Enjoy Jazz 2016

John Kelman By

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2016 Enjoy Jazz Festival
Heidelberg, Mannheim & Ludwigshafen, Germany
October 24-November 1, 2016

Returning to Heidelberg and the Enjoy Jazz Festival after a three-year absence is still more than a bit like returning to a second home. Not just the same hotel (the ever-charming Hollander Hof, along the Neckar River by an old footbridge), which has not only managed to retain most of its staff from 2009-13, but still remembers and assigns the same hotel room each and every year (a lovely room facing the river and the bridge). And while the Enjoy Jazz staff has experienced a large turnover in staff, it's commitment to delivering the broadest, most attractive program possible across this year's six-week run, along with its treatment of invited guests, remains as superb as ever.

The festival's core premise remains intact. Yes, most festivals which program multiple concerts each evening may be a good way to squeeze in a lot of music over a short timeframe, but with many festival goers already moving on to the next show as soon as the last one is over, there's rarely the opportunity to really reflect upon—and truly appreciate—the show just seen...or, truthfully, to enjoy it as much as it might have been, had it been a standalone event. And so, when festival director Rainer Kern put the festival together 18 years ago, its main philosophy was, rather than running for a shorter period and squeezing a lot of shows into that time, to only program one show per night, and run for a far longer period—as much as eight weeks, though this year's edition ran for just under six.

By not streaming multiple shows on the same night, Enjoy Jazz's core premise also allows—rather than putting the shows into nearby venues (so festival-goers can easily and quickly move from one show to the next)—the festival to take advantage of the numerous venues that exist in the greater region that includes Heidelberg, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, with venues ranging from small bars where shoehorning 100 people in is a challenge, to larger concert venues that can accommodate as many as 3,500 people.

The result is a festival largely designed for the region's residents, as even choosing to attend the festival for a week means only seeing, at most, seven shows, rendering it generally less regularly visited by international media. Still, Enjoy Jazz does receive international coverage, in particular at All About Jazz, where it has been regularly reviewed since 2009, when the festival's four-day festival-within-a-festival event celebrating ECM Records' 40th Anniversary may have been the initial draw...but after covering eleven days that year, which also included a two-day Punkt Festival in Mannheim, the festival became a regular destination until 2014, when ill health put the kibosh on returning to the event for two years, making this year's return visit—the first since 2013—a most welcome and appreciated opportunity.

Other than being a shorter run than past years, the 2016 Enjoy Jazz Festival was as exceptional and, yes, enjoyable as it has been since that first visit in 2009, though the same challenge existed as with every year: when to go, since the festival runs for five-to-six weeks and the programming is so consistently good? The only yardstick that can be used to decide is to choose a timeframe that contains performances by: (a) familiar artists; (b) known artists either never before seen with a particular lineup; and (c) artists who may be unknown but who look intriguing on paper.

In this case, the chance to hear the quartet responsible for ECM's most appealing Amores Pasados (2015), label mate/pianist Julia Hulsmann (this year's SWR-Jazzpreis award recipient), bassist Dave Holland's latest project, Aziza (Dare2, 2016), saxophonist/flautist Charles Lloyd's current quartet and Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's recording and touring group of the past couple years were all good reasons to select the week chosen. Add a chance to revisit one of the region's more popular players, Thomas Siffling, in a completely different, more electrified and groove-heavy context than that heard in his duo with guitarist Claus Boesser Ferrari a few years back, and keyboardist John Kameel Farah—a previously unfamiliar name but, after his exceptional solo performance in a Heidelberg church, one that will now be followed closely—and it made for a terrific week of music.

Amores Pasados
Heiliggeistkirche Heidelberg
Heidelberg, Germany
October 24, 2016

Named after its 2015 ECM Records debut, Amores Pasados—featuring tenor John Potter (Hilliard Ensemble, The Dowland Project) alongside Trio Mediaeval soprano and Hardanger fiddler Anna Maria Friman and lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman—this contemporary chamber quartet managed to be both born of antiquity and, at the same time, thoroughly contemporary.

The quartet was unusual for a number of reasons, but for two in particular: first, in its relatively rare use of two lutenists rather than one; but second, and even more importantly, in its repertoire, which placed songs from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—many once considered "pop" songs of the day but now falling under the "art song" rubric—alongside music commissioned specifically for the project by former Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, ex-Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, and rock-pop megastar, Sting.

Just the premise alone was, at the time, enough to cause considerable consternation amongst even the label's most stalwart fans. "Genesis? Led Zeppelin?? Sting???" But, sure enough, the label's instincts were as astute as ever, with Amores Pasados turning out to be one of the year's best, most eminently appealing and unusual releases on the label's New Series imprint.

Beyond the idea of bridging a centuries-old gap between popular musics from very different times, what is, perhaps, most surprising is how comfortably Sting, Banks and Jones' writing was, positioned besides 17th century's Thomas Campion and late-18th/early-19th century's Peter Warlock and E.J. Moeran, in addition to one contribution from the elusive renaissance musician, Picforth. If Amores Pasados was successful on record, it was even more so performed in the wonderful acoustic environs of Heidelberg's Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), the city's most famous church .

While the eminently appealing combination and chemistry of Potter's tenor and Friman's soprano was a given—in addition to Potter providing initial mentorship and guidance during Trio Mediaeval's earliest days, he has worked regularly with Friman ever since, the two building a language both comfortable and challenging, most notably as members of composer Gavin Bryars' Ensemble, whose 2008 appearance at Kristiansand, Norway's Punkt Live Remix Festival was ultimately released as Live at Punkt (GB Recordings, 2010)—the seamless manner with which Abramovich and Herington came together, often seeming more like a single four-armed entity than two individual players, was another of those wonderful surprises that are often best experienced in a live context. With the gorgeous overtones of every instrument—vocal and lute—resonating throughout the cathedral, it made for an immersive and thoroughly captivating experience.

Potter's delivery of Banks' haunting musical interpretation of Campion's "Follow Thy Fair Sun" was but one of the concert's many vocal high points. The quartet's performance of Paul Jones' three-part title suite was another, from the bright yet somehow still melancholic opener, "Amores Pasados: Al Son de Los Arruyelos," to the bleaker "Amores Pasados: No Dormía," where Friman's droning Hardanger fiddle sets the stage for a largely monotone melody that still benefitted from both singers' nuanced delivery. When the two broke into a spare but more fluid melody, their ability to come together with such close harmonies was remarkable enough on record; in performance, it was subtle but still downright awe-inspiring.

A fairly constant flow of differing musical contexts, from everybody in the pool to solo vocal spots for both Potter and Friman—sometimes accompanied by one lutenist, other times by both, and even a spot for the lutenists alone—made for a texturally varied concert whose only complaint was the slightly jerky feeling of so many short songs, followed by almost as much applause. As Abramovich suggested after the show, in conversation with colleague Henning Bolte, perhaps bringing a number of shorter pieces together with bridging improvisations would help alleviate that one small complaint. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, what might have appeared to be a one-off recording may well be growing legs of its own, with new material added to a superb set that the group hopes to later record, according to Potter's website. Good news for fans of the record...and for those who will be fortunate enough to hear this lushly colored, eminently accessible yet still-challenging ensemble in concert.

SWR-Jazzpreis: Julia Hülsmann
Ludwigshafen, Germany
October 25, 2016

Though a quarter-century old—first instigated by MPS Records producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt in 1981—it has only been during the past seven years, since the Südwestrundfunks (southwestern radio) began collaborating with the Enjoy Jazz Festival, that the SWR-Jazzpreis assumed a monetary value of 15,000 Euros and, perhaps even, greater cachet. Bookending SWR-Jazzpreis' last seven years have been two particularly accomplished German women in jazz: 2009 award-winner, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and the 2016 recipient, pianist Julia Hülsmann.

Hülsmann's career has taken a step in the right direction since the pianist left the ACT imprint—where she'd become known largely as a collaborator with vocalists ranging from Rebekka Bakken to Anna Lauvergnac—to fellow Munich-based ECM Records, where Hülsmann has established herself more definitively as a composer, performer and bandleader, from The End of a Summer (ECM, 2008) through to A Clear Midnight—Weill and America (ECM, 2015), where the pianist's longstanding trio was augmented, on some tracks, by vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and on others by British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, who has been often fleshing out Hülsmann's trio into a quartet since 2013's In Full View.

While Arthurs was, sadly, nowhere to be seen, it was still appropriate, however, for Hülsmann to split her SWR-Jazzpreis recipient performance into two halves: one, in collaboration with Norwegian singer Torun Eriksen; the other, with her longstanding trio featuring double bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.

The trio set turned out to be the better of the two, by far. While possessed of a strong, clear voice, Eriksen's stage persona was simply too over the top; her facial and body mannerisms reeking of gravitas when there was often none to be found. True, there were some good songs within the set, but it became increasingly difficult to focus on the music with Eriksen's pervasive and invasive body and facial language.

The trio set was, however, far more engaging. Hülsmann and her trio have built their own way of communicating throughout the years, rendering some of its best moments as those when no one member of the ensemble shone but, instead, everyone did so, speaking with a single voice.

Still, each member of the trio had his/her own qualities to offer: Muellbauer's tone was big, round and robust; his approach to layering melody intrinsically thematic-driven. Köbberling was an oft-times Puck-ish drummer whose relentless smile and clearly playful yet ever-intuitive playing brought a welcome levity to music that, at times, leaned towards the cerebral. Hülsmann's playing was precise, firm-toned and imbued with an unmistakable hint of melancholy. Together, the eye contact, smiles and nods of encouragement amongst them revealed almost as much as the music itself, which remained captivating even as it occasionally veered into more complex territory.
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