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ELBJazz Festival 2013: Hamburg, Germany, May 24-25, 2013

John Kelman By

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ELBJazz Day 1: Joshua Redman/Jason Lindner/Jakob Bro

Wishful thinking, perhaps, or an attempt at mind over matter, on the only day that didn't rain for the whole day—but was still unseasonably cold—saxophonist Joshua Redman and his kick-ass quartet featuring pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, started off their set with an incendiary version of the Gershwin staple "Summertime," deceptive from the saxophonist's spare, carefully formed a cappella intro. But when the band kicked in, so did the heat, with Redman delivering massive cascades and melodic variations, physically more animated than usual and bolstered by a rhythm section that was clearly having a blast.

Rogers, in particular, was rarely without a smile on his face, while Hutchinson—last seen with guitarist John Scofield's wonderful Organic Trio at the 2013 Burghausen Jazz Festival—would throw in a strong crash or temporal shift, looking at his band mates with an almost (almost) imperceptible grin. Goldberg was clearly listening, clearly looking for the right moment to throw in the right harmonic foundation that, at once, supported where Redman was going and drove the saxophonist into a new space.

Everyone soloed with tremendous fire and aplomb, but when Redman—after introducing the band and making a comment about his not having time to tell the audience the three jokes he knew in German—moved on to his balladic cover of dissonant alt-rockers Blonde Redhead's "Doll is Mine," from his recent jazz+strings recording, Walking Shadows (Nonesuch, 2013). The quartet demonstrated equal taste in such subdued settings; Rogers, in particular, took a beautiful solo, filled with memorable melodic ideas, as did Goldberg, whose solo built patiently and with great care, leading to Redman, whose altissimo tone was pure and rich.

Moving just a few meters away from Redman, who performed on the Hauptbühne stage on the Blohm + Voss shipyard, keyboardist Jason Lindner delivered a set that combined retro tones, soulful grooves and elements of Middle Eastern and Indian tonalities with his Now Vs. Now trio, also including bassist Panagiotis Andreou and drummer Mark Guiliana. The trio's debut, Jason Lindner Gives You Now Vs. Now (Anzic, 2009), was critically well-received and has its second recording in preparation for release later this year. While a first encounter with this exhilarating trio, it was clear that a few years of clocked up road time has done it no shortage of good.

Lindner—an in-demand player who has worked with everyone from Meshell Ndegeocello (his 2007 performance with the intrepid bassist/songwriter/singer at the Montreal Jazz Festival was especially memorable) to bassist Avishai Cohen and clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen (no relation)—has always been about a definition of jazz at its broadest. While the sophisticated language of his Now Vs. Now show was undeniably jazz-centered, the loose but potent grooves spoke of interests beyond even its furthest boundaries. In addition to being an impressive electric bassist, Andreou was a fine singer as well—at times, sounding a little like Tunisian-born/Austrian- resident oudist/vocalist Dhafer Youssef, his plaintive cries speaking plenty even in a foreign language, but his remarkable ability to scat not just serpentine melodic lines in tandem with his bass, but incorporating the Indian konnakol tradition of vocal percussion, made the Grecian bassist a true triple threat.

Guiliani—who is also on tour this year with pianist Brad Mehldau in the experimental, electronic (and, based on their performance at Vossa Jazz this year, not entirely successful) Mehliani duo—proved, here, why he's on the call list of everyone from saxophonist Donny McCaslin to guitarist Lionel Loueke— less a drummer of thundering proportions and more one of tasty interaction, propelling the music with prerequisite power as needed, but pulling back for moments when Lindner, alone with his piano and rack of electric keyboards, created an electrio-acoustic mélange of, at times, near-epic proportions.

The one problem with ELBJazz was that, while it was not hard to get from the shipyard to the Elbstraße—where there were indoor venues ranging from the large (fish auction hall) to the intimate Golum club and the more modern Holzhafen Atrium—it did take time, so if two shows were playing back-to-back or within 30 minutes of each other, it was such a time-consuming proposition to line up for and then go by ferry boat from one part of the harbor to another, that it was almost impossible to see them both.

After a trip around the harbor on a ferry where a local singer/pianist was performing with her sax/bass/drums group, it was a quick jaunt up the Elbstraße to the Holzhafen Atrium, where Danish guitarist Jakob Bro was performing with his trio, featuring long-time partner, bassist Anders "A.C." Christensen (as ever, wearing urban dress, this time with a big baseball-like cap with the word "BOY" in large, capital letters) and, while not new to Bro, a first-timer in the trio, drummer Kresten Osgood.

Bro and Christensen may be best known as members of polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's quintet on Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009)—responsible for an unexpectedly incendiary closing performance at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival—but they're busy players on the Danish scene, with lots of hours clocked up traveling Europe as well. Performing in an atrium with a high ceiling and nothing but glass and tile to reflect sound everywhere, it was a bit of a cavern but the sound man and the trio's inherent understanding of how to play a room resulted in a show that was not only deep on a musical level, but sounded unexpectedly fine.

Bro is getting ready to release the third part of his "Lee Konitz/Bill Frisell" trilogy that began with 2009's Balladeering and 2011's Time (both on his own Loveland label), and at least some of the material at his ELBJazz performance was culled from those recordings, but in a more conventional trio formation, what Bro, Christensen and Osgood did was defy that convention by working as a single voice rather than a collection of individual components. Sure, there were moments when everyone got a chance to shine, including a solo from Osgood that began with the drummer playing recorder, standing, and creating thundering bass drum punctuations, before heading into a four-limbed kit solo that, while powerful and certainly taking advantage of the room's massive sonic imprint, was still restrained so that it never overpowered, either in solo or with the trio.

Christensen's main focus is electric bass, but he's far from a disciple of the Steve Swallow approach, though his ability to fashion clear melodies in the upper register of his Fender bass came from a similar space. More important, perhaps, was his ability to find hypnotic riffs and hang onto them, providing an anchor for Bro— whose warm and reverb-heavy tone (though it was difficult to ascertain, here, how much was coming from his effects pedals and how much from the room) filled the atrium with an approach that, while clearly influenced in its early days by Frisell, has since gone on to become something else entirely, so that when the two guitarists occasionally come together, there are points of intersection but, more often than not, points of significant diversion as well.

If Bro's tone was predominantly clean and warm, there were passages where the trio began to cook with a little more heat, Bro kicking in some overdrive to create jagged chordal crystals. Bro is largely a melodic player not unlike Frisell, he has the ability to introduce just the right amount of skewed notes to create tension that he then resolves—most of the time. The music ranged from countrified territory to actual riff- driven blues, though (as usual) Bro eschewed guitar posturing and pyrotechnics for a more considered and laid-back approach. He may not be a guitar hero of virtuosic proportions, instead Bro has relied more on space, color and his own innate and personal sense of lyricism to create a voice that's become increasingly distinctive—and increasingly impressive—over the past decade or so.

Bro is also getting ready to hit the studio to record an album for ECM with his other trio, featuring bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Jon Christensen, if there's justice in the world, this trio will also get recorded sometime—preferably in a live context, where it clearly shines.

ELBJazz Day 2: Trilok Gurtu/Nils Petter Molvær/Jan Bang Punkt Live Remix

With rain returning in full force on ELBJazz's second day, the best bet was to stay dry and warm inside, and with three back-to-back and intersecting performances, there was no better place to do so than in the Fischauktionshalle..

Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu (now based in Hamburg) has a new recording, Spellbound (Moosicus, 2013), and thanks to some serendipitous programming, he was able to perform some of it with the same guests that appear on the album. Gurtu was also slotted to perform in the trio with Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and live sampler Jan Bang that was supposed to debut at last year's Kongsberg Jazz Festival and the All About Jazz Presents: Doing It Norway series. Sadly, that show was cancelled, so it was a particular pleasure to be able to see the trio in action, for its first time, in Hamburg.

First, Gurtu took to the stage at the Fischauktionshalle with Spellbound's core trio of Turkish pianist/keyboardist Tulug Tirana and bassist Jonathan Cuniado. The recording is a tribute to trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry, a significant mentor and motivator for Gurtu in his early days, and while the recording features a different trumpeter on just about every track, live the percussionist recruited Germany's Mathias Schriefl, who appears on one track on the album, to handle most of the work. Gurtu opened his hour-long set alone, with his large array of percussion that included a standard drum kit (replacing the lower-seated Rototom-based kit of his earlier years), tabla, cajón and all manner of hand percussion, cymbals and water bowls. When the quartet with Schriefl entered, it was for one of Gurtu's characteristically knotty themes, based in Indian linearity but with Tirpan providing a broader harmonic context, an appealing and thrilling east-west amalgam that had the close-to-sold-out crowd loudly applauding from the get-go.

The program had been switched, to put Gurtu's band first—a logistically wise decision, since Bang, who would come onstage for the second of the three shows, would then remain onstage for the final show of the night, the Punkt Live Remix—and while the next show would also bring Molvær out for a full hour of completely free improv, for the percussionist's set the famous Norwegian trumpeter was invited to come out and recreate the track on which he guests on Spellbound—a medley of two hard- hitting fusion compositions from trumpeter Miles Davis' early '70s electric era: the title track to A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and "Ife," a live staple for the legendary trumpeter that was recorded after the sessions for On the Corner (Columbia, 1972), appearing on Big Fun (Columbia) two years later. Molvær brought a perfect combination of his own electronics-expanded instrument and, for some (but not for those who know him), some unexpectedly impressive chops. It was an early highlight, but the entire set—despite ranging from thrilling electric highs to a more subdued but equally stellar duo between Gurtu, on tabla, and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, performing one of the two Spellbound tracks on which he appears (written by Gurtu and dedicated to Cherry)—was exhilarating, from start to finish.

If Cherry was the primary force behind Gurtu's recording of Spellbound, he's not the only one; trumpet has figured on other Gurtu recordings, and so here, Gurtu pays tribute not to any one player, but to the instrument itself. It's unfortunate that there wasn't time—stretched out as the material was—to hear more songs from the recording, like Gurtu's look at Miles Davis' "All Blues," from the genre-changing classic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) (with relative newcomer Ambrose Akinmusire guesting), but instead, Gurtu gave the crowd a terrific cross-section that included "Berchidda," a tune that featured Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu on the recording but who was more than capably replaced by Schriefl at the ELBJazz show.

And if the emphasis appeared to be on trumpet, both Tirpan (as fine a pianist as he was a colorist on synths) and Cuniado—who may have kept to the rear of the stage, but whose strong bass playing helped drive the grooves that were kept in tandem by Gurtu, but which also allowed Gurtu the opportunity to assume a more dominant role— were integral to the performance. While his choice of textures and polyrhythms were never less than ideal, Gurtu was also a charismatic performer who engaged the audience between songs, sometimes in English, but most of the time in German, his adopted country for many years. On "Like Popcorn," the one tune that features Schriefl on the recording, Gurtu's expertise in konnakol was as commanding as Schriefl's impressive solo work.

With the venue operating on a tight schedule, and with the audience refusing to let the percussionist go without an encore, he returned alone, with just five minutes to spare, for a solo piece that emulated natural sounds like thunder, birds and insects, demonstrating that this inimitable percussionist really is without equal when it comes to the whole package of Indian percussion, jazz-centric swing and whatever textural additions the music demands. Brief though the set was, it was clearly one of the highlights of ELBJazz 2013.

With the stage largely cleared, save for Molvær's laptop and pedals and Gurtu's percussion rig, Jan Bang's sampler and another board were brought onstage for the first of two sets that were completely spontaneous, but both demonstrating how anything is possible when there's intrinsic trust amongst the musicians, ears that allow them to hear what's going on around them in order to push and pull the music, and the kind of egoless desire to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Perhaps more than many other contexts, Bang's live sampling—something he's been doing since the mid-'90s, first with fellow Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft and then, as a member of Molvær's band for the decade that ended in a final live performance at Bang's annual Punkt Live Remix festival in 2007—was easier to discern in this context. From the early part of the hour-long set, where he sampled the trumpeter's already harmonized horn, processed it further and fed it back to expand the soundscape, to a hilarious closing percussion solo from Gurtu—who, after trying to get the audience to sing back an almost impossibly complex konnakol line, found Bang unexpectedly feeding it back to him with nary a nanosecond's hesitation, leading to an even more entertaining back-and-forth between percussionist and live sampler, with Bang beginning to return Gurtu's lines with more significantly effected alterations—the communication level amongst the three was almost impossibly high.

In between, the set moved across a broad terrain, ranging from ambient landscapes driven by Bang's sampled orchestral sounds, to jagged free-play. What was most impressive was that, in-the-moment it might have been, it had an inherent and, perhaps, inevitable shape; a sense of development that suggested all three players were synchronized in a desire to not just play with color, melody, rhythm and harmony, but to create an actual narrative that gave the set an unmistakable beginning, middle and ending.

There were smiles aplenty, in particular from Bang, a player whose instrument may be a black box of knobs and dials, who is, well and truly, a real instrumentalist. Even in the most ethereal contexts, Bang has always moved to an internal rhythm that can be seen in his body language; how thrilling, then, to be playing with a rhythm master like Gurtu, the two coming together to create a rich undercurrent of pulsating sounds over which Molvær's was able to layer his unfailingly beautiful lines. And though Molvær's was the only seemingly melodic instrument onstage, this was, of course, not entirely true, when Gurtu moved to tabla and began to create rhythms that spoke with their own thematic constructs.

Backstage, after the performance, there was already talk of continuing this collaboration, so while it's impossible to know where it will go, the good news is that it absolutely will continue, and if a recording were to emerge from this new constellation, then all the better.

While the annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway is predicated on the idea of live remixes of shows that have just concluded in another room in the same venue—and Punkt has, since its first year in 2005, become a truly movable feast, taking its core concept on the road to cities including London, Mannheim and Tallinn, amongst other international destinations—its co-founders, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, have now expanded the concept to doing individual live performance and remix combinations, rather than one, two or three-day festivals. Still, its remix at ELBJazz 2013 set another precedent for an already precedent-setting concept: remixing a show that had taken place earlier in the evening, in another venue, in this case German indie rock band The Notwist, four hours earlier, across the harbor in the Blohm + Voss shipyard. While Bang and Molvær were busy preparing for their trio show with Gurtu, Honoré was over at the AM Helgen stage taking a multi-channel feed off the Notwist's soundboard, bringing it back to the Fischauktionshalle in time for a midnight remix that, with Bang, guitarist Stian Westerhus (who performed his final trio gig with Molvær the previous evening) and trumpeter Arve Henriksen, was both standard operating procedure for a Punkt Live Remix and something a little different.

Of course, standard operating procedure for Punkt Live Remixes is that there is no standard operating procedure and so, just as Bang, Molvær and Gurtu did 90 minutes earlier, this group of four Norwegians hit the stage for an hour-long remix- -the difference, of course, being that while Molvær/Bang/Gurtu drew its entire set from the ether, the Punkt Live Remix had some foundational premises upon which to build its set, most noticeably a deep, foghorn-like low register blast that would crop up, time and again, almost as a rallying point for the quartet to move onto something else.

Much has been written about Westerhus, his relentless unorthodoxy and various collaborations—beyond Molvær's trio, Puma, Monolithic and his commission for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, his duo, in particular, with singer Sidsel Endresen that seems to go from strength to strength and height to height with each and every performance. But while Westerhus continues to defy all logic, with such an intimate command of his four amplifiers, uncountable foot pedals and other devices such as guitar preparations and use of a bow, what's been happening increasingly over the past couple of years is that the guitarist is balancing his more jagged and aggressive tendencies with an increasingly lyrical and beautiful side. Of course, lyrical and beautiful for Westerhus sometimes occurs at the decibel level of a jet plane at 15 feet, but it still means a greater contrast in his work that's turning him into an even more remarkable artist, even as he moves towards a new phase in his own career with a burgeoning interest in composition to augment his longstanding in-the-moment spontaneity.

Honoré is almost always the silent, still partner to the more animated Bang— a remarkable sampler and sonic manipulator who may rarely crack a smile, but whose engagement in the music was clearly as complete as his partners. Still, at ELBJazz, he was seen smiling far more often than usual, and why not? The remix, lasting for a full hour—in itself an oddity, since most remixes at the Punkt Festival rarely extend, for logistical reasons, beyond 30 minutes. With the liberty of 60 minutes, Bang, Henriksen, Westerhus and Honoré had much more time to explore ideas, ranging from ethereal atmospherics and, with Henriksen's trumpet in particular, a deeply profound but equally unpredictable lyricism, to more angular explorations of jagged shorelines and stark, craggy mountainscapes.

Henriksen, whose breadth also seems to expand year after year, first began singing a decade or more ago in a choirboy falsetto; in the ensuing years he's added throat singing (or, at least, an emulation), guttural growls and cathartic screams to his sonic palette. At ELBJazz 2013, add to that a standing near-frontman as, for one of the first (if not the first) times he actually arose from his chair to sing, microphone in hand rather than leaning into it, seated, in a stand. Henriksen said, after the show, that his forthcoming sequel to 2008's Cartography (on ECM, but the forthcoming record will not be; the label is yet to be determined) seems to be heading, if not exactly towards song form, then to some degree, at least, in that general direction. He also revealed that when, standing onstage and singing, he almost—almost—moved right to the front of the stage; perhaps that will happen in September, when Punkt's ninth edition, in its hometown of Kristiansand, Norway, takes place.

It was a strange remix, given the source material—"a lot of major chords," said Honoré before the show—but as invariably happens with any Punkt Live Remix, whether or not it actually succeeds, the trip is always worth it. In this particular case, not only was the trip worth it, but the remix was a smashing success, an indication that somehow, these intrepid musicians who know each other so well (well, Westerhus is still a relative newcomer to the Punkt family, but he's so malleable that he seems able to fit into just about any context) always seem to find new things to say, new places to go, new constellations to explore. The ELBJazz audience may not have really understood what it was hearing—most of them are not likely to have been at the Notwist show earlier in the evening—but it didn't matter, as Punkt Live Remixes are invariably capable of standing alone on their own merits. With such a long time available to this evening's participants—the opposite of most ELBJazz performers, who find an hour a short time to play—this was definitely a remix to remember.

As many people headed over to Mojo for the after-party, those who hung around backstage after the Punkt Live Remix were treated to a real dose of reality: by 1:30AM, just a half hour after its set, everyone was being rushed out of the hall, because in exactly two-and-a-half hours, the Fischauktionshalle was going to be a real fish auction hall once again, with catches coming in from the North Sea and all signs of ELBJazz gone—and for those who attended the festival and, in particular, the three shows this evening, something truly not to be forgotten. For a first-time visit to Hamburg, the single biggest thought—beyond finding somewhere dry and warm—was how to secure a return invite next year, when ELBJazz turns five.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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