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2013 Enjoy Jazz Festival

John Kelman By

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The cafeteria of a newspaper office may seem like an unusual place to hold a concert, but it turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and good-sounding venue for Alexander "Sandi" Kuhn, a young German saxophonist who was this year's recipient of the Jazzpreisträger des Landes Baden-Württemberg, an annual prize from the state of Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany's 16 states and the one in which the three locales for Enjoy Jazz—Heidelberg, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen—all reside. Mannheimer Morgen is the region's most popular daily newspaper, and so when a location was required for Kuhn's award concert, the paper volunteered its cafeteria and opening foyer for both the concert and an after-show party of drinks and pretzels (locals insisting that the pretzel was first created in Mannheim, though it's a suggestion that seems, upon further discussion and investigation, to be something up for debate).

The annual prize provides a stipend of 15,000 Euros but is, according to Kuhn after the show, more valuable for the prestige it brings and the doors it opens. A panel of ten judges nominate up-and-coming artists and, after some deliberation, arrive at a winner. Without knowing who else was in the running, the only conclusion that can be made is that Kuhn was the best of the bunch; irrespective, he certainly proved to be both a fine saxophonist and engaging writer.

Living in Stuttgart, the saxophonist, now in his early thirties, studied at both the renowned Berklee College of Music and Aaron Copland School of Music in the United States, in addition to the University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, releasing The Ambiguity of Light (JazznArts, 2013) in January of this year, the follow- up to his 2011 Personality Records debut, Being Different. The only personnel carryovers from Being Different are bassist Jens Loh and drummer Axel Pape, two fine musicians who, like Kuhn, certainly deserve broader recognition. They're also the only two members of Kuhn's band on Ambiguity to appear at his 2013 Enjoy Jazz performance; while the album features singer Song Yi Jeon, guitarist Sybereen van Munster and vibraphonist Julius Heise, for his festival show he was accompanied, instead, by Hubert Nuss— a well-known pianist whose albums on the Pirouet imprint, including Feed the Birds (2005) and The Book of Colours (2010), have garnered him attention beyond the borders of his native country—and Köln-based vocalist Stephanie Neigel,

The replacement of guitar and vibraphone with piano meant a significant textural change to Kuhn's set, largely culled from Ambiguity though he did deliver a significantly re-imagined and re-harmonized version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's enduring "Girl from Ipanema" (in this case, sung by Neigel, "The Boy from Ipanema") that was, perhaps, the set's only misstep, though it did feature a strong solo from Kuhn that almost made up for it.

Truthfully, Kuhn should have stuck to his own writing, which proved to be both accessible and filled with enough harmonic and rhythmic interest to keep both the audience and band members engaged throughout the 80-minute set. Everyone stood out at different times, but perhaps the biggest surprise was Loh, who not only anchored the music alongside Pape, but delivered occasional solos oozing with imagination; his feature on "Long Time, No See" was particularly impressive, his quiet vocalization clearly a conduit from his head to his hands. He also opened the following tune with an a cappella introduction, beginning with a single harmonic pedal tone, around which he built his melodies, gradually moving to chordal work that was equally motivic but even more impressive.

Neigel had a few pitch issues that were most noticeable when she was doubling Kuhn's lines (in fairness, perhaps a monitor problem), but largely she proved, as a vocalist being used as an additional instrumental voice—other than "Boy from Ipanema," she sang wordlessly—to be a fine addition to the band, and a couple of solo features demonstrated even greater potential. Clearly coming from the Norma Winstone tradition, her solos were as intriguing as those from the rest of the group, as she navigated broad intervals and seamlessly changed the timbre of her voice, using vibrato as an effect rather than an excuse for poor intonation.

Pape rarely soloed, but demonstrated an inventive approach to maintaining the pulse throughout the set. And when he did solo, rather than aim for the obvious of building a solo from more minimal beginnings to a thundering, virtuosic ending, he focused, instead, on both twisting and turning the time and using space so well that there were times when he stopped playing for so long that it almost became uncomfortable, creating a delicate sense of tension and release that was as dramatic as any pyrotechnics might have been.

Nuss was a thoughtful accompanist and an even more impressive soloist, in particular later in the set when everyone seemed to have warmed up considerably, and especially on the gospel-informed "Sustainable Happiness" which trumped the album version if only because piano is a far more appropriate instrument for a tune of this nature, but also because Nuss delivered a slo that built slowly, inevitably to a climax—at one point quoting Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"—so powerful that he received one of the most enthusiastic responses from the roughly 120 people who came to the Mannheimer Morgen cafeteria for the performance.

Kuhn borrowed liberally from the obvious sources for a young tenor saxophonist—in particulaer Michael Brecker by way of Chris Potter—but his own voice has clearly emerged, as he demonstrated Donny McCaslin-like altissimo control during his solo on "Leaving," a Latinesque number slightly reminiscent of Chick Corea's "Sea Journey," but with a 5/4 groove carried effortlessly by Loh and Pape. He also built a solo on "Sustainable Happiness" that reached such climactic heights that the audience, once again, demonstrated particularly strong appreciation.

Kuhn's writing, especially with the use of a female voice delivering wordless vocals, was clearly informed by Canadian expat trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, particularly in the way he often created contrapuntal lines that wound in, around and, finally, together in unison. He shared Wheeler's penchant for slight melancholy, though the more upbeat vibe of "Sustainable Happiness" is something the trumpeter would never have written.

It may have been an unusual place for a concert, but at the end of the day it turned out to be ideal; the sound was great, the music even better and the performances at a level, both in maturity and attention to space, far beyond the age of this young saxophonist. Alexander "Sandi" Kuhn may be relatively new to the scene, but there's little doubt that if a little luck comes his way, more will be heard from this talented young saxophonist, composer and bandleader.


November 14, Karlstorbahnhof, Heidelberg: Third Reel

With the passing of drummer Paul Motian in 2011, it seemed that his longstanding trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano was at an end...and it was. But with the debut of Third Reel (ECM, 2013), it seemed that, intentional or no, the torch had been passed to a trio of young players from Italy and Switzerland. While there's little denying that Motian's trio was the inspiration for this trio, consisting of saxophonist/clarinetist Nicolas Masson, guitarist Roberto Pianca and Emanuele Maniscalco, the album also made clear that these three players were adding their own personalities to this preexisting concept/context.

Something that was even more evident in the trio's Heidelberg performance at Karlstorbahnhof. While the crowd was smaller than this trio deserved, it was certainly enthusiastic, and the group's two sets turned out to be one of the highlights of the past nine days.

What was, perhaps, the most striking element of Third Reel's performance was the role of drummer Maniscalco. While he demonstrated much of the textural proclivities of the late Motian, he also revealed, throughout the evening, a slightly different modus operandi to Motian's flagship trio. While Masson created thoughtful melodies that often intertwined with Pianca's heavily reverberated and delayed chordal work—not unlike Frisell, based on a lot of sustaining notes that allowed him to layer gentle melodies simultaneously—Maniscalco played far more time than was obvious on the recording. The idea of a drummer holding down time—albeit in the freest possible way— while his two partners play rubato over top—created a slightly more grounded sound, despite Maniscalco largely playing quietly and resorting to the use of rim shots and hands to broaden his own textural possibilities.

When Pianca kicked in an overdrive box, the volume ramped up considerably, and yet was never oppressively loud; instead it was more about contrast, as the majority of the set was soft and sometimes so quiet that it felt almost necessary to lean forward to actually hear it.

Virtuosity, at least overt, was not a cornerstone of the trio's record, and while some groups tend to change live, becoming more excited, excitable and busy, Third Reel managed to retain the same restraint and patience of its record, resulting in some truly beautiful moments, juxtaposed with occasionally angular passages that were, nevertheless, somehow rounded by Pianca's imaginative sonic clouds. The combination of these three fine players, with Masson their spokesperson and, it would appear, de facto leader, was impressive enough to engender hopes that Third Reel's ECM debut will not be a one-time affair; clearly already evolving since that recording, it will be fascinating to see where this talented trio goes next.


Wrap-Up

When deciding what week to attend at the seven-week Enjoy Jazz Festival, it's all about combining the opportunity to catch familiar faces—though sometimes in new contexts, as was the case with Nik Bärsch and his Ronin Rhythm Clan—the chance to be exposed to unfamiliar names like Sandi Kuhn, and the chance to see things that rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to come Stateside, let alone to Canada. Having attended the festival regularly since 2009, based on the shows seen this year, the 2013 edition may well be its best since that first year, when it participated in a celebration of ECM Records' 40th year with a three-day event that was one of the rare times that Enjoy Jazz packed a multitude of shows into a single day.

With the Hollander Hof Hotel (located on the Neckar River right at the juncture of a centuries old footbridge) also a wonderful and consistent base since 2009—and with a truly warm and welcoming staff that makes it feel, each year, like returning to a second home—it's hard to resist any opportunity to return to the region for Enjoy Jazz. With Rainer Kern, whose truly open-minded programming means there's always something for everyone—usually more—and a festival staff that, not unlike Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, makes this annual trek over the Atlantic to the south of Germany always worthwhile and somehow feeling familial— this 15th Edition of Enjoy Jazz was a clear indicator of both continued success and potential for future growth.


Photo Credit
John Kelman

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