Ian Patterson By

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Blohm and Voss/various venues
Hamburg, Germany
June 2-3, 2017

Although Gregory Porter was the marquee name at the sixth edition of Elbjazz, with a strong supporting cast including Joshua Redman, Jan Garbarek, Hildegard Lernt Fliegen and Youn Sun Nah, the real star of the show was the spectacular festival setting. The Blohm and Voss shipyard, where most of the concerts were held in four different venues, provided a dramatic industrial backdrop to the music, its giant cranes silhouetted against the skyline, standing sentinel over the crowds. Ship containers flanked stages, bathed in, and transmitting kaleidoscopic lights, while a huge shipyard hanger, ribbed with giant steel beams, served as one of the venues.

Elbjazz was returning after a hiatus in 2016—a gap year for strategic realignment—and the decision has paid off handsomely. A stunning new venue, the Elbphilharmonie, and an expanded programme that, inevitably perhaps, went beyond jazz, meant that audience numbers were up significantly on previous years. Even the unpredictable maritime weather wasn't too unkind, delivering one day of glorious sunshine and limiting the rain on day two to the morning before the main programme began.

Barge and bus services ferried festival goers to and from the south bank of the Elb River that is home to Blohm and Voss, which, at the outset of the twentieth century ranked as one of the world's most important ship-building yards. The bus route navigated a new, developing part of Hamburg, while the barge ride offered, particularly on the sunny first day of Elbjazz 2017, wonderful views of the harbour—resplendent with all manner of boats—and of the Hamburg skyline. Alternatively, a hundred-year-old tunnel beneath the Elb, complete with art-deco tiles, allowed pedestrians and cyclists perhaps the quickest route to the festival site.

Day One

Nguyen Le & The NDR Bigband

A week after impressing with his Hanoi Duo project at Like A Jazz Machine 2017, Vietnamese/French guitarist Nguyen Le turned up in a markedly different setting, with a personal arrangement of the music from Pink Floyd's iconic Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest, 1973), on the main stage of the shipyard—the Hauptbuhne.

Over the years Floyd's biggest-selling album has been reinterpreted in the studio by a dub reggae band, a progressive rock super-group, a bluegrass outfit, a string quartet and even an a cappella band. Le's Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon (ACT Music), a collaboration with conductor/arranger Michael Gibbs and the NDR Bigband, however, is likely the first time the music has been given the jazz treatment. For Elbjazz, Le was joined by Gary Husband and Andreas Schaerer, with the NDR Bigband conducted by Geir Lysne.

Schaerer and Husband both stamped their personalities on the music from the start, with the vocalist's idiosyncratic improvisations on the spoken-word babble-of-tongues introduction and a typically pugnacious drum roll from Husband. An extended saxophone solo preceded "Breathe," first interpreted instrumentally then vocally by Schaerer, and whist Schaerer's interventions were telling they were also few. Schaerer brought manic accent to "Time" but was conspicuous by his absence on an instrumental versions of "The Great Gig in The Sky" and "Money," which became extended vehicles for the NDR Bigband to shine, collectively and individually. Le unleashed spluttering metal-esque solos full of sparks and grinding endeavour, but both these tunes were crying out for the operatic range and finesse that Schaerer, this most unique of vocalists, holds in his armoury.

The original Floyd album clocked in at just over thirty eight minutes, whereas Le's bigband arrangement stretched to almost seventy five minutes -the instrumental passages feeling overly drawn out at times. Some of the nuances of Le's finely crafted studio version were lost in the live arena, and whilst the Elbjazz audience lapped it all up there was the feeling that the perfect dish that was DSOTHM had been seasoned by Le's hand to create flavors that were distinctive yet a trifle over-powering.

The Elbphilharmonie

A major new chapter in the brief history of Elbjazz was the inauguration, in January 2017, of the multi-sala venue Elbphilharmonie, a spectacular piece of architectural engineering and imaginative design that has already become an iconic Hamburg landmark and one of the most talked about concert halls in the world.

The striking edifice—designed by architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron—is shaped like a cresting 110-metre wave, its futuristic glass façade constructed upon the brick base of an historic quayside warehouse. (see photo slideshow). Entrance via a curving escalator, arriving to a panoramic view of Hamburg harbour, makes for a grand impression, while a three hundred and sixty degree walkway around the building's exterior offers tremendous views of the harbour and city.

At the centre of the Elbphilharmonie is the Grand Hall. Seating two thousand, one hundred people, the stage is centrally placed in a terraced vineyard style to bring performers and audience closer together. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron and renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, the grand Hall is a spectacular synergy of style and function. Six concerts were held in the Grand Sala over the two days of Elbjazz 2017, adding almost twelve thousand to the overall attendance from previous years.

The modern glass and historic brick of the Elbphilharmonie is also symbolic of the synergy between Hamburg's past and present.

The old brick warehouses of Hamburg's quayside were in danger of meeting the wrecking ball of urban modernisation, but thankfully, a little visionary foresight by the powers that be recognized the historic value of these handsome relics of Hamburg's heyday as one of the world's great ports. Consequently, the mile-long string of warehouses that now house apartments, offices, restaurants, shops, cafes and artists' lofts, has become a major feature of a vast, ongoing regeneration project dubbed HefenCity that's recasting a huge swathe of industrial land on Hamburg's eastern gateway. When completed, the development will increase the land area of Hamburg by a staggering forty per cent.

The cranes that dot the skyline are testament not only to the scale of the project, but to the considerable amount of construction still to be realized. That said, what has been achieved thus far, with the Elbphilharmonie the jewel in the crown, suggests that HafenCity may well become the outstanding symbol of Hamburg's modernity, sophistication and ambitious urban renewal.
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