Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: November 11-13, 2010

Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: November 11-13, 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

Every city has a story, but some have more than others. Heidelberg, Germany, has a history as rich and varied as might be expected from a place that dates back to the middle of the first century AD, when the Romans began to settle in the area, but actually goes even further back, to 600,000 BC, when Homo heidelbergensis, a precursor to the Neanderthal man, was discovered—the oldest known human fossil, and the earliest evidence of human habitation in Central Europe.

Fast-forward a mere 602,010 years, and Heidelberg is a vibrant university town, where roughly one in four of its 135,000 inhabitants is a student at Old Heidelberg University, Germany's oldest university, and a place now world-renowned for its programs in natural sciences and law. The first mention of Heidelberg dates back to 1196, making the creation of the university in 1386 a remarkable event, especially considering the great divide between the aristocracies and working people. Old Heidelberg University was, at the time, a place for the elite, and its student prison, one of many parts of the University preserved for public viewing, wasn't exactly a prison in the conventional sense of the word. Yes, students who would go out, get drunk and let loose the pigs belonging to the regular townspeople (thus, the term "hog wild"), would be incarcerated by the university; but after a couple days of bread and water (assuming their sentence even extended beyond that), they were able to attend classes, meet with friends and have food and wine brought in. With a lot of time on their hands, the precursor to modern day graffiti peppers the wall of the prison.

A look at the history of the University is to see the changes that have taken place in Heidelberg. Once a city with a less-than-illustrious past of anti-semitism that dates back to the Hep Hep pogroms of the 1800s and through the Nazi regime of World War II, the University now hosts the only program in Jewish Studies in Germany, where half the students are, in fact, gentiles. The University's Ault Aula ("Old Hall"), like the rest of the University, was rebuilt after Heidlberg—along with over 600 other towns—was destroyed by Louis XIV of France in the late 1600s; but the "new" construction is a remarkable venue, used for convocations, weddings and other important events, and looks like a period piece from a film, except that it's a living, breathing space. In a city where there is no dress code, it's a sure bet that if there are people dressed to the nines, they're either going to a wedding, or a function at the Ault Aula.

The University's library is one of the most impressive in Germany, if not the world. With over 3.5 million catalogued books—many situated underneath the actual building, accessible by a series of tracks—students request books and receive them the next day, after they've been retrieved from storage. The library is also the site of many exhibitions, and one of the more intriguing ones in recent times is the Codex Manesse display, revolving around an illuminated manuscript in codex form that was completed in 1340, and is the first known document of songs that didn't revolve around either academics or religion. Instead, the Codex Manesse is about love in its many forms, though because of the culture of the time, it was inevitably about yearning and love lost."

The story of how the book came to be, how it was then lost to Heidelberg for centuries and, finally, restored to the city through an unusual barter with France in 1888, is interesting in itself, but more intriguing are the pages, songs and stories in the Codex Manesse, which reflect a time when, for the most part, marriages were arranged and women were often treated as little more than breeders—sometimes cloistered away to live their lives in solitude, barring occasional visits from their husbands to father a child. But some of the stories contained in the Manesse are both lovely and surprisingly prescient, addressing issues such as the impossible dream of combining fame, fortune and spirituality.

The 137 manuscripts were done by a handful of artists, but while the stories contained are clear, and because the music itself was never documented at the time, much is left to the imagination, although a bowed instrument that predates the violin makes the musical connection as clear as is possible under the circumstances.

The sense of history that pervades Heidelberg, for people coming from countries with shorter histories such as Canada and the United States, is a profound experience, and one that filters through to many of the venues used by Enjoy Jazz throughout its seven-week run.

Chapter Index
  1. Day 4: Food, feat. Nils Petter Molvær & Christian Fennesz
  2. Day 5: Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers
  3. Day 6: Harold López-Nussa Trio
  4. Wrap-Up

Day 4: Food, feat. Nils Petter Molvær & Christian Fennesz

Now more than a decade old, the Anglo/Norwegian improvising collective Food has gone through its share of changes. Initially a quartet featuring drummer Thomas Strønen, saxophonist Iain Ballamy, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and, first, bassist Mats Eilertsen and then Tim Harries, the group was cut in half to a duo a few years back, when Henriksen, Eilertsen and Harries' schedules were simply too busy to make further commitments to the group. Food continued as a duo, even performing as such at the 2006 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway. But more often, in recent times, the duo of Strønen and Ballamy— which also includes the use of electronics to expand considerably its sonic potential—has worked with guests. Quiet Inlet (2010), the group's first for ECM after a string of releases on the Norwegian Rune Grammofon label, featured guitarist Christian Fennesz and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, but only individually, the two not recording together on any of Quiet Inlet's seven improvised tracks.

Which only made the quartet's Enjoy Jazz appearance at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache ("Old Firehouse") all the more special. This time, all four played together, in an evening that drew an enthusiastic response—so much so, that after a loudly demanded and well-deserved encore, the group had to come back out onstage for a final bow to appease the still cheering crowd, with one particularly enthusiastic fan running up to the stage to tell them just how much he enjoyed the 100-minute show.

The set highlighted the strengths of all four musicians. Strønen, a remarkable colorist who combined innovation on his kit with equally forward-thinking—and, oftentimes, simultaneous—use of drum pads to trigger all manner of sounds, from bells and tuned percussion to otherworldly electronics, was equally capable of a powerful backbeat, as he drove the set's closer to its inevitable conclusion; Ballamy, just as adept at the electronics, but even more impressive on tenor and soprano saxophone, eschewing displays of virtuosity that have been well proven in the past with groups like drummer Bill Bruford's first Earthworks band on albums such as Stamping Ground (Summerfold, 1995) and his own nostalgic More Jazz (Basho, 2007); Fennesz, a sound sculptor whose main instrument may be guitar—and there were times when it was clear, as he layered expansively overdriven chords as the group pushed to a louder climax—but equally a creator of alien landscapes above and below the melodic, horn-driven frontline; and Molvær, whose career has been on an upward trajectory for years, but has demonstrated particular growth this past year, with the release of Hamada (Sula, 2009), as well as performances like his stunning set at Molde Jazz 2010, with guitarist Stian Westerhus and drummer Erland Dahlen, just about blew the roof off of Kulturhuset Klubb.

Together, it was clear that the group was both constantly searching...and finding. New ideas abounded by the minute as, at one point in the set, Molvær walked closer to Ballamy and encouraged the saxophonist to blow through the microphone attached to his trumpet, which was in turn processed along with Molvær's own lines. The result was exciting, and filled with the sense that something new and important had just happened. Strønen was an endless wellspring of ideas, as he seamlessly moved between his kit and his electronics, with a sense of construction that did more than create pulse and color, it created narrative—as the drummer would punctuate an idea, for example, by pulling the tip of his stick along the top of his cymbal and, at the same time, driving the point home with a single, thunderous push from his bass drum.

A combination of ethereal atmospherics and, even for Food, surprisingly grounded rhythms made it a performance to remember. With a set this strong, hopefully the combination of Strønen, Ballamy, Fennesz and Molvær won't be a one-time event.

Day 5: Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers

After a week of spacey free improvisation, progressive rock antics and groundbreaking solo performance, Enjoy Jazz returned to the mainstream for its Friday night show at Ludwigshafen's Konzertsaal Pfalzbau, with Cuban piano master Chucho Valdes and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers. The capacity crowd came for a party, and Valdés and his crack band—trumpet and saxophone, bass, drums and two percussionists—delivered, in a set that lasted only about 95 minutes including encore, but nearly blew the roof off the venue at various points.

Valdés, 70 next year, and moving a little slower for it—until, that is, he sat down at the piano—wasted no time pushing the energy up with the first tune, that also featured percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé Bata on vocals, and a lengthy opening solo from the pianist that set the tone for the entire concert: barring two ballads, high energy dance music—much of it culled from the pianist's latest, Chucho's Steps (World Village, 2010)—of greater rhythmic complexity under the hood, with testosterone-filled solo features for everyone in the band. Valdés seamlessly tossed in quotes from familiar music like George Gershwin's enduring "Rhapsody in Blue," and played with a combination of lithe linear dexterity and driving voicings, and while he was situated on the far side of stage right (in this large venue, where the sound was somewhat less than ideal, the group was, perhaps, spread out a little too far for comfort, but it didn't seem to affect the communication going on across the board), he was clearly the center, the focal point, for both the band and the audience.

The music was also often defined, despite its inherent danceability, by tempo and meter changes, all executed with the effortless ease of a clearly well-rehearsed ensemble. Individual performances were stellar, but especially drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, whose solo early in the set—on "Zawinul's Mambo," which also gave an Afro-Cuban vibe to the late Joe Zawinul's megahit for Weather Report, "Birdland"— raised the roof and pushed the already energized audience into even higher gear, while saxophonist Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez and trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Álvarez delivered Valdés' high velocity themes with muscular aplomb. Near the end of the tune, the group returned to "Birdland" territory, with Lázaro Eivero Alarcón—largely appearing emotionless, but occasionally cracking just the slightest of wry grins to show he was, indeed, enjoying himself—transferring the late Jaco Pastorius' iconic fretless bass line to his acoustic bass.

Valdés constantly changed the line-up, from septet to quintet and, on one occasion, down to a trio, which gave the performance some important diversity, and if there was any single criticism, it was that the performances were, with the exception of one ballad, relentlessly busy, with every solo leading to a flurried climax that, while undeniably indicative of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers' singular and collective virtuosity, could have benefitted from a little space—even on the ballads, including Valdés' lovely "Begin to Be Good."

Still, that was a sentiment clearly not shared by the majority of the audience, as Valdés paced the show to whip it into a frenzy, with a few brave women even venturing near the stage during the set closer, to dance and let the band know, as did the entire audience, with its enthusiastic applause and standing ovation (a rarity in Europe, as opposed to its near-de rigueur status in North America). A remarkable solo from percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles engendered so much applause that he had to take a second bow, mid-set.

With a few dance steps from Bata during the encore—where a surprise vocal spot from Alarcón had the entire group rallying around him at the song's end, as he finally cracked a huge grin, and seemed a little embarrassed by all the attention—there was plenty of reason for the crowd to go wild. Valdés guided the group with a combination of hand signals, glances and, towards the end of the set, more overt direction as he got up from his piano chair and moved center stage to conduct. A charismatic performer who clearly knew how to give the audience what it wanted, Valdés proved himself a consummate showman, but backed it all up with vibrant charts and high octane playing that made it one of the most exciting performances of the past week at Enjoy Jazz, if not the entire festival.

Day 6: Harold López-Nussa Trio

Taking the Afro-Cuban tradition into the 21st Century, fellow Cuban Harold López-Nussa and his trio delivered a set at BASF-Gesellschatshaus in Ludwigshafen, on November 13, that whipped the audience into its own kind of frenzy—just as enthusiastic as Valdés' the evening before, but for different reasons. This wasn't the dance music that populated much of Valdés exhilarating set; instead, while core rhythmic concepts, like the clavé, imbued López- Nussa's music, equally there was a cerebral quality to the writing, and hints of European classicism filtering into songs like "Herencia," the title track to the young pianist's most recent disc, released in late 2009 on World Village.

In fact, as much as the Afro-Cuban tradition is a part of who López-Nussa is, so, too, is the influence of contemporary pianists such as Brad Mehldau, in his impressionistic drive, and, in particular, jazz icon Chick Corea in López-Nussa's sometimes percussive attack. With double-bassist Felipe Cabrera and López-Nussa's brother, Ruy Adrian, on drums, Harold has a regular working trio that may be in his name insofar as he contributes most of the music, but is truly an equilateral triangle, where the contributions from each member collect for a greater whole that significantly exceeds the sum of its parts.

Ruy Adrian, in particular, was tremendously impressive, a hotbed of polyrhythmic complexity whose intense concentration was evident throughout the trio's 100-minute set, with not one, but two encores—following the first, the audience applause continued so long that the trio went back out to the stage, ostensibly for a final bow but, after leaving the stage again, the yelling, screaming and clapping continued relentlessly, encouraging the trio to take to the stage for one last piece. Throughout the set, the drummer's support was fluid and inventive, while his solos were a combination of near-impossible ambidexterity, focused dynamics and constructive evolution. Both brothers are still in their twenties, and what's most remarkable, perhaps, is their ability to resist the temptation to throw everything out on the table with each and every opportunity; instead, while a youthful vigor certainly shines through in this largely original music, so, too, is a clear understanding that, at least some of the time, less is absolutely more.

Cabrera, too, demonstrated admirable constraint, though the occasional burst of speed made clear that it was all about choice. An a capella solo feature, midway through the set, was as impressive for the bassist's ability to continue implying the iterative bass line that was at the core of the piece, even as he took off into other spaces, filled with a deep-rooted melodic sensibility, before returning to its thematic foundation.

Harold's solo feature, consisting of two tunes, combined a similarly lyrical bent with intensifying virtuosity. At one point, he used a foot pedal, beneath the piano, to strike a woodblock and create a clavé over which he could layer his playing; that clavé pedal was again used, when the trio returned, to provide a consistent pulse that gave Ruy Adrian even more polyrhythmic freedom, as he pushed and pulled the pulse with great alacrity, never losing site of the need to interact with his trio mates. "La Jungla" combined a 6/8 pulse with thematic hints of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's enduring "Footprints," but only as a passing mention, with Harold, Ruy Adrian and Cabrera driving its well-hidden blues-base to a drum solo that drove the crowd to yet another frenzy. Harold was clearly having a great night, as he swayed back-and-forth on his piano bench, his right leg swinging down beneath him and nearly straight underneath the piano as he leaned hard into some of his lines.

For a group still in its relative infancy, Harold López-Nussa Trio demonstrated all the building blocks necessary to achieve greatness: terrific communication between its members; virtuosity tempered by respect for the song; and a fresh concept, that marries the Afro-Cuban tradition with more global concerns. If its Enjoy Jazz performance in Ludwigshafen was an indication, great things are, indeed, ahead for this tremendous trio.


A week at Enjoy Jazz isn't like a week at most festivals. Instead of seeing a dozen or more shows, there are only six. But that small number allows for the kind of time most festivals can't provide, to reflect on the music heard. In a week that ranged from progressive rock and electro-centric free improv, to traditional Afro-Cuban music and more of the same, but with a decidedly forward-thinking bent, there was plenty to absorb. It's a festival that may cater more directly to a local audience who can easily travel to the many fine venues the festival uses during its seven- week run, but it's still the kind of festival that encourages a desire to return, each and every year, even if only for—or, perhaps, because of—a small handful of stylistically broad performances from artists ranging from legendary to up-and- coming.

Visit Thomas Strønen and Food, Iain Ballamy, Nils Petter Molvær, Christian Fennesz, Chucho Valdés, Harold López-Nussa Trio and Enjoy Jazz on the web.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

Days 1-3 | Days 4- 6

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