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ELBJAZZ 2017

Ian Patterson By

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ELBJAZZ 2017
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.

So great has the interest been in the diverse musical programme of the Elbphilharmonie for its first season that all 400,000 tickets for the hundreds of concerts—classical, jazz, folk and pop—were sold out within a week of going on sale. Strict ticket allocations are in place, restrictions that meant that All About Jazz was unable to cover concerts by Jan Garbarek, Eric Schaeffer and Christoph Spangenberg.

Whilst the veteran Garbarek was hardly in need of one more review, Schaeffer and Spangenberg may well have welcomed the oxygen of publicity that All About Jazz would happily have provided these talented musicians with. Perhaps for Elbjazz 2018 the organizers might consider further concessions to the media, which would surely be in the interests of musicians, the festival and this magnificent venue alike.

Youn Sun Nah

A rapturous reception greeted Youn Sun Nah as she led her quartet onto the stage of the Elbphilharmonie, an outpouring of affection that was testament to the South Korean's popularity in Germany, where her albums typically climb high in the pop charts. The new material from She Moves On (ACT Music, 2017) hinted at a move away from the more jazz-edged, risk-laden approach taken in tandem with duo partner Ulf Wakenius these past ten years, towards more middle-of-the-road terrain.

The signs had perhaps been on the cards with Lento (ACT Music, 2013), an introspective singer-songwriter's album of emotional depth, but as the new songs demonstrated to the adoring Elbphilharmonie crowd, beginning with Joni Mitchell's "The Dawn Treader," Nah has settled into the fairly comfortable role of interpreter of pop and folk songs, to the extent that the ballad "Traveller" was the only self-penned tune of the set.

This tune, with its spare arrangement best framed Nah's undeniably appealing vocals, given that the hall's acoustics were less than kind to the band. The slightly tinny sound dissipated upwards, whilst it was often a strain to hear guitarist Clifton Hyde or bassist Brad Jones' comping, or drummer Dan Rieser's most nuanced brushwork.

Up-tempo and reasonably faithful covers of Paul Simon's "She Moves On" and Lou Reed's "Teach the Gifted Children" intermingled with ballads, of which keyboardist Jamie Saft's bluesy, Norah Jones-esque "Too Late" and Jimi Hendrix's gorgeous "Drifting" were highlights -Nah giving full rein to her powerful vocals on the latter.

The singer accompanied herself on kalimba for an introspective rendition of "Black is The Color," though perhaps her most daring arrangement came on Fairport Convention's reading of another traditional tune—"A Sailor's Life," with Saft's piano combing with Nah to work a little magic into this epic maritime tale of love and death. Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon"—a staple of many a Nah concert—rounded out the set, though given the standing ovation that greeted Nah and her musicians, the audience's disinterest in calling for an encore was odd to say the least.

There was little of Nah's trademark vocal pyrotechnics during a concert that lasted just an hour. A little more musical adventure and a little more music to boot wouldn't have gone amiss.

Moving Parts

The Alte Maschinenbauhalle—a large shipyard hangar—was packed to the rafters for the concert of Moving Parts, the power trio of Augsberg-born, Hamburg resident drummer Benny Greb.

A few days before, the Alte Maschinenbauhalle had been the setting for the German music industry's prestigious ECHO Jazz Awards. Eighty-one-year old saxophonist Klaus Doldinger received the Lifetime Achievement Award, whilst other winners included Joachim Kuhn, Michael Wollny, Norah Jones, Kenny Barron and Marius Neset, amongst others. The Newcomer Award went to saxophonist Anna-Lena Schnabel, whose album Books, Bottles and Bamboo (Enja, 2016) featuring Thomas Morgan, Florian Weber and Dan Weiss caught the ECHO Jazz judges' ears.

That the ECHO Jazz Awards were held on the site of Elbjazz was a feather in the cap of the festival, a spotlight that will hopefully attract greater local/national media interest in one of Germany's youngest yet most spectacular jazz festivals.

Greb may not have received too many high-profile awards in his career to date, but for many the German is one of the most arresting of modern-day European drummers. Greb's varied discography includes collaborations with Nils Wülker, the Ron Spielman Trio, punk/cabaret band Strom & Wasser, and Colin Towns' excellent band Blue Touch Paper, with whom Greb recorded the highly recommended Stand Well Back (Provocateur Records, 2011) and Drawing Breath (Provocateur Records, 2013).

Sessions and side projects aside, Greb is a leader in his own right, with five solo albums to his name, including a couple with his trio Moving Parts, which for this concert featured guitarist Chris Montague [also of Blue Touch Paper] and bassist Chris Hargreaves. The opening number alternated between slow-grooving rock-funk and flashes of bebop-ish ensemble charge, with Montague's gritty riffing escalating into harmonically sophisticated improvisation.
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