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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
dasHaus,
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.

Precisely how an artist becomes eligible for the SWR-Jazzpreis is unclear, beyond there being a jury that selects, according to Wikipedia, "the prize winner from jazz musicians or initiatives that have emerged during the past year through performances or new compositions." Still, there's no denying that such awards have value, both monetarily and in raising an artist's profile. And if there's a German artist who has remained beneath the broader radar for too long, it's Hülsmann, rendering this year's SWR-Jazzpreis of particular significance.

Nils Petter Molvær
Alte Feuerwache,
Mannheim, Germany
October 26, 2016

One of the most upsetting aspects of no longer being able to travel to the same extent as in past years is losing the opportunity to hear new groups in their infancy, rendering it possible to experience their evolution over time. While Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's previous three albums—Hamada and Baboon Moon (both on Sula Records and with guitarists Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhus, respectively) and 1/1 (EmArcy, 2013), featuring electronics artist Moritz von Oswald—remain as collectively diverse as the trumpeter has been since first changing music in a significant way in 1997 with his groundbreaking Khmer (ECM Records), 2014's Switch (Okeh) found Molvær largely leaving Baboon Moon's hardcore vibe, 1/1's electronics and Hamada's progressive/ambient leanings behind. Instead, while thundering beats, ambient colors and harsher sonics still remain part of Molvær's sound universe, he's added an instrumentalist who, on one hand, could change everything while, at the same time, still managing to seamlessly find his way into the Molvær continuum: pedal steel guitarist Geir Sundstøl.

While Sundstøl's appearance—right down to his dark jeans and shirt, and a hairstyle more redolent of a 1950s Sun Studio session than a new millennium jazz concert performance—reflected his primary instrument's roots, as has been the case every guitarist Molvær has employed since the late 1990s, appearances were deceiving. Yes, Sundstøl proved capable of haunting, lyrical work on pedal steel, but he was just as likely to add a bevy of sound processors to create textures rarely, if ever, heard before on the instrument, ranging from massively overdriven and wah-inflected to reverb-/delay-drenched, taking an instrument that already sounds big and making it massive. If there's anyone to whom Sunstøl could be compared it would have to be longtime Bill Frisell pedal steel, lap steel and electric guitarist Greg Leisz.

Still, while it would be hard to call Molvær's current work Americana (or, even, Nordicana), there's little doubt that, as thoroughly 21st Century as it was, American roots music lay at the very heart of Sundatøl's overall contribution to Molvær's current group, based on its performance at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache, a wonderful sounding room in what was once a fire station but is now a multidisciplinary arts venue. Even when he picked up a Fender Telecaster (slung suitably low), Sundstøl's contribution may still have possessed American roots music at its core, but the guitarist brought something else as well: an unmistakably Norwegian vibe that added an even darker melancholic hue—even when the guitarist was employing a gritty overdrive—even as he delivered laconic melody after laconic melody.

The group, which has been touring since the release of Switch, has just recently released its sophomore effort, 2016's Buoyancy (Okeh, 2016); while bassist/guitarist Jo Berger Myhre did not appear on Switch, time spent on the road and in the studio recording Buoyancy have rendered him as essential to the group's complexion as the presence of Molvær, Sundstøl...or Erland Dahlen.

Along with longtime visual artist Tord Knudsen (whose relationship with Molvær dates back to the mid-'90s), the ever-creative Dahlen is now Molvær's longest-standing collaborator, though it's rare that the exact moment in time when things began is so clear. It was, in fact, on July 21, 2010—when the drummer/percussionist sat in for the unavailable Audun Kleive in the trumpeter's then-trio with Stian Westerhus for the first time—that something happened; not unlike the firing of a nuclear bomb that pushed the trio to even greater extremes, it was the beginning of a musical partnership that continues to strengthen and become bolder year after year and group after group, as Dahlen—also a member of Eivind Aarset's current band—continues to deliver potent grooves and delicate textures to bolster his band mates. But, at one point in the quartet's Mannheim show, Dahlen also demonstrated the extent of his potential as he engaged in an extra-fiery duo with Molvær at the start of the first of two well-deserved encores, demanded by the sold-out house.

As he sometimes does, Molvær bookended his performance with two a cappella trumpet performances: the first, building from nothing into the entry of his group; the other, a spacious fade to black as effective as any exercise in virtuosity would have been. Not unlike its overall musical population, Norway has a disproportionate number of exceptional drummers, but over the past decade Dahlen's reputation has continued to grow as one of the country's most imaginative and creative percussionists; his regular kit augmented with all kinds of hand percussion (both tuned and untuned), in order to provide a most remarkable breadth of melodic and rhythmic contributions.

And what of Molvær? As he worked his way through a continuous set that drew upon material from Switch, Buoyancy and more, the trumpeter not only demonstrated that his electronic chops remained intact, but that his acoustic strengths were as powerful as ever. Possessed of an innate lyricism that eschewed the saccharine by building theme after theme and solo after solo with the kind of compositional focus first demonstrated as a member of the Arild Andersen/Jon Christensen co-led Masqualero, beginning with 1983's Masqualero (ODIN), before moving to ECM Records for three superlative albums: 1986's Bande a Part, 1988's Aero and 1991's Re-Enter (all winners of the Norwegian Spellemannprisen), Molvær is, perhaps, best-known for his electronics/electronica-informed work.

Still, beyond employing harmonizers, looping devices and more to expand the sonic potential of his instrument—also singing into the small microphone in the bell of his horn and applying all manner of effects to create even more otherworldly colors—Molvær proved himself as fine an unadorned acoustic trumpeter as ever.

While Masqualero represented the kind of acoustic jazz group Molvær is unlikely to ever revisit again, with his trumpet/drums duo with Dahlen in the first encore, Molvær demonstrated that his entire career has been about absorbing as much as he can, like a massive sponge, and never losing it. Instead, it (whatever it is) lies dormant, waiting for the proper moment to reveal—or, perhaps, re-reveal—itself in a flurry of persistently commanding musical activity.

An appropriate word, indeed, to describe Molvær, his band mates and the music they make together: commanding. All too often, music demands respect and attention, when the truth is that the best music needn't do either. Instead, the best music commands respect and attention; and with a group now in its third year and with two albums under its belt, Molvær and his quartet have reached a new pinnacle for the trumpeter: one that takes the characteristics and innovations of his past work and builds upon them with the inclusion of new sonic and stylistic sources.

John Kameel Farah
Jesuitenkirche Heidelberg
Heidelberg, Germany
October 28, 2016

Sometimes you have to travel 6,000 kilometres to hear an artist living a mere 450Km from your doorstep. But that's one of the beauties of Enjoy Jazz. Yes, there are plenty of the big names to draw in a crowd; but, equally, there are lesser-known names (certainly in the jazz world) to whom the festival's director, Rainer Kern, believes his audience should become familiar.

John Kameel Farah is a keyboardist who splits his time between Berlin, Germany and Toronto, Canada, where he originally studied at the University of Toronto before spending time under the tutelage of minimalist co-founding father Terry Riley in California and subsequent work at Hartford, CT's Arabic Music Retreat. A two-time winner of U of T's Glenn Gould Composition Award, over the years Farah's work has become increasingly informed by electro-acoustic concerns, and it was such interests that may not initially have imbued his solo performance at Jesuitenkirche, Heidelberg, but by the end of his captivating set, Farah proved himself not just a virtuosic pianist, but an exceptional church organist and an imaginative synthesist as well.

Beginning on piano alone, Farah began in romantic, impressionistic territory. Increasingly, much of his music is improvised, though whether or not this spontaneous creation comes from a blank slate or some preconception is unclear. Irrespective, as a deep pedal tone drone began to fill the cathedral with sound, Farah moved to the first of the cathedral's two organs: a smaller instrument situated not far from the piano and on the same main floor, as opposed to the other organ he'd employ, later in the program, which was a much larger instrument situated at the back of the hall but on the second floor.

Farah's command of pipe organs was as impressive as his pianistic mastery, at times eking unexpected textures from the instruments, but going even farther later in the performance, when he began to combine the electronic sounds of his synthesizer with the more organic tones of his other keyboards. His choice of synth tones was ideal, while his work on church organs clearly referenced time spent studying with Riley. Virtuosity was a given, but Farah's ability to build pieces with conceptual focus, at times gradually increasing the density of the music with the overlaying of multiple keyboards, was something rarely heard in the context of music that fits more within the classical sphere than it does the jazz arena.

The seemingly humble Farah appeared to be genuinely taken aback by the justifiably enthusiastic response of the Heidelberg crowd. While the level to which he's working has clearly evolved, reaching new degrees of organic confluence, the spontaneous yet recital-like nature of Farah's performance suggested an artist of tremendous merit and promise, and one who deserves to be followed more regularly. Thankfully, being based in Toronto at least part of the year means even more opportunities to capture this intriguing electro-acoustic keyboardist in performance.

Charles Lloyd Quartet
BASF-Feierabendhaus
Ludwigshafen, Germany
October 29, 2016

The lineup of Charles Lloyd's group at the November, 2013 premiere of Wild Man Dance at that year's JazztoPad festival in Wrocław, Poland may have been surprising, with its combination of a superlative, newly minted American jazz quartet and two Greek instrumental virtuosos, but that was just the first of a series of shockers that took place within the American reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist's career over the course of the next year.

First, Lloyd's recruitment of pianist Gerald Clayton came as something of a surprise, given how tightly the saxophonist had been tied to pianist Jason Moran for the past five years; but, given the significantly altered space of Wild Man Dance, perhaps Lloyd was looking for something substantially different in his band mates. That Clayton appeared with the rest of the group from Wild Man Dance, when it was released as a recording eighteen months after the live premiere in Wrocław, Poland—alongside bassist Joe Sanders, drummer Gerald Cleaver, lyra player Sokratis Sinopoulos and cymbalom player Miklos Lucaks—the second surprise was Lloyd's decision to move from ECM Records, where he'd been recording albums on a regular basis since 1989 (his first five ECM dates reissued in the 2013 Old & New Masters Edition box set, Quartets ), to the American Blue Note Records imprint.

But the third surprise was, ultimately, just as big as the first two. When looking to see Lloyd's lineup at the 2016 Enjoy Jazz Festival, while longtime bassist Reuben Rogers was still in place, the group's regular drummer Eric Harland was nowhere to be found, nor was Rogers and Harland's band mate in Lloyd's band since 2008's Rabo de Nube (ECM), pianist Jason Moran. Instead, for his 2016 appearance at the BASF-Feierabendhaus, Ludwigshafen, Lloyd surrounded himself with a largely new four-piece, with Rogers the only remaining member of the saxophonist's previous quartet, Gerald Clayton re-recruited from Wild Man Dance, and, new to the band, drummer Kendrick Scott...last seen filling in, coincidentally, for Harland at the SFJAZZ Collective's 2011 performance in Ottawa, Canada.

For his Enjoy Jazz performance, Lloyd's quartet made it clear that its configuration may have been the same as Lloyd's group with Moran and Harland, but its approach was something altogether different. No less an endless fount of ideas as his predecessor, Scott's overall approach was—especially given Harland's often sinewy work—particularly muscular, while Clayton was possessed of an overall softer touch than Moran (though he was equally capable of a firmer presence when the music demanded it). As ever, Rogers was both a firm anchor and, when the music called for it, a superb soloist capable of everything from thematic work to the kind of groove-driven passages that have been a cornerstone of Lloyd's work for decades.

Lloyd, here armed with only a tenor saxophone and alto flute, played even better—no small feat—than at his Wrocław Wild Man Dance premiere and his 2013 Festival International de Jazz De Montréal appearance, where a first-time meeting with guitarist Bill Frisell would lead to further collaborations between the two in the band Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, whose roots, pop and rock-informed I Long to See You (Blue Note, 2016) might have been an even more unexpected departure for the reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist...except this is the same musician who, in addition to playing with the cream of the jazz crop, has also performed and/or recorded with the Beach Boys, Roger McGuinn and Canned Heat.

Perhaps the "standard jazz quartet" format is Lloyd's comfort zone, but whether heading into Coltrane-esque modal extremes or lighter, more South American-informed affairs, first hearing Lloyd live in Montreal over 15 years ago and seeing him many times since, the 78 year-old saxophonist/flautist was, quite simply, at the very top of his game—in particular on flute, where his tone has never been gentler, his delicate lyricism more pronounced.

After the "special project"-like nature of Wild Man Dance (and as superb a performance as it was), it was like settling into a comfortable pair of slippers to hear Lloyd back in the context that has been such a regular setting in his 55 year-plus career. Still, that shouldn't be taken to suggest that Lloyd, Clayton, Rogers or Scott were in any way predictable. But even with a new lineup, hearing Lloyd back in the context he has explored further than any other only meant that the "expecteds" could be dispensed with, leaving Lloyd and his band mates as free as possible to continue exploring its mellifluous combination of collective quartet interplay with a degree of empathy that may even have superseded Lloyd's previous quartet with Moran.

Thomas Siffling Flow
BASF-Gesellschaftshaus
Ludwigshafen, Germany
October 30, 2016

Last seen at Enjoy Jazz five years ago, German trumpeter Thomas Siffling's return to the festival couldn't have been more different. In 2011, Siffling was part of an electro-acoustic duo with guitarist Claus Boesser Ferrari, performing at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache; in 2016, he delivered a groove-heavy, electro-centric set at the BASF-Gesellschaftshaus hall in Ludwigshafen, leading an electrified quintet called Flow, which also featured Alex Gunia (guitar, electronics), Konrad Hinsken (keyboards, piano), Dirk Blümlein (bass) and Christian Huber (drums, electronics).

A more groove-laden, broader experiment in sonics ranging from the ambient to the industrial, Flow's first album is in the process of being mixed, leaving its Ludwigshafen crowd with an early chance to hear the group prior to the release of its debut recording, slated for next year. Sometimes going into a show with few, if any, expectations, can be a good thing; with a group of Siffling's calibre, there was little risk that this would be anything but an enjoyable performance.

Siffling—something of a local cottage industry with a management company, record label and publicity firm—has managed to build a career that has allowed the trumpeter to leverage his clear musical strengths with a lesser-seen appreciation for the demands of the music business. But for this night, at BASF's Gesellschaftshaus in Ludwigshafen, it was all about the music.

With an electrified band and Siffling's own use of effects, it would be difficult not to draw comparisons to some of Miles Davis' '80s work; that said, Gunia was more Eivind Aarset than John Scofield; and Hinsken, at least on piano, more Lyle Mays than Adam Holzman. The end result was something that straddled the line between Davis' rhythm and groove predilections and the more textural concerns of bands by artists including Nils Petter Molvaer and Bugge Wesseltoft.

It was a compelling set that was as good for the heart as it was the head. Siffling was generous in providing plenty of solo space to everyone in the band, but in particular Gunia, who blended abstract impressionism with Frisell-ian atmospherics, and Hinsken, whose acoustic piano work may have felt more than a bit like Mays, but whose electric keyboard work was something altogether different...as much about color as it was melody and harmony. Together, alongside Blümlein and Huber, they created an ever-shifting backdrop over which Siffling could layer everything from fragile, Miles-ian Harmon mute to more potent and burnished open horn.

It is always a ballsy move to book an act that's yet to release anything on record, but given his reputation in the region, it was a safe bet that any project involving Siffling would most certainly bring in a crowd, with the house at BASF-Gesellschaftshaus as well-attended as expected. While clearly a known entity in the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen-Heidelberg region, Siffling still needs to find a way to break into the larger international market. Perhaps, Flow will be the group that does it—one that's got plenty of appeal on a number of fronts, from chill-out grooves and more funkified extremes to confident soloing from the entire group...but, in particular, from Siffling, whose reach proved broader than his admittedly fine 2011 Enjoy Jazz set suggested.

Aziza
dasHaus
Ludwigshafen, Germany
November 1, 2016

After nearly two decades of releasing, at least it seemed, a new album almost every year, a three-year gap between recordings for Dave Holland has felt like an eternity. But while the veteran bassist with everyone from Miles Davis and Chick Corea to Kenny Wheeler and Wayne Shorter—not to mention a successful career as a leader and whose first solo album, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), was a rare instant classic—has appeared to be absent, he's been busy putting together a new group that followed the similarly electrifying quartet responsible for Prism (Dare2, 2013) with a new configuration that continues to explore electric terrain, but in a way that blends the roots of its members into something altogether fresh and different.

While Prism's lineup—keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland—was, despite Holland's continued allegiance to double bass, the closest he's come, as a leader, to something resembling fusion, Aziza was no less propulsive or incendiary during its 100-minute set at Ludwigshafen's dasHaus. Still, with Harland back from Prism, Aziza's touchstones proved even broader, partly due to the ever-virtuosic presence of Chris Potter—whose tenure with Holland dates back close to two decades, though the saxophonist was largely occupied, from 2012-2014, with guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Band/Group, responsible for two studio albums and one live album (two, if you count The Unity Sessions ' release on CD and Blu Ray/DVD). The bottom line: add Potter to just about any group and there's bound to be fireworks—plenty of them. On both Aziza's 2016 Dare2 debut and in its Enjoy Jazz performance there were enough to fuel a serious Fourth of July celebration.

But if Aziza's intrinsic virtuosity—both individually and collectively—meant a stunning, transcendent set that proved to be one of the best shows from this year's festival, it was the addition of Beninese expat guitarist Lionel Loueke that gave the group its unique complexion. Loueke—who has, in the relatively brief decade or so since he first emerged, appeared on albums by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, rising star Esperanza Spalding and drummer Jack DeJohnette—brings the ethnicity of his West African background to a broader knowledge of the jazz vernacular and a distinctive command of electronic effects that range from wah-inflected, ring modulated funk to pedal-to-the-metal overdrive and more.

The result—augmented by the ubiquitous Harland, whose experiences over the past two decades have made him a drummer for virtually any context—was a group that, on record but especially in performance, blended Holland's penchant for often-times irregularly metered grooves with Afro-centric pulses, complex harmonic underpinnings and the kind of exhilarating solo passages that rendered the question of just how energetic this group could get as one without any kind of definitive answer...other than just as it seemed like the group was reaching its apex, its members managed to ratchet up the heat and the energy, building to even more powerful climaxes.

Loueke's ability to simultaneously transform his guitar into a rhythmic driver, melodic foil and harmonic foundation continues to grow. In Ludwigshafen, as the group wound its way through much of the material on Aziza, he managed to build solos that were a combination of pure guitar gymnastics and, with his array of effects, sonics rarely heard on the instrument...certainly not in Loueke's combinations. He occasionally sang along with his melodic lines, though they sometimes became so oblique that doing so would be a challenge; playing with his fingers rather than a pick added a natural warmth, even when he was employing a bevy of sonic processors.

Potter's ability to build solos that seemed to peak, only to relax and build even further, was no surprise to anyone who has experienced the 45 year-old in literally any context, but as strong a player as he always is, there's a certain, very specific thing thing that happens when he plays with Holland, and it was great to see him back with the bassist, who was uncharacteristically taciturn throughout the set. In past performances, Holland always acted as MC, introducing the band members and the music.

In this case, it was Potter who spoke—once only—to introduce the group, and there was no information given about the music. It was unfortunate, as Holland's friendly banter was always a welcome interlude that broke up the set. Still, as silent as he was, he was still clearly affable and appreciative of the sold-out dasHaus audience's enthusiasm, and what he may have not contributed in terms of between-song chatter he more than made up for in his playing, which was as seemingly effortless as ever, despite his own technical mastery matching the rest of his band mates, even as neither he nor they sacrificed anything in the way of substance. This may have been the kind of music that demanded overt and relentless virtuosity, but it was never excessive, nor did it ever feel like chops for the sake of them.

Instead, Aziza thrilled the Ludwigshafen audience with a jazz performance of a most modern, all-incorporating aesthetic that will, no doubt, be talked about for some time to come. The only hope is that, unlike Prism, Aziza turns into a regular group that follows up its recording debut and initial touring with more releases. Even at this relatively early stage in the group's existence, based on its Ludwigshafen performance, a live album would be welcome; as potent and filled with potential as Aziza is on record, live it's another experience entirely.

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