Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 7-10, October 26-29, 2009

Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 7-10, October 26-29, 2009
John Kelman By

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Days 1-2 | Day 3-6 | Days 7-10 | Days 11-12
The main purpose of visiting the Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen region may be for the music, but during the day there's plenty to see and do. Wandering around the old part of Heidelberg, it's difficult not to be moved by the profound sense of age, especially coming from the much younger North America. Heidelberg has, to be sure, a more modern section, but Old Heidelberg manages to successfully maintain a quaint feeling in its cobblestoned roads, numerous cathedrals and modern amenities couched within the older structures. With narrow roads—often almost impossible to navigate, even on foot, with cars parked on both sides—there's a relaxed vibe, despite being populated by a community that pays great attention to detail...and punctuality.

For a city that boasts so much despite its relatively small population (under 150,000), there's a wealth of cultural activities throughout the year, with Enjoy Jazz rising rapidly over its now eleven years, to become Germany's largest jazz festival. As the festival continues towards its end on November 11, the four days following the ECM 40th anniversary were devoted to a number of prominent American musicians, ranging from guitarist Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet and pianist Brad Mehldau to Jimmy Cobb's Kind of Blue at 50 tribute band, and singer Cassandra Wilson. From the mainstream to the gently experimental, it was further evidence of the festival's exceptionally broad stylistic purview.

Chapter Index
  1. Visiting Heidelberg
  2. Bill Frisell 858 Quartet
  3. Brad Mehldau Solo
  4. Jimmy Cobb's So What Band: Kind of Blue at 50
  5. SAS Enjoys Jazz
  6. Cassandra Wilson

Visiting Heidelberg

A series of open marketplace squares act as focal points throughout old Heidelberg, with cafés, stores, markets and hotels. It's a popular tourist destination, yet there's never a feeling of overcrowding. A leisurely walk down Castle Hill, home of Heidelberg Castle, is an opportunity to relax and experience some beautiful scenery, including views of Heidelberg and beyond from various points on the 90-minute journey.

In addition to its beautiful old bridge crossing the Neckar River, the immense and impressive Heidelberg Castle is considered the greatest ruin this side of the Alps. Beginning life as a fortress and taking over 200 years to build (completed in 1619), the castle was destroyed and rebuilt three times—first in the infamous Thirty Years' War, and finally ravaged by fire in the 1700s (the interior of many parts of the castle possess solid wood ceilings in addition to floors and wall, so was highly combustible) and ultimately left to ruin.

Traveling to the castle by funicular—switching to another, 100 year-old funicular above the castle leads to the top of Castle Hill for a spectacular view of Heidelberg and beyond—a tour of the castle reveals a great deal about life in the 17th and 18th century. With an average life expectancy of 35, paintings of some of the castle's Prince Electors (a collective of seven elected Germany's king) are deceptive, as these portraits give a false impression of men in their fifties who are, in fact, in their late teens or early twenties.

Ceramic stoves in the castle's large rooms did little to keep the structure warm during the long winters, as stone walls, often meters thick, relentlessly retained the cold. What appear to be small doors in the hallways were, in fact, conduits for servants—who were not allowed in the main rooms—to surreptitiously add wood to the stoves. With unclean water a constant threat of disease, wine was the preferred drink—and a huge barrel that holds tens of thousands of liters is a reminder of just how much was consumed, though the alcohol content was much less than is common today.

Rooms filled with large wooden furniture, an old apothecary, and outside walls peppered with tremendous statues, archways and centuries-old vine, Heidelberg Castle is an experience not to be missed.

Demonstrating a commitment to reducing carbon footprint that is absolutely a case of "walking the walk," it's possible to take a trip up the Neckar River on a solar shuttle—a metal boat that can accommodate up to 110 people, powered entirely by solar panels that store energy in large batteries, allowing the boat to both run silently and in the evening.

The short trip provides an opportunity to capture the scenic beauty of Heidelberg, nestled in the Neckar Valley. Drawing attention to the Natural Sciences building of the centuries-old University of Heidelberg, the boat's narrator pointed out that the reason it was impossible to find a specific campus is because all of Heidelberg is the campus, with buildings peppered throughout the city. With over 25,000 students—responsible for a sixth of the city's population, the university has been a renowned scientific center for centuries.

Heidelberg is an idyllic destination where old and new comfortably intersect, with a pervasive sense of history and significance that's impossible to ignore.

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet

Despite being named after his more extreme Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005), Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet performance at Ludwigshafen's dasHaus leaned more towards the Americana that's occupied much of the influential guitarist's interest over the past several years. Culling material from History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008), Frisell nevertheless brought some sharper angles and rough surfaces to the material, some of which he's been mining for several years, and dating as far back as the set opener, bluesy, ambling "Monroe," first heard on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999) and the quirky "Rag," from Is That You? (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990).

Surrounded by longtime musical friends and partners—cellist Hank Roberts, who was a member of Frisell's first touring band; violist Eivind Kang who first worked with the guitarist alongside 858's fourth member, trumpeter Ron Miles, on the equally curiously configured Quartet (Nonesuch, 1997)- -Frisell's group was the definition of chamber jazz. Performing so quietly that photographers were asked not to take photos near the stage as the clicks of the cameras would be too loud, there were, in fact, no monitors—only Frisell's two amplifiers and mikes on the other instruments in order to get sound out to the house. The intimacy amongst the four players, collected tightly together at the center of the stage to maximize eye contact, made for a 100-minute set that often flowed from tune-to-tune with a kind of comfortable dissolve into free play, oftentimes amorphous, yet always managing to lead to the next piece.

If ever there was a collection of under-rated players it's this one, with the obvious exception of Frisell, who has been an incredibly loyal musical partner throughout his own rapid rise to fame. Sure, he's played with Elvin Jones, Dave Holland and Ron Carter; but when he needs a trumpeter, Miles is invariably the first call—and a terrific choice. Capable of acting as an accompanist in addition to rising to the top to layer tart lines, he was an incredibly intuitive player with a similarly curious musical wit that made him an ideal foil for Frisell's often quirky, comical turns. Kang was a versatile player who, with the richer, lower register viola, was at times a rich contrapuntal partner, other times supporting the slowly evolving music. Roberts, perhaps the most undervalued of them all, was outstanding, whether he was walking bass lines during what sounded like a curious rendition of John Coltrane's change-heavy "Giant Steps," improvising freely in the connecting passages, or delivering bluesy lines on History, Mystery's roots-meets-world-music "Baba Drame," first heard on The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003).

As for Frisell, a man who may hold the banner for "most humble guitarist in jazz," he was clearly having a great time playing with old friends in a relaxed environment where the written material was nothing more than a means to allow the quartet to go where it wanted. As always, a variety of effects and looping devices allowed him to stretch the sound of his guitar, and between songs he kept triggering a brief snippet of near-white noise, looking to his band mates with a mischievous grin.

There are those who accuse him of overworking a repertoire and, given the considerable cross-over with his 2009 performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival—though that was a more conventional line-up, with Miles, longtime bassist Tony Scherr and relative newcomer/drummer Rudy Royston—it's certainly true that, despite new albums with a preponderance of fresh material every year, Frisell continues to return to a smaller subset of songs. But Frisell feels that he's still exploring these songs' greater potential and, based on these two 2009 performances, there's every indication that there's still plenty of possibility. Without a drummer, the 858 Quartet grooved in a different way through Frisell's often repetitive structures, as opposed to his Montreal group. But groove it did, and explore and interact on the most intimate of levels.

It was the gentlest kind of free music, where there was enough structure for Frisell, Roberts, Kang and Miles to provide context, but with complete latitude to go where the collective mind wanted. Proof that free improvisation needn't be unapproachable, Frisell and the 858 Quartet played with the kind of unassuming honesty, deep feeling and playful sense of humor that could only draw in the sold-out audience.

Brad Mehldau Solo

If there was but a single lesson learned at Enjoy Jazz's four-day ECM 40th anniversary celebration, which ended two evenings ago, it was this: less is, indeed, often more. As prodigious a talent as pianist Brad Mehldau is, it's a lesson he could have applied to his heavily attended solo performance at the beautiful Christuskirche in Mannheim, on October 27, 2009.

Unlike many young artists who come to public attention too soon, Mehldau's meteoric career has been completely supported by a discography of almost unparalleled strength, demonstrating equally swift evolution over the course of his five Art of the Trio Warner Bros. releases from 1997 to 2001, and growing even further on more recent releases including House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006) and Live (Nonesuch, 2008), with his longstanding trio. With Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2004) a thoroughly compelling live solo disc, expectations were high for his Mannheim appearance.

While comparisons to the late Bill Evans were, even early in his career, always superficial at best, at this point Mehldau's voice is so completely defined to render meaningless any such references. If any comparison can be drawn, it would be to Keith Jarrett's legendary stream-of-consciousness solo performances; but whereas Jarrett pulls much from nothing, Mehldau starts with song form, though where his improvisations go is often anybody's guess. Mehldau has always combined his own writing with a healthy reverence for jazz standards and interpretations of contemporary sources, but his Mannheim show drew more decidedly from artists including Radiohead, Nick Drake, Nirvana and Massive Attack than ever before.

It started with great promise, as Mehldau opened with a demonstration of remarkable skill while, at the same time, avoiding the chops-laden excesses of most performers with his advanced technique. Mehldau can truly do more with one hand than most pianist's do with two, and with a set of simple changes, Mehldau grew the song organically and with inexorable logic. From a spare, one-handed arpeggio, a simple melody grew from his right hand, as he explored the keyboard both above and below his left. With relentless inevitability, it grew increasingly dramatic, with a kind of minimalistic repetitiveness—breathtaking and as distinctive an approach as can be found amongst modern jazz pianists. Few explore the lower register as thoroughly as Mehldau does—with the possible exception of Paul Bley—and it created an immense sound that resonated throughout the cathedral.

Turning even more economical, Mehldau created a thing of spare beauty as even simpler changes supported greater lyricism and some attention to space. But that's where the set began to get into trouble. From that point forward, Mehldau seemed fixated on interpreting the material in much the same fashion. Changes asserted by the left hand led to a right that gradually built to mirror its partner, as a relentless eight-or- sixteenth-note pulse built to a climax to be sure, but ultimately, song-after-song, became too similar. It's one thing to have a unique approach; another to be so singular with it that there's too little variation. Again, Mehldau's technique was impeccable, as he reversed roles and soloed with his left hand, maintaining the changes and harmonic context with his right; few pianists in jazz possess this kind of remarkable ambidexterity.

It was a distinctive enough style, but one that rarely let the music breathe. If less is more, then certainly more is not more. Mehldau's undeniable talent, sometimes underlined by excessive cerebralism, would have been far more effective if, as on his own Live in Tokyo, he'd introduced both a little more variety and a lesser preponderance for filling every possible nook and cranny. All the more disappointing because Mehldau has always been so predictably superb, it can't be called a bad show, but it was one that failed to deliver on expectations built around past performances and his impressive discography.

The audience was, however, largely beyond appreciative, leading to one final issue with Mehldau's show. It's always a good thing to leave an audience happy but hungry for more, and by satisfying the audience's continued demands, by the time Mehldau had finished his fourth encore, the applause went from being thunderous—as unrelenting as his performance—to quickly dying out. One encore is usually enough; two, recognition of a particularly enthusiastic audience. More than that and it becomes a case of diminishing returns. All leading to the feeling that, while Mehldau's performance was one that might be difficult to match in matters of technique, lacked the inherent musicality of pianists like Stefano Bollani, Bobo Stenson, Jarrett...and even himself, as Live in Tokyo and Elegiac Cycle (Warner Bros., 1999) amply demonstrated.



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