Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012
October 30-November 7, 2012
After a week in northern Sweden covering the 2012 Umeå Jazz Festivalwhere the were days shortening and the temperature droppingmoving south to Heidelberg, Germany was a welcome respite from the oncoming onslaught of winter that's also approaching back home in Canada. For this year's coverage of the fourteenth edition of the Enjoy Jazz Festival, a festival unique in a world of thousands of jazz festivals in its approachas a general rule, one show per night only, allowing its patrons the opportunity to really absorb and, well, enjoy the music, and running for six weeks rather than a few days, at show-specific venues spread across the Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen regionthere was another banner year of programming, courtesy of festival founder and director, Rainer Kern, and his small but hardworking staff.
Kern's approach to programming is also a little different than many festivals, which cast their roster in concrete many months before the event. Instead, while Kern does, indeed, look to put together the festival's lineup well in advance, he's open to the idea of new acts coming to his attention later in the game, and has been known to make programming decisions in the final few months leading up to the festival's typical October/November run.
Of course, this kind of flexibility is not without its price; pity the poor people, for example, who have to put the hardcopy program guide together, when changes can be coming in at the eleventh houror later. But the result is a festival that's on the leading edge when it comes to presenting what's truly happening now. But none of this would happen without Kern's staff. They work hard and, while only one show per night may seem like a cakewalk to those that program multiple performances, working a festival for weeks presents its own set of challenges, challenges met by the Enjoy Jazz staff each and every year.
The professionalism of Kern's staff is a given; what makes it truly special is level of care paid to its invited guests. Most festivals ensure fine care of media, but few actually provide the same transportation to shows for international media as is de rigueur with its performing artists. And while it's all business when it comes to the work at hand, Kern and the rest of the Enjoy Jazz staff make returning each year eagerly anticipated on a personal level, by taking care of the small detailslike booking returning guests not just in the same hotel, but in the same room each year, if possible (though that's as much a function of the hotel, in this case, the lovely, old school Hollander Hof situated by the 400 year-old footbridge spanning the Neckar River). For those who spend a substantial percentage of their year traveling, it's these kinds of small but significant details that engender a terrific level of comfort and make it a lot easier to get the work done.
Returning to Enjoy Jazz is like visiting with old friends while making new ones, all the while afforded the opportunity to experience a diverse program of jazz and, occasionally, things outside its broadest purview. The real challenge is deciding when to come; the best thing to do, invariably, is to pick a couple of shows that are of specific interest, and then flesh out a week-to-ten-days around them. This year it was easy, with a consecutive program ranging from guitarist Bill Frisell's collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Great Flood, drummer Manu Katche's current quartet and the American super group James Farm, to rising German star pianist Michael Wollny and his [em] trio and unexpected treats, like German bassist Manfred Bründl's Silent Bass quartet, and Manfred Eicher's The Art of Listening session, where the ECM label head played some as-yet-unreleased music from albums due for release in 2013. And the opportunity to spend nearly 10 days at the festival and soaking up the culture of picturesque Old Heidelberg made returning to the festival a no-brainer.
- October 30: Portico Quartet
- October 31: Manfred Bründl Silent Bass
- November 1: Michael Wollny's [em]
- November 3: Manfred Eicher, The Art of Listening
- November 4: Manu Katché
- November 5: James Farm
- November 6: Bill Frisell/Bill Morrison, The Great Flood
- November 7: Herbie Hancock, Plugged In
- Festival Wrap-Up
October 30: Portico Quartet
In the five years since releasing its debut, Knee Deep in the North Sea (The Vortex, 2007), England's Portico Quartet has gone from strength to strength both in the studio, with its 2009 follow-up, Isla (Real World), to captivating live performances like its 2010 show in Montreal, Canada.
At Portico's core is the hangan instrument that looks like two wok pots welded together with a series of dents in them and which, when struck with mallets, sounds something like a mellower version of steel pan drums. The group's largely acoustic settinga strange blend of post-minimalism, lyrical song structures and group interplayhas always allowed for a small degree of electronics, but the paradigm shift of Portico Quartet (Real World 2012) has come at a price. With the departure of co-founder/hang player Nick Mulveyand the recruitment of Keir Vine in his placePortico has moved further away from its jazzier roots and more towards an electronic-drenched approach that still confirmed a substantially changed Portico Quartet with many of its foundational premises intact.
Unfortunately, as good as the Portico Quartet is, the group's performance at Heidelberg's Karlstorbahnhof was something of a disappointment. Performing material from Portico Quartet in the first of two sets, it seemed that the quartet was, in fact, leaving a number of important markers behind and, in its pursuit of a more electronic aesthetic, losing some of its strengths and defining touchstones. Drummer Duncan Ballamy no longer employs a conventional drum kitsomething that was still used, to great effect, on Portico Quartet tracks like "Rubidium"instead, utilizing a rig that combined synths and sampled drums with just a couple of acoustic drums and cymbals. Vine spent much of his time on the hang, but often split his attention with a synthesizer; everyone in the band, in fact, was wired up, though bassist Milo Fizpatrick did spend most of his time on his primary instrument, as much an anchor where necessary, elsewhere a textural and melodic foil for his band mates.
While Portico has never been about overt soloing prowess, saxophonist Jack Wylie has, in the past, been a more dominant voice; now it seems, his role has been diminished significantly, and if he was never a particularly engaged-looking performer live, with far less to do it seemed that there was certain element of boredom setting in. The biggest problem, perhaps, was the group's extending its music from the relatively short durations on record to much longer investigations of sound and repetition. These things, in and of themselves, are not a problem; Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch continues to do this with great success in his band, Ronin, heard most recently on Live (ECM, 2012). Unfortunately, the more concise material of Portico Quartet did not translate well to lengthier explorations. Perhaps a better approach would be to find a balance between the Portico of Isla and the Portico of Portico Quartet. Clearly this is a talented group of musicians, with a distinct approach. The addition of Vine has resulted in a change that, at this time, works really well on record; hopefully Portico will find the right combination to more successfully bring it to the concert stage in future.
October 31: Manfred Bründl Silent Bass
One of the biggest pleasures of attending a festival is the opportunity to find out about an artist who may have been around for awhile, but who's yet to come onto the personal radar. Bassist Manfred Brundl may be less known than he should across the ocean in North America, but clearly he's garnering attention in Germany. He has, in fact, just won the SWR Jazzpreis 2012, and his performance at Ludwigshafen's dasHaus was both an award celebration and a chance to hear just why Südwestrundfunk (SWR)Germany's southwestern public radio station and an Enjoy Jazz sponsorchose Bründl for the prize, which comes with a 15,000 Euro award attached to it. Performing music from Tip of the Tongue (Laika, 2011), his most recent recording with his Silent Bass quartet, also including pianist Rainer Böhm, saxophonist Hugo Read and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel, Bründl paid tribute to Peter Trunk, a fellow bassist (and cellist) who, dying in 1973 at the too-young age of 37, has been largely forgotten in the history of jazz, despite a résumé that included work with everyone from saxophonist Stan Getz to trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff.
Bründl doesn't pay tribute by recording any music by Trunkthe entire album is self-pennedbut Tip of the Tongue is the result of considerable investigation into the late bassist's work; if his Enjoy Jazz performance was any indication, it's a case of lessons learned, to be sure, but all subsumed into Bründl's own inimitable style as a composer, bassist and bandleader. The band has been around since 2006, but only Read remains from that initial incarnation, with the younger Böhm and Burgwinel more recent recruits, though it was hard to tell, so deep was the level of communication and so profound the chemistry.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Bründl's performancebeyond the unquestionably high level at which he and his band operatedwas how songs expanded considerably in concert were, in fact, mere miniatures on the recording. "Flashbacks," for example, is a mere minute and fourteen seconds on record; live, it was stretched beyond its through-composed form to allow the band considerable freedom around which to maneuver. Bründl's opening solo to "Page 59," a more energetic track where Burgwinkelon fire for most of the set, while still remaining as finessed and nuanced as Bründl's music sometimes demandedwas particularly impressive. A fountain of ideas, but never without ears wide open to the rest of the group, Burgwinkel is clearly someone to watch.
As are Böhm, a player capable of hard-edged attacks and delicate phrasing, all within a context of focused invention, and Read, whose tart alto was a perfect foil for Bründl's warmer, more round-toned bass. And whether he was delivering lithe pizzicato lines, ethereal harmonics or deeper arco, Bründl demonstrated, once more, that just when it seems as though you're getting familiar with a scene, out comes a new player, previously unheard, to make it clear that there aren't just great players out there, but great conceptualists as well.
November 1: Michael Wollny's [em]
Since first appearing on the scene with the cryptically titled Call it [em] (ACT, 2005), German pianist Michael Wollny and his [em] trio havenot unlike sadly disbanded label mates Esbjorn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.)forged a reputation and burgeoning career that's been on a solid upward trajectory. With e.s.t. gone, ACT seems to be positioning [em] as the next big thing, and based on the packed house at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache, it seems to be working. The beyond enthusiastic response for Wollny, bassist Eva Kruse and drummer Eric Schaeferand the number of people buying multiple copies of the group's now-five releases, including the most recent Wasted & Wanted (ACT, 2012), after the showcertainly suggests a group whose star is on the rise.
But beyond two similaritiesthat [em] has become these three musicians' primary focus (not quite like, but close to e.s.t.'s rock band aesthetic, where it was the trio's only focus) and that it approaches the traditional piano trio format with a mix of influences that include plenty of rock energy and attitude[em] should not be compared tightly to the Swedish group; if anything, [em] feels a little more connected to The Bad Plus than e.s.t., and being touted as "the next e.s.t." could actually hurt the trio.
And that would be a shame. Performing many of Wasted & Wanted's tracks, along with selections from its previous releases, [em] proved it had its own approach, and if Wollny has virtuosic tendencies, they're less overtly connected to European classicism than the late Svensson (who favored fugue-like counterpoint to Wollny's more direct style), though that's not to suggest the music has any stronger link to the American jazz tradition either. Still, the two pianists clearly share pianist Keith Jarrett as a nexus, though [em] (and Wollny in particular) sounds nothing like the stalwart ECM pianist, especially on songs like the thundering, four-on-the-floor rock pulse of Wasted & Wanted's title trackthe first of three encores, from an audience that was simply unprepared to let the group go, even after two largely unrelenting sets. Opening with "Whiteout," the album's closing track, however, [em] took a refreshingly different way in, using a calmer rubato tone poem that seemed intended to bring the audience's pre-show energy down and refocus it more intently and intensely on the stage before Wollny, Kruse and Schaeffer turned more intense with the episodic "Phlegma Phighter," first heard on II (ACT, 2006).
As impressive as Wollny washead usually down, but still animated and somehow charismatic, spending plenty of time inside the box, muting strings, strumming them and employing a wine glass as a preparationthe rest of the trio was no less worthy of attention. Kruse's tone was deep and grounding, but in moments where she was a melodic foil for Wollny, as well as her few rare solo spots, she demonstrated impeccable timing and taste. Schaeffer was even more impressive, a relaxed player capable of turning up the heat for those around him, but equally ready to stop on a dime and bring the dynamics to a whisper; [em]'s music was often characterized by metric and temporal shifts, and the trio's effortless navigation spoke clearly of a group of players racking up plenty of road time together.
If [em] tends to downplay Wollny's jazz cred, his ongoing work with near-octogenarian saxophonistHeinz Sauer, heard to great effect on the 2008 ACT compilation The Journey, should put any such suggestions to rest. And if [em] is less inclined to use electronics than e.s.t., its contemporary and, at times, unrelenting energy made for a show suggesting that, if the trio can find proper representation in North America, it might be able to begin building a similar reputation there.
November 3: Manfred Eicher, The Art of Listening
When the history books of the final quarter of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st are written, there's no doubt that ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher will figure prominently. How could he not? With a label now in its 43rd year, with well over 1,300 releasesthe lion's share produced by Eicherhe's not just created a significant body of work, he's shaped one that speaks of a personal aesthetic, and an acute ear for music ranging from cutting edge to traditional, and from spare and tranquil to dense and intense, all with an international eye for artists who come from the United States, England, Tunisia, France, India and elsewhere. There is no other label in historynot just jazz, but recorded music as a wholethat comes from an active producer for its entire duration; one who doesn't just oversee a recording session, but becomes an integral part of the creative process, and a de facto added member to whatever configuration of musicians are at work.
The subtitle of an evening where Eicher was invited to Enjoy Jazz for a listening session at Ludwigshafen's BASD-Gesellschaftshaus was "Manfred Eicher plays previously unreleased music from the ECM archives." Perhaps the title was a tad misleading, as some in attendance were expecting more along the lines of three 2012 releases where older archival material was released for the first time: pianist Keith Jarrett's SleeperTokyo, April 16, 1979, MagicoCarta de Amor, from the early 1980s trio of saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist/guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden, and Odyssey: In Studio & In Concert which, in addition to releasing Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal's 1975 album Odyssey for the first time in its entirety, included a previously unreleased radio recording with the Norwegian guitarist's group, Unfinished Highballs. Instead of playing older material from the archives, however, what Eicher did was present an evening of what's to come: new music that's in the can and awaiting release, sometime in 2013.
There was also some disappointment that, rather than speaking about the sessions, the artists or the recording process, Eicher chose to say very little; insteadand, given his reputation, something that should not have come as a surprisehe let the music speak for itselfand on a tremendous Bowers & Wilkins sound system worth over 27,000 Euros. In a time when compressed music has sadly become the norm, Eicher's evening made the point, without actually saying it, that music needs to be heard the way it was recorded, and the depth and clarity of the B&W sound system dovetailed perfectly with the label's approach to recording that has defined it since inception: pristine sound and complete transparency amongst the layers, making it possible to hear every note, every nuance, every whispered breath.
Eicher did, after the listening session was over, come back and speak more about the music, as well as answer questions from the audience. Still, for those not speaking German, it had to be all about the music, and if this session was any indication, 2013 is going to be as good a year for ECM as 2012. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko was instantly recognizable, despite a slight smoothing of his often raspy tone, with his New York Quartet consisting of pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Another set to look forward to came from trumpeter Ralph Alessi's forthcoming ECM leader debut, featuring pianist Jason Moran, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits (making his own first-ever ECM appearance). Songways, from pianist Stefano Battaglia's trio with bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani (last heard on the superb The River of Anyder (2011)), promises even deeper chemistry, and an even more finessed ability to play freely while being endlessly melodic.
There were also strong entries on the classical front, including a particularly powerful Concerto for Violoncello and Strings featuring cellist Kristina Blaumane and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. Eleni Karaindrou's forthcoming Musik zu "Medea", with its sublime combination of chamber ensemble, lute and ney (Persian end-blown flute), sounded like another great addition to the Greek film scorer's already fine body of work for the label, following 2009's Dust of Time. So, too, did the renowned Keller Quartet's rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet #16, while Iva Bittová's "Fragments I," "II" and "VII" will certainly represent a strong debut as a leader for this violinist/singer.
Eicher also played two pieces of music already released. An excerpt from Steve Reich's minimalist classic, Music for 18 Musicians (1978), and a track from the just-released Carta de Amor (2012) strongly suggested that Eicher, much as he does when he sequences tracks on a recording, was being very specificnot just about the music, but about the order in which the it was unveiledduring the evening. ECM recordings typically have a very definitive arc across the breadth of a recording, making them more than just a collection of discrete pieces. In this revealing evening of music on the horizon, Eicher turned what might, at first glance, have seemed to be nothing more than a series of tracks, into an evening's program of music that gradually assumed its own appealing shape.
November 4: Manu Katché
Since coming to ECM Records in 2006 with Neighbourhood, Manu Katché has been building a discography predicated on grooveno surprise, given the French drummer has been at the core of countless recordings and tours by other musicians, most recently Peter Gabriel's Back to Front tour, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the British singer/songwriter's hit album, So (Real World, 1986). But it's been within the context of his own music, and his own recordings for the German labelwhich now number four, including the recently issued Manu Katché (2012), that he's blossomed as not just a fine player, but a strong writer and affable band leader.
All three qualities were on display for the packed house at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache, which clearly included its fair share of drummers in the crowd, right down to aspiring young teenagers, eager to see the masterful Katché in performance for the first time. The drummer was touring on the back of Manu Katché, though only one of that album's quartet members was on-hand, Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg, who also appeared on Katché's previous Third Round (ECM, 2010). Brunborg's own international star has been on the rise, the result of an increasing number of ECM appearances including pianist Tord Gustavsen's recent The Well (ECM, 2012), and the saxophonist was having a particularly good night, here in Mannheim.
Whether playing tenor saxophone or curved sopranoand whether keeping things pure or introducing some processing, like the harmonizer he brought into his solos on more than one occasionBrunborg's recent upswing in activity is clearly creating a context for him to grow as a player. At one time (like so many Norwegian saxophonists) something of a Jan Garbarek clone, Brunborg has long since transcended such reductionist comparisons, though he shares a similar attention to tone, sparseness of phrasing and devotion to melody at the center of what he does.
It might have been unfortunate, upfront, to learn that Manu Katché's trumpeter, Nils Petter MolværBrunborg's quintet mate in the original incarnation of Masqualero, the remarkable group that also featured up-and-coming pianist Jon Balke and ECM stalwarts, bassist Arild Andersen and Jon Christensenwouldn't be available, but another of Enjoy Jazz's welcome surprises was Katché's recruitment of Italian trumpeter Luca Aquino, to take his place. Like Molvær, Aquinoa younger player yet to crack 40may have employed electronics to process his sound, but his approach towhether acoustic or processedwas all his own, as was his focused approach to melody, despite demonstrating some clear virtuoso chops on tunes like the grooving andin its waysinging version of "Keep on Trippin,'" from Third Round. His own discography may be small, but his most recent Chiaro (Tük, 2011), featuring a Norwegian trio with bassist Audun Erlien and drummer Wetle Holte (both members of groups with artists like guitarist Eivind Aarset), establishes a direct aesthetic connection between Italy and Scandinavia, making him a more than suitable partner for Brunborgthough to suggest that everything they did fit that overused term "Nordic cool" couldn't have been farther from the truth.
Still, much of Katché's set was certainly cool, though the quartet kicked it up a few notches on tracks like the post-bop of Manu Katché's "Short Ride," where organist/pianist Mike Gormanmore than capably substituting for the album's Jimmy Watsoncreated a strong harmonic foundation for the two-horn melody, while using his bass pedals to drive a swinging solo section. He may spend much of his time in backing bands for British pop artists like Boy George/Culture Club and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, but he quickly clarified his broad reach, whether holding down the low end of this bass-less group on "Beats & Bounce" or delivering a gentle but ever-so-slightly outré solo on the balladic "Loving You.
"After the show, Gorman discussed one of the realities of being a touring jazz artist: that a leader needs to have a cadre of players from whom he/she can draw to tour, since everyone is so busy with multiple projects that keeping a lineup stable is a luxury few can manage. Still, it's important to ensure that, even if choosing different players for a touror, as was the case here, part of a tour, with Gorman substituting on Katché's tour for just a couple weeks before the album's keyboardist was again availablethat there's always the kind of chemistry necessary to bring the music to life. Based on Katché's performance with this group: mission accomplished.
Katché was his usual effervescent self; an animated player who'd lean back in his drum chair and lift his feet off the ground as he prepared to dive in and execute another of his seemingly impossible marriages of booty shaking groove, textural breadth and loose, interpretive interaction. He soloed rarelyand spoke to the audience even lessbut when he did, it was filled with invention, rare virtuosity and absolutely compositional construction. And when he did speak to his audience, he made clear that it was their energy that made his group play all the better.
November 5: James Farm
A sentiment shared by James Farm, the American super group formed by saxophonist Joshua Redman in Montréal in 2009 as part of his "Artist in Residence" series for the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. The band was so good at this Canadian performance, that Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland decided to keep things going, turning into the egalitarian James Farm, where everyone contributes material equally, as documented on the group's 2011 debut, James Farm (Nonesuch). When Redman, the group's spokesperson, addressed the wildly enthusiastic crowd at Alte Feuerwache, he echoed Katché's sentiment from the evening before: that crowds like this simply make a good group like this do even better.
Playing to yet another packed houseas with Katché and Wollny, the venue had to squeeze extra seating into the hall to accommodate the demand for ticketsthe quartet opened with the first three tunes from the record (and in sequence), starting with Penman's episodic "Coax," moving on to Redman's similarly knotty, yet somehow grounded "Polliwog," and Parks' gospel-tinged ballad, "Bijou."
From there it was new material from an as-yet-unrecorded second record and, if anything, James Farms' writing has caught up with the chemistry that was there from the first note of the group's 2010 Montréal debut, but which has only since grown and evolved. Largely acoustic (though Parks had a Fender Rhodes and, at times, another small, hidden keyboard that he used to create textural washes), James Farm wasnot unlike the SFJAZZ Collective, originally founded by Redman and, despite him now gone, still featuring Penman and Harlanda group that represented a modern kind of mainstream jazz.
James Farm's kind of modern mainstream possessed clear roots in the American tradition, but also clearly incorporated the broader interests of its young players, with Redman the senior at 43, Parks the baby at 29 (but with a decade of high profile playing behind him, starting with trumpeter Terence Blanchard at the age of 18), and Penman and Harland occupying the middle, somewhere in their thirties. Mixed meters abounded, with Harland's "North Star" demonstrating that it's possible to groove viscerally, even when alternating bars of 5/4 and 6/4and even if Harland took his time getting there, first implying time but gradually turning more direct. It was a tough chart, to be sure, with Parks' supporting chords almost running cross-purposes to Harland's fluid polyrhythms, but that didn't stop Redman from delivering one of his most searing solos of the set, following Penman's feature, which only served to justify his increasingly in-demand status.
The set continued with two new pieces from Penman, "Two Steps" and "Jury's Out," which ran the gamut from near-acoustic funk to gentler terrain, while Redman's lengthy set-closer, "Mister E," combined rhythmic complexities (a thematic section where three bars of 5/4 and one of 2/4 were repeated) with a breakdown into complete freedomsomething new for James Farm and, in many ways, Redman himselfultimately leading to Harland's only true solo of the set, but one well worth waiting forand which ended in an absolutely unpredictable but wonderful anticlimax, as Harland played increasingly soft and simple, rather than loud and busy. Hopefully some of the drummers in attendance at Katché's performance the night before were back to catch Harland, undeniably one of the most important American drummers of his generation.
Again, the tremendously vocal audience was unwilling to let James Farm get away with just a single encore, and so the group ended on a gentler note, bringing the energy level of the hall down as a fitting end to one of the festival's most exciting shows.
November 6: Bill Frisell/Bill Morrison, The Great Flood
He's no stranger to music for filmswith a soundtrack to All Hat (Universal, 2008) and, perhaps more importantly, two 1995 Nonesuch recordings devoted to silent film comedian Buster Keaton,Go West and The High Sign/One Week, under his belt. But for Bill Morrison's film The Great Flood, guitarist Bill Frisell went a step further, doing more than simply scoring the film. Morrison's film, documenting the Mississippi River flood of 1927 that, according to the film's website, ..."broke out of its banks in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles to a depth of up to 30 feet," was made in collaboration with Frisell and his management, Songtone Productions, produced by Phylis Oyama. To prepare the music, Frisell actually took his band, also featuring trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist/guitarist Tony Scherr and drummer/vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, on a tour up the Mississippi River, in order to capture some of the vibe, despite being nearly a century after the fact.
The collective result wasbetween Morrison's incredible archival research and even more impressive editing of film clips from a myriad of disparate sources into a 75-minute film of power, poignancy, tragedy and, at times, even humor, Frisell's roots-driven score, and the empathic connection of a group of players who've been working with the guitarist in a variety of contexts for well more than a decadea performance at Ludwigshafen's dasHaus that will not soon be forgotten, and which rivaled Frisell's show earlier this summer at the 2012 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, where he delivered a transcendent set based on his most recent release, the John Lennon tribute, All We Are Saying... (Savoy, 2012).
Frisell's Enjoy Jazz performance almost didn't happenor, rather, happen as planned. Due to the ongoing effects of Hurricane Sandy, which clobbered the northeastern United States including New York City, Wollesen had trouble getting out of the city and, in fact, missed the tour's first couple dates. It's not insignificant that, when faced with this problem, Frisell chose to do the shows without him, rather than looking for a possible replacement. Frisell has, over the past couple decades, built a small but clearly trusted collective of musicians from which he draws. Similar to drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, the importance of who is playing transcends what is being played; clearly Frisell prefers to adapt the music without the instrument, rather than employ a substitute less sympathetic to the intimacy of his group approach.
If the soundtrack to The Great Flood demanded more attention to form than his considerably more open Lennon tribute, there was still plenty of room for Frisell and his group to maneuver within the compositional roadmaps and specific cues. Miles, in particular, was in great form, his contributions never less than perfect, while it was a real treat to finally get to see Wollesenwho finally got out of New York, making this his first appearance of the tourplaying vibes. Known primarily as a drummer, Wollesen has contributed vibes to a number of soundtracks by renegade saxophonist (and former Frisell collaborator) John Zorn; it may be a second instrument for him, but it's clearly one he's spent plenty of time with. "Love the vibes," he said after the show when, with the audience out of the hall, he was still playing them.
There were many highlights, as the quartet paralleled the film's narrative: during the humorous "Sears & Roebuck" segment where, to fast-shifting images from an old S&R catalog, the quartet swung along with no shortage of tongue-in-cheek swagger, while a powerful, deceptively climactic build came, even as the floodwaters began to subside and its full ravages unveiled in far greater detail. Most tenderly, though, was a beautiful version of the set's only cover, Jerome Kern's appropriate "Old Man River," played over images of African-American guitarists, and men and women dancing. Frisell's command of color, harmony and melody were as on point for the subject matter as ever, and now, the only question is: when will this music come out, and how? There's been talk of DVDeven of iPad/iPhone appbut whatever the format, when Frisell finally gets around to releasing itusing music recorded on tourthis will surely go down as one of his best projects in recent years.
November 7: Herbie Hancock, Plugged In
In recent years, Herbie Hancock has been touring shows leaning more heavily to the pop side of his music, in particular the pianist's recent The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock, 2010). So it's easy to forget what a cutting edge artist he has been throughout his career, whether it was with trumpeter Miles Davis' much-lauded second great quintet of the 1960s, or in his own groups, like the acoustic quintet responsible for the classsic Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965), or the electrified ensembles documented on the funky Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) and prescient techno album Future Shock (Columbia, 1983).
For his Enjoy Jazz performance, Hancock dispensed with a group altogether, instead surrounding himself with a wealth of technologysynthesizers, Keytar, five iPads, two computers and morethough there was still a wonderful old grand piano, provided by the venue, Ludwigshafen's BASF-Feierabendhaus. It should be noted, too, that while BASF has been supporting Enjoy Jazz for seven years, it is far more than that (though, truthfully, its sponsorship would suffice). Instead, the company provides venues for shows, puts artists up in its own hotel; all-in-all a very friendly arrangement that exemplifies the way Enjoy Jazz conducts its business.
Hancock entered the stage to tremendous applause, and opened with a largely improvised acoustic excursion (but not entirely; there was a lengthy chart on the piano) based on Shorter's well-known "Footprints," though Hancock's greater abstractions made it barely recognizable, beyond the occasional reiteration of part of its familiar theme. Still, it boded well for an evening tagged Plugged In: A Night of Solo Exploration. As Hancock continued on acoustic piano for a second piece, the Plugged In part began to seep in, with first the sound of a marimba, then a processed bass drum entering the picture. As the piece developed, it turned truly orchestral, with strings, percussion and more expanding the overall soundscape.
It was after these two piecesthirty-five minutes into the setthat Hancock first spoke to the audience, explaining the process: "The first piece was, of course, 'Footprints,' but I didn't stick to the form. Composers like Beethoven and Ravel, they figured out the form as they went along; they didn't just stick with two bars. So why did I not stick to form? Because I'm composing; because I don't need to. There's no bassist and no drummer, which gives me a lot of freedom. But," he said, chuckling, "with freedom comes a lot of responsibility."
Hancock, continued with a piece that featured orchestral arrangements by keyboardist George Whitty, moving into a version of "Maiden Voyage," which he introduced by saying "What do you think, if I want to use some of these things up here," pointing to the gear nearly filling the stage. "Five ipads, two computers, five keyboards and other stuff you can't see. It's an experiment. I'd like to take 'Maiden Voyage,' I'll do the form but then I'll make up my own form; and I'll play some of these things in it. It's scary, so I'm gonna start off on acoustic piano, and we'll see how things go."
Strapping on a headset which allowed him to trigger a vocoder, Hancock moved very gradually into the form of "Maiden Voyage," but when the theme finally emerged, it was in an entirely different context than the original. Calm and quiet, even as string synth was added and the piece opened up even further, Hancock abandoned his piano for synth and a more electro-centric pulse, despite the chordal underpinning remaining elegiac as he began to sing the song's theme, albeit massively processed and harmonized.
Hancock has always been on the technological cutting edge, to be sure, but at a time when so many young artists have seamlessly meshed electronics with acoustic instrumentation, Hancock may have been a trendsetter but he's no longer a groundbreaker. Instead, with his between-song patter and choice of material, this was more entertaining than profoundand good entertainment it most certainly was. He finally strapped on the Keytar that had been onstage for the entire set, and moved into a piece built on rhythmic, chordal and harmonic loops, but quickly deserted it again for acoustic piano, entering into a funkified version of "Cantaloupe Island" that closed the set on a high note, moving back to center stage with his Keytar and triggering a series of vocal samples.
To be sure, Hancock lost some of his audiencethose who were, perhaps, expecting something more experimentalbut the majority remained, and was enthusiastic throughout, fervently demanding an encore when the set was over. Hancock returned for another Keytar-driven piece, this time a medley of "Rockit" and "Chameleon," and if he no longer seems interested in setting new trends and breaking new ground, Hancock proved, at his Enjoy Jazz performance, that he was, indeed, capable of putting on a show that was compelling enough, musically, and high on the entertainment scaleand there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Getting ready to catch a plane to Oslo, for Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen's 60th Birthday bash at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, it was unfortunate to have to miss Enjoy Jazz's first symposium on the state of jazz today. Organized by German scholar Dr. Christian Broecking, Lost in Diversity was sure to feature some intriguing lectures and group discussions, with invited participants including musicians including saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and reed multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, along with jazz critics like Howard Mandel and Ted Panken. Thelonious Monk Institute president Tom Carter, Jazzinstitute Darmstadt director Wolfram Knauer, University of California's Eric Porter, Copenhagen Jazz Festival's Christian Dalhas and others.
But with a truly exciting two days lined up for Osloincluding a new improvising ensemble led by Endresen, and an evening of music dedicated to Endresen by friends flying in from many locationsit was a one-time event not to be missed. Still, it's always difficult to leave Heidelberg, and this year was no different. After a week of largely outstanding music, great food, terrific care from the Enjoy Jazz staff and the Hollander Hof hotel, the only thing that will be better will be a guaranteed invite to return to Germany in 2013, when Enjoy Jazz turns fifteen.
All Photos: John Kelman