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Live Reviews

European Jazz Jamboree 2009

By Published: November 18, 2009
Another unqualified success was Monk's Casino, a project full of seasoned German jazz musicians. Covering in numbing fashion as much of the pianist's canon as could recognizably be squeezed into a single prolonged set—an endurance ride as much for listener as musician—were Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano) arguably at his most creative and certainly most proficient, Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet), graced with super-human projection, Axel Dörner (trumpet), Jan Roder (bass) and Uli Jennessen (drums). Most impressively—given the complexities of Monk's diverse catalogue of originals—was not a single sheet of music was present, most pieces being organically presented. And neither was there a single microphone used for the all-acoustic set in the large concert hall.

The well traveled tribute ensemble, with quite the busy touring schedule this past year (appearing in many an international festival from Oslo to Vancouver) organically presented naturally birthed pieces from various recognizable Monk themes sometimes in the form of succinct medleys. Each musician offered awe-inducing contributions. Schlippenbach's selectively spacious note placement selections, with an ever so slightly behind that beat approach, served up the proper quirky ingredient to keep the proceedings, as well as his bandmates, appropriately off-balanced. Mahall, who plays his instrument more confidently and capably than most anyone else on the scene today, is especially a rare bird in that the bass clarinet is his exclusive instrument (rather than a doubling one). Playing it saxophonically and with unmatched volume and clarity, many—including myself—questioned whether there was a microscopic mic somewhere up or down his sleeve! And Dörner, a fellow Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO) alum, opened several of his statements with a forceful notelessness, blowing windy tones before an actual brassy theme formulated from the bell of his horn, a style the trumpeter has mastered over the years. Towards the end of the set, he played with one hand grasping a cymbal for what looked, in side profile, to be an interesting trumpet hybrid instrument (at the very least a nice photo op). He culminated the tune by smashing the cymbal with its match held by Jennessen, who stood to complete the cymbal high-five! Like with Monk, the best advice when listening to Monk's Casino: expect the unexpected.

Pianist Aki Takase was involved in two distinct tributes. Her Fats Waller project consists of Eugene Chadbourne (guitar/banjo/vocals), Nils Wogram (trombone), Mahall (bass clarinet) and Paul Lovens (drums), all masters of working both inside and outside tradition, and a working unit for exactly six and a half years now (Chadbourne distinctly recollected the group's first recording when they heard the news that the US was invading Iraq). With all its original members and instrumentation intact since—other than the one-time trumpet chair Thomas Heberer—the group at Babylon Kino took familiar Waller material and flipped it on its head while maintaining the music's inherent jovial free spirit (given, Chadbourne's entertaining though offputting vocals and stage side antics can be an acquired taste: he even comically donned a Martha Washington-like wig at one juncture). Opening, as with the group's debut CD (Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller, 2003), the quintet charged into the upbeat "Lookin' Good, But Feelin' Bad," Chadbourne's vocals more Popeye than Fats. The version was as straight-ahead as one would or could expect from this group. Mahall, with his daunting sound on bass clarinet once again, proved that amplification and microphones were superfluous, taking listeners to a bygone era when there wasn't such a sound crutch available. His duo rendition with Takase on Waller's blazing up-tempo "Handful of Keys" was riveting, a dazzling display of technique full of traditional lines, swooping flourishes and stunning yet sensibly executed tangents that veered even if momentarily into the atonal avant-garde. The band also lit into "The Joint is Jumpin'" featuring an extended thick as mud opening Wogram trombone solo, Chadbourne (again on vocals) for the first time switching over from banjo to guitar, for an outrageously original and succinct take on the Waller 1937 ditty. Their encore of "Two Sleepy People" featured Chadbourne's inimitable narrative vocals lightly adding (or subtracting, depending on your tastes) charm.

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