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Live Reviews

European Jazz Jamboree 2009

By Published: November 18, 2009
The festival's primary venue, the famous East German landmark Babylon Kino (Mitte)—a popular movie hall with a capacity near 450—was the site for German jazz legend Rolf Kühn's early 80th birthday celebration on the festival's official first day (coincidentally Babylon was opened 80 years ago, consequently celebrating a similar birthday around this time, too). One couldn't miss the historic cinema's stunning marquee upon exiting the U-Bahn subway stop right down the street, and the theater's refined modern Expressionist style inside and out, a fine welcoming for music fans walking towards it and then upon entering the lobby and main space's spacious slightly inclined main orchestra level of seating. Here Kühn was reunited with younger brother, pianist Joachim, and at concert's end was presented with the "Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik" Honorary Diploma Award ("Ehrenurkunde") for Lifetime Achievement (an award bestowed to artists ranging from Pierre Boulez and Martha Argerich to BB King, Neil Young and fellow jazz musicians Charlie Mariano, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lee Konitz). One of the finest modern clarinetists in jazz history, Kuhn's name and music should be ranked alongside Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, and there is arguably not another living clarinetist who can better play in and out of time. With a recently published biography (given in German, but with a hopeful future English translation) as well as a boxed set collection and the above mentioned notorious award, this cross seas under-acknowledgment will more than likely be rectified.

Kühn displayed originality in a spectrum of music, from his working small Tri-O group in the first set (guitarist Ronny Graupe, bassist Johannes Fink and drummer Christian Lillinger, and joined by Joachim as well as trumpeter Matthias Schrieffl) to the second set's dedication (with the NDR Big Band) to one of his original influences, Benny Goodman. Graupe, the quartet's "second voice," was comfortably given prominent space by the leader on each the first set's tune selections, all originals taken exclusively from material found on the group's debut and sophomore releases—Rollercoaster and Close Up (both on Jazzwerkstatt). His "Caneveral" opened the set, its airy minute-long rumbling prologue giving way after a brief pause to demanding clarinet-guitar lines. The two hornmen in fleet-fingered unison worked surprisingly well in tandem. A frenetic, busy single-note specialist, the guitarist's style nicely contrasted the almost modern classical approach of the leader whose emphasis was more on complimenting warm but daring elastic tones within the structure of each composition. The next two pieces ("29FF" and "Spacerunner"), both compositions by the leader which open the most recent Close Up, revealed a fine tuned and flexible balancing act of collective themes and individual improvisations.

The remainder of the set had Joachim joining the group on piano. For "Mamarazzi" and "Changing the Umbrella," the now quintet performed actually much of the time as a quartet if not a powerhouse trio (sans guitar), either bass-less or drum-less in sections, with Graupe tending not to play while the pianist was and vice versa—thus reinforcing the notion that two harmonic instruments don't necessarily make ideal bed fellows. Trumpeter (and also guest artist on the group's latest CD) Schriefl then joined, with the group becoming noticeably more experimental in their improvisations: Graupe took what looked like a long red chopstick, placing it under his guitar strings, then tapped it back and forth for an eerie springing musical effect; Schriefl, first muted then on open horn, avoided notes per se, rather blew through his instrument for sound effect, including sudden outbursts of blurts and growls.

The second set, the Benny Goodman centennial dedication, found Kühn fronting the NDR Big Band conducted by Jörg Achim Keller. Kühn is obviously graced with a Benny Goodman-like proclivity and influence of classical as much as jazz, naturally handling material from each with ease and imagination, as well as a youthful vigor and chops which he's developed and maintained since his first recordings in the late '40s. Perhaps as admirable as his diverse range of sounds was not only the open-eared programming of the Goodman set placed as the evening's last (following the clarinetist's small group and the parameter- stretching The Salmon duo—more on that later), but the open ears in attendance who absorbed each end of the spectrum equally and provided perhaps the fullest house of the entire festival. Imagine a meeting of 92nd St. Y's "Jazz in July" program sprinkled into a night of the Vision Festival or vice versa and you have an idea of how unlikely this concept would be in New York.

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