Burghausen Jazz Festival 2013

John Kelman By

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March 16: Klaus Doldinger's Passport / Gregory Porter

While the festival promotes its Saturday night as the mainstream night, that's not exactly how the first act would be described. Since forming the group in the early 1970s, German saxophonist Klaus Doldinger has kept Passport a going concern, long after other successful fusion groups have disbanded and faded into the fabric of history.

Maybe it's because Passport's always been on the more accessible side of the fusion equation, strong on melody, groove and, on occasion, some harder-edged grit, that's allowed Doldinger the luxury of keeping it alive for more than 40 years. Of course there are none of the original personnel, save Doldinger himself, in Passport 2013, but the saxophonist has brought together a percussion-heavy septet—with percussionists Ernst Ströer and Biboukl Darouiche, drummer Christian Lettner, keyboardist Michael Horneck, bassist Patrick Scales and, originally from Australia, guitarist Peter O'Mara—that was as retro as it needed to be and as contemporary as it wanted to be.

Scales, who also co-leads a band with his brother, guitarist Martin Scales, has been with Passport for nearly twenty years—something of a record, but one matched by O'Mara, who moved to Munich in 1981 and since becoming a fixture on the German jazz scene. Both were in fine form at B-Jazz: Scales, a bubbling groove-meister and, during his solo spot during "Bellydance," one with a surprisingly broad command of his instrument; O'Mara largely favoring a densely overdriven, whammy bar-centric but harmonically sophisticated approach that made him the most exciting soloist of the show, overall, demonstrating that he's more than just a fusion player during his solo on "Malesh," where he quoted, amongst other things, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Horneck, too, turned in some fine solos, largely focused on a retro-Rhodes tone, but occasionally dipping into middle eastern tonalities. Lettner had the perhaps unenviable task of keeping the pulse moving while surrounded by a wealth of hand percussion which, for the most part, worked in concert but occasionally became a little overcrowded. But that's often the risk and, for the most part, Doldinger's clear arrangements ensured a group equally streamlined and clean.

As was Doldinger's saxophone playing. Not exactly a virtuoso, he played to his strengths and built solos predicated on melody and intensity of tone rather than furious displays of technical virtuosity. The music dipped back into Doldinger's 40 year-plus Passport repertoire, but also featured music from the group's most recent disc, Inner Blue (Warner Germany, 2011), in particular the hard-and-heavy "Mangroove." Throughout the set, Doldinger engaged the audience in a relaxed fashion, with plenty of stories and hopes to see Passport turn 50 in a little less than a decade. That he continues to work this band, which tours internationally, on a regular basis, is all the more remarkable for the nearly 77 year-old saxophonist, since his work for film and television has long since ensured a healthy income. Clearly Passport still means a lot to him and, judging from the audience's reaction, it means a lot to them too.

On the ascendancy the past couple years, first with his debut, Water (Motéma, 2010) and now with the Grammy-nominated Be Good (Motéma, 2012), singer Gregory Porter proved an interesting case of a singer who looks to be outgrowing his band. Using the same group that first came together at a small club in Brooklyn, New York, where the Los Angeles-born singer now lives, it's hard to deny the value of friendship and camaraderie in a group. Still, a singer is only as good as the band backing him/her up, and in Porter's case, he has grown so rapidly over the last couple years—touring over 200 dates per year and traveling around the globe—that while his performance at B-Jazz was nothing short of exceptional for his contribution, it was difficult not to imagine how he'd have sounded, had he a group at the same level.

Not that any of his group were particularly bad—though saxophonist Yosuke Sato could learn a thing or three about the use of space, as every solo was a constant flurry of notes and unrelenting motion across his alto's register, something not helped when Jon Faddis joined the group for a few songs and turned then into a friendly cutting contest that drove Sato to even busier (and more shrill) heights. The group was tight, no doubt about it, hitting all the marks, and supporting Porter capably and with feeling. But there was the sense, especially in songs like Porter's incendiary "1960 What?"—about the early 1960s Detroit city fires that the singer delivered with the kind of commitment that almost felt as though he'd been there—where it became clear that no matter how terrific Porter was (and he was terrific), he'd have been even more so with a band capable of a little more finesse, and a little more subtlety; sometimes its approach was just too obvious.

Irrespective of the band's shortcomings, Porter really is the new male voice in jazz, his rich, dark baritone as capable of Jon Hendricks-style scat it was more soulful delivery. On a version of cornetist Nat Adderley's "Work Song," Porter embedded another blues that gave the tune, about working in prison chain gangs, even greater gravitas. And while Porter's early days in theater have made him a seasoned performer, none of his movements, affects or actions onstage felt any less natural than the way he sang. Even his "Real Good Hands," written in response to an old girlfriend's parents' asking about his intentions, felt as honest and heartfelt as it must have when he wrote it; and it's not hard to buy into Porter really being the picture of a man "slowly coming into view," who feels that his girlfriend's father really is "the picture of the man / That I someday want to be."

Faddis was a masterful guest onstage, though even with him there were times where a little more restraint would have helped. Still, his technique is impeccable, his facility and reach one that few can parallel today. But the show truly belonged to Porter—who, after the show, was awarded the Impala Prize by Membran Media's Götz Bühler, for sales of over 40,000 units in Europe. Clearly Porter's star is on a major ascendancy, and staying on the road is translating into sales rare for even the most established jazz artists. But he's also on a cusp of even greater things, and as hard as it may be for him to first acknowledge and then act upon, his own talent has simply eclipsed that of his band. Porter has already demonstrated the capacity to become one of jazz's truly great singers; now, for the next step, he needs a band capable of putting him there.

March 17: Next Generation Day / Festival Wrap- Up

The final day of B-Jazz is devoted to a series that, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, provides an opportunity for four up-and-coming bands to play at either the 600-seat Stadtsaal or in the club atmosphere of the Jazzkeller, where pianist Kirk Lightsey's Trio led the late night jam sessions throughout the week.

But more than merely an opportunity to perform live, Next Generation is also a collaboration between Germany's Jazzthing magazine and Double Moon record label, with five groups selected each year to record and release a CD. The only prerequisites are that the group must be relatively young (thirty or under), and must not have released an album previously. Four groups are chosen to perform at B-Jazz; three at a late afternoon concert at Stadtsaal—this year, the east-meets-west trio Ek Safar, vibraphonist Sonja Huber's Quartet and singer Nils-Christopher Vögler, going under just the name Nils-Christopher—and, closing out the festival with a 9:00pm performance at the Jazzkellar, the Offshore quintet.

While time did not allow catching all four acts, the first two of the day were certainly promising. Ek Safar brings together German pianist Nicolas Schulze and clarinetist Heiner Stilz with Indian tablaist Soumitra Paul. The result—a combination of individual compositions by each of the band members, some collaborative writing and a couple of traditional Indian ragas rearranged by the group—couldn't help but bear some resemblance, texturally, to early-to-mid-period Oregon, though the music itself was nothing like the music made when guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, reed multi- instrumentalist Paul McCandless and bassist Glen Moore were still playing with percussionist Collin Walcott and, later, Trilok Gurtu. Considerably sparer, Ek Safar's performance was heavy on lyrical content, with Paul managing to provide plenty of forward motion and bottom end near-bass, allowing Schulze, and Stilz, in particular, to hover and soar over top. Schulze occasionally reached inside the piano box to create some more percussive textures, but most often played conventionally with the keys, a surprisingly restrained and ultimately tasteful player who also laid some solid groundwork for Stilz in a set that drew heavily on its debut recording, One Journey (Double Moon, 2012)

It was a relatively quiet and tranquil set that had the occasional climactic moment, but was a nice and easy way to slip into the afternoon's schedule and lead to a more upbeat set from Swiss vibraphonist Sonja Huber's Quartet.

Huber's group has already changed considerably from the quartet that recorded its debut, William's Garden (Double Moon, 2012), in Switzerland in May, 2011. Gone were bassist Martin Wyss and drummer Daniel Bolli, replaced by Patrick Sommer and Valeria Zangger, respectively, for a set that took considerable inspiration from vibraphonist Gary Burton's quartet with guitarist Pat Metheny, though it's still early days for Huber and her group, and while the writing was engaging and the playing solid, the band could have paid a little more attention to dynamics, which were relatively flat throughout the hour-long set, making for a set that could have been great, but was simply good, instead.

That said, there's plenty of promise. Huber's use of violin bows on the vibes created wonderful resonant textures, in particular on the opening "De Chilini Prinz," and her four-mallet technique, while clearly still a work-in-progress, was impressive enough. Guitarist Matthias Siegrist, the only holdover from the recording, was also impressive as a rare guitarist of his generation not to sound like he was coming directly from the Kurt Rosenwinkel school. Both Huber and Siegrist were comfortable winding their way through the changes provided by the vibraphonist's compositions, anchored solidly by Sommer and Zangger, though it was only towards the end of the set, when the young drummer took a solo, that she began to demonstrate some much- needed fire. With writing that ranged from unerringly melodic to knottily idiosyncratic, the quartet demonstrated real potential—promise that may well be delivered upon if the quartet can work on playing with a broader dynamic range.

A noon-hour press conference earlier the same day, revealed the successes and challenges of running a world-class jazz festival in such a small town.

The good news is that the B-Jazz 2013, with more than 7,000 paying guests and over 8,000 attendees total, has broken even—the festival's goal, as it's not looking to turn a profit. With a great many people coming to the festival from places other than Burghausen, it also meant more revenue pouring into the town (and the Austrian town on the other side of the river) for hotels, restaurants and shopping.

Still, as the town's mayor explained, funding is becoming increasingly difficult. The city needs to fund a great many things, including other forms of art and sports, and while a larger center like Munich has a lot of money to go around, even a rich town like Burghausen, with Wacker a major employer, is limited. Still, with B-Jazz's 50th Anniversary six years away, the mayor was very clear that, though there may be challenges, they will make it.

While other places in the province of Bavaria get significant regional, provincial and federal funding, Burghausen gets very little; a good example being another festival cited that received 1.5 million euros over a three-year period, compared to Burghausen's allotment of just 4,000 euros from Bavaria and 6,000 euros from the region. In a way, B- Jazz's success has been to its detriment. The feeling is that if the festival can do this well, it doesn't need any additional funding; that this happens because so many of its staff are volunteers and there are no highly paid festival directors or presenters should be rewarded and not ignored. As Andreas Bentlage suggested, earlier on in the festival, B-Jazz is a labor of love for all involved, and it's that very vibe that makes it such an appealing place to visit and catch a week of world-class jazz.

But for its future, there are indeed challenges, including funding the music academy and Jazz Masters classes that take place during the week of B-Jazz. But the mayor was adamant about keeping the first-night competition, which resulted in guitarist Matīss Čudars winning his opening slot on B-Jazz's first official night and a substantial financial award.

Cassandra Wilson's name inevitably came up many times during the conference, as her appearance in Burghausen was fraught with more problems than are worth mentioning. Anger towards her was so strong in a couple instances that it was suggested her "Street of Fame" placard be removed; a voice of reason did, however, suggest that, while everyone was bitching about all the hassles surrounding her performance, they were all forgetting one thing: when she hit the stage, Wilson absolutely delivered a superb show, with a terrific band, and was so engaged, convivial and cordial with the audience that they'd never have known of all the problems that took place before and after the show. It's certainly not likely that B-Jazz will be re-inviting Wilson anytime soon, but that does not detract from the fact that she absolutely delivered when it came to what mattered most: satisfying her audience.

There are also discussions afoot of a new festival that will focus on younger artists and east-west collaborations—the kinds of things that make it easier to obtain funding from the European Union, which is simply not interested in funding American artists. It's a great idea, but only time will tell whether it's an idea that actually gets off the ground.

Meanwhile, that B-Jazz runs on such a relative shoestring—50,000 euros from the city, another 30,000 euros in soft dollar support from Wacker (primarily the 1,276-seat Wackerhalle and all that entails), and 50% of its revenue from ticket sales (reasonable, in the 50 euros range for the big names that, in effect, give audiences two bands for the price of one) shouldn't penalize the festival, when it comes to possible finding sources looking at what the town is doing. Instead, it should be noted as the accomplishment that it is and rewarded with some additional assistance.

Whether or not that will happen has yet to be seen, but with the commitment of the town and B-Jazz's staff of dedicated, hardworking people—from presenters to publicity, from stage hands to sound engineers, and from drivers to artist liaisons—will ensure that the festival continues, and while it reaches its 45th anniversary next year, there's absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that 2019 is going to be a very special year, when B-Jazz turns 50.

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman


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