Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 7-10, October 26-29, 2009
The final surviving member of the sextet responsible for Miles Davis' classic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), drummer Jimmy Cobb has been fighting the good fight to not just keep the music alive with his So What Band and the "Kind of Blue at 50" tour that's been going on throughout 2009, but making sure that it does so in a way that's as relevant today as it was half a century ago. With pianist Larry Willis, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and Miles protégé Wallace Roney on trumpet, the set was identical to that of the group's performance four months ago at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. But with Buster Williams back onboard (he was subbed out in Ottawa due to illness), the sextet's October 28, 2009 performance at BASF's Feierabendhaus in Ludwigshafen was an even more powerful set, driven by the bassist's resonant sense of swing.
BASF may be less visible than in years pastthe days of BASF Chromium Dioxide cassette tapes now a thing of the distant pastbut it's still a major player that manufactures products that are a part of other more visible ones from other manufacturers. Most remarkable is that the company, which has been around for over 80 years, is not just the primary employer in Ludwigshafen, but employing 32,000 of a population of 130,000 people, it's literally the city's raison d'être. Few technology companies can boast a cultural department period, let alone one that, consisting of five musicians and one artist, puts on over sixty shows every year in its own venue. A sponsor as well as a promoter (one of Enjoy Jazz's largest, in fact), it's even more unusual that the only concerts that go on in the company's Feierabendhaus are those that it promotes; it's not even possible for an outside party to rent the hall.
With Cobb's packed show taking place in the venue's 1,300-seat main hall (the other room, with a capacity of 250, is for smaller chamber music events), it was one of a relative few jazz performances that take place at the venue, with the majority of the shows at Feierabendhaus devoted to classical music. Still, the sound in the room, as has been the case with literally every venue at Enjoy Jazz so far, was impeccable, as the band took to the stage with a version of Miles' enduring "So What," taken at a faster clip than on the iconic album. There have beenand, no doubt, will continue to beplenty of tribute projects since Miles' death in 1991, but few attain the level of veracity that Cobb's has, even while the players are far from imitative, each bringing their own voice to a set that, in addition to running down the album, added a couple of extra tunes including a lovely reading of the classic standard, "On Green Dolphin Street" (originally performed by Miles' sextet on Jazz Track (Columbia, 1958)), a feature for Roney's plangent horn.
Every song featured solos that went from strength to strength, but with this a Miles tribute band, perhaps the player receiving the most scrutiny was Roney, as his Ottawa performance demonstratednot to mention a series of envelope-pushing albums such as Prototype (HighNote, 2004) and the daring yet aptly-titled Jazz (HighNote, 2007)Roney is hardly a Miles imitator; instead, using the late trumpeter as a starting point, he's gone on to create a clear voice that's equally rich in tone, but possessing of greater range. Eschewing the Harmon mute that was such a definitive part of Miles' emotionally fragile sound, Roney instead chose to use a pure, unaltered tone, even on the tranquil "Flamenco Sketches."
Williams was another standout amongst a group of consistently fine players. Surprisingly diminutive in stature, he remains an influential bassist with a tone that's resonant and visceral, felt deep in the gut when he created long glissandi and lightning fast phrases during his solos, anchoring the group with a rare rhythmic sense that made him the ideal player to succeed Kind of Blue's Paul Chambers here. As for Cobb, he soloed rarely, but more than his brief features, his firm pulse and outstanding dynamics were what made him such a valued part of Kind of Blue and beyond. His transition from brushes to sticks, introducing the solo section of "So What," is still shiver-inducing, and he says more than most with no more than quarter notes on a ride cymbal.
Mainstream jazz sometimes gets a bad rap as reductionist and backward these days, rather than forward-thinking and modernistic. But with material so ingrained in the psyche of most jazz fans that it's a part of their DNA, and with a group of players that honor the spirit rather than the letter of their source material, Cobb and his So What Band kept the force alive with attitude and commitment.
In addition to the support that Enjoy Jazz receives from BASF, SASone of the world's leading vendors of business softwarehas been providing substantial support to the festival for the past five years. Meeting with Thomas Maier, Corporate Communications Manager, at Haarlass, SAS' German headquarters located across the Old Heidelberg Bridge on the other side of the Neckar River, it was immediately clear just how differently the company views both corporate responsibility and treatment of its employees. With a head office that used to be an old hotel where rooms are named after famous visitors like Mark Twain, it's as far removed from the typical glass business towers of North American business as one is apt to find. "Corporate/social responsibility is a big part of SAS," said Maier. "It starts with our buildings, which are built with the latest environmental standards. We take care of our employees: we have fitness centers, a big education pool, a health program, kindergarten; all these things."
Progressive? Certainly. With a cafeteria facing the Neckar River, a beer garden where, during the summer, roses bloom and large trees provide shade, it's possible to work as there's WIFI access everywhere. "Maybe," Maier continued, "it's because we are privately held and from the beginning in 1976, social responsibility was part of the culture of the company. We are proud of being different than other software companies. The decision of sponsoring is, in general made in the region, so it's not a worldwide program that says we sponsor jazz; it's a decision of SAS headquarters in a country to decide which programs fit best with our corporate/social responsibility. For Germany, we decided, because SAS has been in Heidelberg for 27 years, that we wanted to do something for the region. So, in general, our responsibilities are in culture, in sports and in education; but just around the regionMannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafenand mostly in Heidelberg. We want to make a difference, and if you spread the money all over the place you can't really change something, but if you concentrate it in a region..."
SAS' approach is to create a work environment that will appeal to the best employees, but that extends beyond its office walls. "SAS works to recruit good employees who come from all over Germanyand the worldto work at this place, so you have to make the region attractive," Maier explained. "We decided to sponsor Enjoy Jazz because it's a regional festival, yet it has a place on the world map of jazz. SAS has grown together with Enjoy Jazz; it's the fifth year of sponsorship, and we're proud of how Enjoy Jazz has grown and how we've been able to help it with our sponsorship.
Heidelberg on both sides of the Neckar River, from Heidelberg Castle
"For us, it's more than just sponsorship," interjected Claudia Paul, Enjoy Jazz's Press Contact. "It feels like a partnership, like a family." "Absolutely," Maier agreed. "We do the Matineen's [lectures] here. We do quizzes with our employees and they can win tickets, so they really like Enjoy Jazz. We also take customers to concerts. Executive customers like CEOs and CFOs from big companies come hereand they come here every year because they came here once, they loved it and, after the concerts, they told us, 'Please don't forget to invite me next year.'"
SAS sponsors a number of events in the region. "We have different ones of different sizes," says Maier. "We also sponsor the SAS Halbmarathon, which goes along Philosopher's Way [a gorgeous walk in the hills on the North side of the Neckar River, once a popular walk with many of Germany's great philosophers]. It's a mix of things we want to do; not just jazz, because not everybody likes jazz. We want to do different things, like classical music, like sport. So the cultural offerings in the region are growing, and we hope that more companies will invest their sponsorship money into the region so that it attracts more and more people."
SAS' sponsorship budget for the Mannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafen region is considerable, reaching into six figures. "The most important thing, when it comes to sponsoring, is partnership," Maier concludes. "It's not about giving money to someone and just saying, 'Do something with this'; it's about being involved, being a part of it. There are many little things we do together, like a summer partywe have a wonderful beer garden for our employees and we use it for certain parties with guests. We have a press breakfast every year, and we do the Matineens. You have to become part of it and you have to do many things in the company so that your employees get involved. Many people still don't know much about jazz, so they have to find out; we have to bring them to the festivalthey like it, they love it and they come back. That's how we've created a fan community inside and outside of Germany."
SAS's commitment to its employees and its region could certainly provide a strong model for other companies to follow, as it not only engenders satisfied and productive employees, it makes the company an integral and fully integrated part of its locale, beyond being simply a place that provides work for its region's residents.