the bill. Combining thumbs and fingers, the operative body part during Caine’s set was hand-clapping. Playing piano, electric piano and Nord for additional electronic beats, and backed by flanged electric bass runs from Tim Lefebvre and the stolid back beat from drummer Zach Danziger’s over-sized kit, affable Caine appeared to be revisiting his Philadelphia youth. That was a time where the sweet soul sounds of Gamble & Huff reined supreme and where sidemen for the duo’s Philly International label played nightclub gigs with jazzers like Caine. This impression was further cemented by the vocals of Walker, an R&B belter and friend of the pianist’s from Philadelphia.

Appearing in Berlin for the first time, Walker’s impressive diction and light voice touched on scat but concentrated on gospel-tinged laments of lost love. Handclapping and wandering around the stage, Walker frequently insisted that she wanted to “testify”. With her phrasing and powerful range the singer meshed well with Caine’s extended staccato and agitato runs, the bassist’s heavy thumb pops and the drummer’s thumping. Anything but portentous, Walker came across impressively as an old school R&B stylist. But her performance was somewhat jarring in the context of a European Jazz Jamboree. Staccato in his solos on either keyboard, Caine’s pulsating glissandi, dazzling fingering and high-frequency runs were notable as commentaries on the soul-jazz tradition; as were Lefebvre’s sliding runs. The set confirmed that the pianist refuses to be pigeonholed into any one role. Perhaps though, as someone who has saluted Wagner, Mozart, Tin Pan Alley and Herbie Hancock with equal seriousness, in this context, Caine may have been better off exposing a project that was closer to either of the first two letters of EJJ than the last.

Tellingly though, some of the festival’s most profound improvising came from two small groups divorced from any attempts at homage. Ironically, both also featured musicians – Leimgruber-Demierre-Phillips’ bassist Barre Phillips (born 1934) and The Salmon’s reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (born 1933) – who are literally old enough to have heard much jazz history first hand. However, neither had any desire to re-create this history, at least as a salute to any existing style. Secure in his identity, Petrowsky played both alto saxophone and clarinet as he worked out new strategies for the sort of Free Jazz that has been his raison d’être since the 1960s. That night in the Kino’s foyer he spat out multiphonics, triple-tongued, pitch-slid, cried, gasped and trilled. For his part, drummer Griener slid items such as a cow bell, a wood block, a vintage knife and a metal comb on and off his drum tops to amplify his contribution, while both detuning and spanking the metrical melody.

Mid-way through the set, playing alto saxophone in tenor register, Petrowsky spluttered out what was essentially a low-pitched blues line, as the drummer backed him with nerve beats, rim shots and tick-tock rhythms. Introducing speaking-in-tongues glossolalia – a variant of which singer Walker may have heard in her home town – the saxophonist also mixed Be-Bop references along with flutter tonguing. Fatter and wilder, his tone remained supple and metrically free – though connectively parallel to the drummer’s ruffs and pops – no matter how long he soloed. Another surprise was his individualized phrasing on clarinet. With a lazy tone replete with wooly, mid-range slips like a more formal Jimmy Giuffre, his textures consisted of chest tone and single breaths. He methodically built up clusters from tiny dabs then broke the results down again. Petrowsky’s soloing may have breached the limits of reed experimentation, but Leimgruber’s provided a graduate level aural essay on tenor and soprano saxophone inventiveness. Fortuitously his associates – Phillips and pianist Demierre –, whose collective performance followed Wickihalder solo set at the Institute Français, were as dexterous and inventive using their instruments as he was drawing unexpected textures from his.

Accelerating from a sparse, minimal exposition of small gestures such as the bassist lightly bouncing his bow on one string, solitary notes squeezed from the saxophone, and the pianist, forearm resting on the keys, extracting singular note patterns, the group improvisation unfolded in stages until it commanded full audience attention. Gently vibrating the soprano saxophone, Leimgruber’s split tones seemed to resonate back inside his horn. Blowing thin columns of air, he altered his embouchure to produce different tones as Phillips rasped his bass strings and Demierre jabbed at the piano keys. Eventually the pianist’s low-frequency and low-pitched clicks thickened into broader runs as Leimgruber switched to tenor, concurrently disassembling it into components, which he strummed and shook at will. Unfastening the gooseneck from the body tube he forced staccato phrases through it, ratcheted the saxophone’s curved neck against the instrument’s bow and bell, ultimately producing harsh, almost static timbres. As the tempo picked up, Phillips turned to sul ponticello squeaks and Demierre to strummed cadenzas, as reed textures bounced between police-whistle squeaks and basso-profundo rumbles expressed in honks, hawks, spits and tongue flutters. Suddenly the intensity that had been building up over the past few minutes was palpable and almost incendiary, as the three reached a crescendo of pounding piano chords, scrubbed bass lines plus serrated split tones and cackles from the saxophonist. Equivalent tension-release was exhibited and experienced in the trio’s subsequent improvisation with Demierre more prominent, pushing kinetic patterns from the foot petals and slashing harmonies from the piano’s inner harp. When the set was over, audience members concluded that they had witnessed a significant expression of no-holds-barred improvisation. This is a judgment that could also be applied to most of the EJJ’s notable performances.

Only in its second year, it’s apparent that the Jamboree is on its way to become an important addition to the musical calendar of Germany’s capital city. With a few nips and tucks, 2010’s edition could solidify the reputation for quality improvisation that was fortified with this year’s program.