Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: November 8-10, 2010

Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: November 8-10, 2010
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6
Enjoy Jazz Festival
Mannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafen, Germany
November 8-13, 2010

The pitfall of covering a number of festivals back-to-back is there's always the chance that a flight will be delayed, which means a missed train, which means arriving late at the next stop, and rather than having the opportunity to check in and settle into the new city before hitting the first performance, it's straight to the show, with barely the chance for a bite to eat.

Still, it's always a pleasure to return to Enjoy Jazz. Last year the festival celebrated the German ECM label's 40th anniversary with a four-day celebration that went against the festival's usual philosophy. Enjoy Jazz is called Enjoy Jazz because Festival Director Rainer Kern's idea for the festival, 12 years ago—and discussed in a 2009 interview—was to go against the normal tendency of short runs with a heavy concentration of shows, where at best, audiences have to absorb more than one show in a night, and, at worst, have to make choices about what they can and can't see. Instead, Enjoy Jazz—with rare exceptions like the ECM festival and a one-day Punkt Festival—features only one performance each day, using different venues in the Mannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafen area. Unlike many festivals, the venues may not be within walking distance of each other, but they are within easy driving distance—no more than 20-30 minutes—train, or even bike. With only one performance per night, even those who attend many of the festival's shows have the chance to truly absorb, and truly enjoy each show, in ways that are more difficult when seeing three, four, sometimes even five or six shows per day.

Enjoy Jazz couldn't be in a lovelier location, either. Old Heidelberg, a picturesque town with cobblestone roads, a long, pedestrian-only street with a wealth of intriguing shops, and an old castle looking over the Neckar River, where a centuries-old footbridge connects two sides of town; Mannheim, a more modern location on the Rhine but, with the impressive Mannheim Castle as the focal point from which the city spreads out, there's history to be found, as well; Ludwigshafen, a town with a number of significant businesses, including BASF, is a less visually impressive place, but one with some very fine venues.

In fact, it's the sense of history, walking around old Heidelberg, that's the most pervasive impression. Centuries old buildings reside side-by-side with more contemporary structures, but they somehow seem to work together. And with the fall colors on the trees in the surrounding hills, it's a gorgeous place to stay, and to write, for a week of shows ranging from saxophonist Hakon Kornstad and the Ango-Norwegian improvising group, Food, to progressive rock guitarist Adrian Belew and his Power Trio, and two sides of Cuban music from pianists Chucho Valdes and Harold López-Nussa.

Chapter Index
  1. Day 1: Håkon Kornstad
  2. Day 2: Adrian Belew Master Class
  3. Day 3: Adrian Belew Power Trio

Day 1: Håkon Kornstad

For the past several years, while heard occasionally in larger ensembles like violinist Ola Kvernberg's Liarbird project at Molde Jazz 2010, and in duet with artists like singer Sidsel Endresen, saxophonist Håkon Kornstad has been focusing on solo performance, though not like any other saxophonist on the planet. At his Enjoy Jazz 2010 performance at Café Prag, in Mannheim, Kornstad explained, to a capacity crowd of nearly 150 people, how he was playing in Montréal, Canada a number of years ago, with his first band, Wibutee, at an outdoor stage at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. The soundcheck had gone fine; everything was working and the band was ready, but as they hit the stage, and Kornstad was to play a solo saxophone piece, he looked at his looping machine, and it had gone dark. So, he decided to improvise, and came up with a song called "Sweden," which ultimately surfaced on both the collective Jazzland Community (Jazzland, 2007), and his own Single Engine (Jazzland, 2007), and was a watershed moment in his career. Multiphonics is normally used by free improvisers to create visceral wails and dissonant screeches; Kornstad, however, was doing the seemingly impossible: creating consonant multiphonics, which allowed him to play a melodic song, based on a simple I-IV-I-V progression, but with each an actual (and surprising) diad.

Kornstad performed "Sweden" at Café Prag, but that was only a small part of a nearly 90-minute performance that demonstrated just how much he has grown as a saxophonist, and as a musician who has integrated technology into his sound, so seamlessly that his decade-old looping machine may be relatively limited, but he knows it as intimately as the keys on his horn, meaning it's a similarly organic extension. His follow-up to Single Engine, 2009's Dwell Time (Jazzland), was a solo masterpiece, recorded in a church in Oslo, Norway, entirely alone and without overdubs, programming or editing. Every sound was produced in real time by Kornstad, as he explored music that ranged from the pop-like "Oslo"—where his combination of percussive loops, created by tapping the keys on his sax, a foundation line from a bass sax, and tenor voicings, effectively eliminated the need for any accompaniment other than himself—to "En Attendant Le Soleil," where the stark, barren landscapes of Norwegian saxophone legend Jan Garbarek's Dis (ECM, 1977) met minimalism forefather Terry Riley's mantra-like "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band," from the composer's classic A Rainbow in Curved Air (Columbia, 1969).

But that was a couple years ago now, and a lot has happened in Kornstad's music. His facility at creating multiple loops and bringing them in and out at will, to pull real song form out of the ether, has never sounded better or been this advanced, as he created complex layers of sound to fill the small performance space at Café Prag. He expanded the sonic possibilities of his tenor saxophone through various embouchures (making gritty sounds, percussive pops and more), key tapping, blowing through the reed without creating a note to build a sibilant rhythm loop, and using his leg to bend notes and change the timbre of his horn by pushing the bell against it. He used his flutonette—a flute with a clarinet mouthpiece—as well as just the clarinet mouthpiece alone, as well as introducing a few new sounds to his arsenal: whistling, an mbira (African thumb piano), and even some singing which, in its plaintive wailing, resembled that of Norwegian trumpeter Per Jorgensen, heard last week at Tampere Jazz Happening, in Finland.

What is easily overlooked, amidst Kornstad's astute ability to work with real-time looping, and a variety of instruments both orthodox and unconventional, is that at the foundation lives a tremendous saxophonist. Without him being a fine player, without his looping machine—whose tone ranges from the smokiness of Ben Webster to the cathartic power of Albert Ayler and everything in between—none of this would be possible. But with a huge set of ears and interests that range from traditional Norwegian music to Middle Eastern tonalities, the repetitiveness of classical minimalism and the vernacular of jazz, Kornstad has created his own language, and his performance at Enjoy Jazz brought all these interests and more to bear.

Café Prag's performance space was an interesting one—behind the building, where there was once a small square formed by three other adjoining houses, owner Adonis Malamos constructed a roof, added a floor and opened up the back of the bar area as a walkway into the performance space. It was very small, and quite austere, but unique and somehow warm, with a minute stage, on which intrepid Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus also performed earlier at this year's festival. With 150 people squeezed between that space and the bar itself—with a video projection screen used to display the performance—it was standing room only, more than a little hot and a lot sweaty, but its distinctive vibe—raw and imperfect—only added to the risk-taking nature of Kornstad's performance. The saxophonist will be returning to that Oslo church in early 2011, to record a new record that, hopefully, will be out later that year.

Day 2: Adrian Belew Master Class

Continuing the theme of seamless integration of technology with instrumental mastery, progressive rock guitarist Adrian Belew gave an impressive Master Class to an intimate group of students, the evening before his November 10 Power Trio show. Belew's résumé is as good as it gets: discovered in a cover band in Nashville by Frank Zappa, he quickly rose to fame on the legendary comedic guitarist's Skeik Yerbouti (Rhino, 1979)—receiving a lot of attention for his still-hilarious send-up of Bob Dylan on "Flakes"—and soon found himself in David Bowie's group, recording seminal albums such as Lodger (Virgin, 1979), before joining Talking Heads for equally important records like Remain in Light (Sire, 1980) and hit songs like the megahit "Once in a Lifetime." But it was in a group first called Discipline, but later called King Crimson, that Belew found himself both a decades-long member, and in a particularly fruitful partnership with the group's original co-founder, guitarist Robert Fripp.

With a rack of gear including a Roland VG-99, a laptop using Axe-Fx software, a volume pedal, expression pedal, a lone stompbox and a large midi-controller, Belew both entertained with stories from his illustrious past, and educated on a wide variety of subjects, largely driven by questions from the class of mostly guitar students. He spent considerable time describing his dream guitar—a Parker Fly, but custom-built to create the Adrian Belew Signature Fly. In addition to two "regular" pickups—a Sustainiac® Stealth PR pickup, which allows near-infinite sustain and controlled feedback at any volume, and a DiMarzio Exclusive humbucker—the guitar uses the RMC Pow'r Bridge PF Saddles & RMC Poly-Drive 1 Preamp to give Belew MIDI access, and a Line 6 Variax Modeling Component, that allows the instrument to sound like anything from a Fender Stratocaster to a Coral Sitar Guitar, a Rickenbacker 12-string, and much, much more. With all this in one guitar, it might be overwhelming for some, but in performance examples—where Belew also demonstrated a remarkable mastery of real-time looping, like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad the night before, but in even more complex contexts—it's clearly become an enabler and facilitator, allowing the guitarist to realize sounds and musical concepts not otherwise possible.

Belew answered questions about technology and music, while emphasizing the necessity of a sound musical background as a player. It became clear, watching him play without his rig, that his knowledge of and intimacy with his instrument are extensive. A drummer before he was a guitarist, he also emphasized the need for players to have good time—a necessity that became especially apparent when he began demonstrating the interlocking guitar lines that so defined the 1980s Crimson of Discipline (DGM Live, 1981), and the offsetting technique of the 2000-era Crim of The ConstruKction of Light(DGM Live, 2000). The first, also informed by Balinese gamelan music and minimalist composer Steve Reich, was easily understood when he demonstrated the two interlocking lines of Discipline's "Frame by Frame," where Belew played a 14-note phrase, and Fripp began in unison but then broke out by dropping the last note of the phrase to make it a 13-note line, so that the two lines orbited around each other, ultimately converging after 13 repeats of the 14-note phrase. "That's what they call mathematics," Belew joked, and while it seems like a complex idea—and an especially difficult one to play when another guitarist is playing a line that diverges and gradually comes back to unison—Belew also discussed the importance of, as Crimson calls, it, getting it "in the body," so that it's so natural it actually possesses a danceable pulse.

Belew also discussed Crimson's songwriting process—how, as lyricist, ideas would be passed to him, sometimes on only the most germinal form, like the opening five chords of "Dinosaur," from Thrak (DGM Live, 1995), for him to then find a melody and build greater song form (when he wrote "Dinosaur" he was, as he explained, into "epics," longer songs with multiple movements). He revealed the two scales that have been at the core of Crimson since the 1980s—the chromatic scale, and what he called a symmetrical scale, and the offsetting approach of 2000 Crim, which he demonstrated by playing the opening to ConstruKction of Light's title track, where a line from one guitarist is mirrored by the other, but rhythmically offset and transposed to a different key.

Complex ideas, to be sure, but all made clear by Belew, whose mastery of his instrument is all the more remarkable for his being a self-taught guitarist who doesn't read or write music—no small challenge in his first major gig with Zappa, where he explained how, in three month of intensive, five-day/week rehearsals, Zappa would bring new music to the group on Mondays, but spent the previous weekend going over what was coming up with Belew, so he could learn his parts. In fact, memory plays a tremendous role in Belew's career, which has also seen him ramp up as a solo artist, with a series of Power Trio records, including the latest, e (Self Produced, 2009). Times have changed in the industry, and with the lessened importance of record labels, the drop in CD sales, the proliferation of piracy and more, Belew explained the only thing that can't be lost is live performance, and so he's been on the road more, perhaps, than ever before as a solo artist, with nearly 20 European dates between late October and late November, 2010.

But Belew was doing DIY (do it yourself) long before it became the new norm, with technology allowing almost anyone to record and release a CD. Belew built Studio Belew in his house in the early 1990s, but also emphasized that less prohibitively expensive studio gear doesn't negate the need for a good room in which to record it, and the guitarist has spent considerable time and money building an ideal performance space at his home, where he's recorded most, if not all, of his own releases since its inception, but also some Crimson albums as well.

Another revelation was that Crimson albums were recorded live—no overdubs and, with the exception of the outside-produced The Power to Believe (DGM Live, 2003), no editing. Belew claimed that Crimson was and is a sound unto itself, and listening to its broader discography, it's hard not to agree. Fripp has always likened studio Crim to a love letter, live Crim to a hot date, and that the group has been, at least since Belew joined, a true live, touring unit, it stands alone with a sound that—outside scalar concepts and the interlocking/offset approaches—sounds like nothing but Crimson, something that's hard to define but is instantly recognizable. Still, through an example of the title track to Three of a Perfect Pair (DGM Live, 1984), he demonstrated how something as basic as a 12-bar blues can be "Crimsonized."

Belew also discussed the concept of purely free improv, which is a part of his shows as it was most Crimson incarnations. He also demonstrated his ability to build powerful solo pieces, like "Drive," from Side Three (Sanctuary, 2006), where a simple loop provided the grist for an expansive piece that also incorporated his well-known love of The Beatles with George Harrison's "Within You Without You," from The Beatles' classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). He touched on issues like volume—that stage volume is largely dictated by the drummer, but that advancements to guitar, amplification and effects technologies now make it possible to create sounds at lower levels that used to require amps turned up much higher.

Encouraging the students to develop their own voices by coming up with something that's their own, he demonstrated how he would take a stock rock line, and do something to it to make it more personal, like injecting the emulation of a car horn. It was, in fact, Belew's ability to evoke strange, unusual and wonderful—at times, almost non sequitur-like—sounds from his guitar that got him recognized and elevated to become one of rock's elite guitarists. Normally hired for what he does, such as his work with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, he has done sessions where he was expected to play a very specific part, such as on Paul Simon's classic Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986), where the singer/songwriter asked him to play the signature line to the hit "You Can Call Me Al" precisely as shown. He also discussed working with Brian Eno, and how the producer would often give him music nowhere near completion—often without even guide vocals—telling him to listen to the drummer count off the song, and then just play. What to play? What key? Questions that received the following answer: nothing, just play. But it's the absolute spontaneity and unfettered freedom of such a context that, coupled with Belew's equally liberated approach, that not only allowed him to do it, but to contribute ideas that have since become part of the rock lexicon.

And what's up next? Exciting times, as Belew will be collaborating with Holland's famous Metropole Orkest, heard recently on the John Scofield/Vince Mendoza collaboration, 54 (EmArcy, 2010), for a large-scale project that, in addition to a studio recording and a live performance to be captured on DVD by the country's VPRO at the end of February, 2011, will signal the beginning of a month-long celebration of the guitarist's music, the name to be something like "Holland goes Belew."

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, or a greater guitarist.

Day 3: Adrian Belew Power Trio

Primed from the previous evening's Master Class, it still wasn't enough to prepare for the sheer energy and positivism when Belew took the stage at dasHaus in Ludwigshafen, with his Power Trio featuring bassist Julie Slick and drummer Marco Minnemann. The trio wasted no time getting down to its blinding combination of effortless virtuosity, knotty, metrically challenging arrangements and more than the occasional nod to Belew's history with King Crimson.

Minnemann is the most recent recruit to the Power Trio, with Slick's brother, Eric—heard on the group's most recent release, e (Self Produced, 2009)—on the road with Dr. Dog. Minnemann is not only one of the most in-demand young drummers in the world of progressive rock—currently being courted these days to replace the departing Mark Portnoy in Dream Theatre, thought a decision has yet to be made—he's come to attention in the fusion world as well for his Normalizer Project, a 52-minute drum solo that he gave to a number of musicians who have since written music around it, including guitarist Alex Machacek's remarkable 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010), ex-Crimson touch guitarist Trey Gunn's Modulator (7D Media, 2010), and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Keneally's just-released Evidence of Humanity (Exowax, 2010).

With Belew, Minnemann demonstrated why he's leapt into the spotlight. Channeling Bill Bruford in an incendiary version of "Indiscpline," from Crimson's Discipline (DGM Live, 1981), Minnemann took the Crimson drummer's concepts a step further. With an unorthodox kit sporting two high hats, two snares, tom toms tuned to deeply resonant notes, and an array of cymbals high and low, he navigated the large kit with outrageous dexterity, his drum solo a staggering display of multi-limb independence, polyrhythmic complexity, long-form compositional focus, and no shortage of levity and humor as, at one point, he spun his sticks around in his fingers at lightning speed, while never missing a shot.

Marco Minnemann

Slick, at 25, was no less impressive. With her first CD as a leader, Julie Slick (Self Produced, 2010) already sold out of its first print run, she's a real success story. A graduate of the Paul Green School of Rock, she was actually writing exams when she got the call from Belew to come to Nashville for three days of rehearsal and a tour nearly five years ago, having been suggested to the guitarist by the school, along with her brother. In the ensuing years she's grown considerably, a bassist capable of holding down a pulse with a thundering groove, but equally adept at matching Belew, note-for-note as she layers line after line of high octane, high velocity invention.

Julie Slick

Like progressive rock group Transatlantic, the Power Trio show was dominated by near-relentless energy and the kinds of smiles going around the stage that were infectious; this was a group clearly having the time of its life, and Belew couldn't have made a better choice than to surround himself with young, hungry players, as it keeps the bar high for his own playing, which, in many ways, actually transcended his groundbreaking work with Crimson. An engaging, entertaining and charismatic front man, as Slick and Minnemann left the stage and Belew prepared to dive into his solo feature. "Drive," he quipped, "They're young, they're tired; I'm old, I'm happy."

Without another guitarist to share the work, Belew's use of looping to create layers of guitar meant that this was a Power Trio that often sounded like a quintet. And with Minnemann able to accomplish things with one hand that most drummers need two to execute, there were times when the band sounded like it had two drummers onboard. A group where it was almost impossible to know who to watch at any given time—there as so much going on everywhere—Belew was still a commanding central presence, viscerally diving into heavy whammy bar swoops and dives, oblique patterns made all the more idiosyncratic by his inclusion of real-time looping and pitch shifting, and chunky chordal patterns suggest he may be self-taught, but he's studied hard.

Combining material from e, including the ferocious title track, with songs from his career including the quirky "Ampersand," from Side One (Sanctuary, 2005), and the tour de force solo guitar of "Drive," there was also plenty of Crim content. In addition to "Indiscipline," there was a high speed take on Discipline's classic "Elephant Talk," with Slick tapping her bass to echo Tony Levin's original stick part, but with more fire; a powerhouse version of "Dinosaur," from 1995's Thrak (DGM Live), with Minnemann pounding the skins and moving around the kit with a fierce combination of primal beats and lithe finesse; an incendiary version of "Neurotica," from Beat (DGM Live, 1982), with Belew's spoken word triggered from the back of the house; and an equally high powered encore of the title track to the 1980s Crim's swan song, Three of a Perfect Pair (DGM Live, 1984).

Belew said, after the concert, when he was selling CDs, signing and talking with his fans, that with 2011 being the 30th anniversary of his joining King Crimson, he's planning to pull out even more Crimson material, but hopefully not too much at the expense of his own material which, based on the all-instrumental e, is reaching a creative high point for the fearless sonic explorer. In the meantime, with his Enjoy Jazz show—packed with a loud and appreciative crowd—he had almost as much a good time as his Power Trio appeared to be having. With Belew's forthcoming collaboration with Holland's Metropole Orkest, 2011 is shaping up to be a very good year for Belew and his fans.

Enjoy Jazz coverage will continue with reports from Food's show with Nils Petter Molvaer and Christian Fennesz, Chucho Valdés' performance with his Afro-Cuban Messengers, and the Harold López-Nussa Trio.

Visit Håkon Kornstad, Adrian Belew and Enjoy Jazz on the web.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

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