Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012

Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012
John Kelman By

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2012 Enjoy Jazz Festival
Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Germany
October 30-November 7, 2012
After a week in northern Sweden covering the 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival—where the were days shortening and the temperature dropping—moving south to Heidelberg, Germany was a welcome respite from the oncoming onslaught of winter that's also approaching back home in Canada. For this year's coverage of the fourteenth edition of the Enjoy Jazz Festival, a festival unique in a world of thousands of jazz festivals in its approach—as a general rule, one show per night only, allowing its patrons the opportunity to really absorb and, well, enjoy the music, and running for six weeks rather than a few days, at show-specific venues spread across the Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen region—there was another banner year of programming, courtesy of festival founder and director, Rainer Kern, and his small but hardworking staff.

Kern's approach to programming is also a little different than many festivals, which cast their roster in concrete many months before the event. Instead, while Kern does, indeed, look to put together the festival's lineup well in advance, he's open to the idea of new acts coming to his attention later in the game, and has been known to make programming decisions in the final few months leading up to the festival's typical October/November run.

Of course, this kind of flexibility is not without its price; pity the poor people, for example, who have to put the hardcopy program guide together, when changes can be coming in at the eleventh hour—or later. But the result is a festival that's on the leading edge when it comes to presenting what's truly happening now. But none of this would happen without Kern's staff. They work hard and, while only one show per night may seem like a cakewalk to those that program multiple performances, working a festival for weeks presents its own set of challenges, challenges met by the Enjoy Jazz staff each and every year.

The professionalism of Kern's staff is a given; what makes it truly special is level of care paid to its invited guests. Most festivals ensure fine care of media, but few actually provide the same transportation to shows for international media as is de rigueur with its performing artists. And while it's all business when it comes to the work at hand, Kern and the rest of the Enjoy Jazz staff make returning each year eagerly anticipated on a personal level, by taking care of the small details—like booking returning guests not just in the same hotel, but in the same room each year, if possible (though that's as much a function of the hotel, in this case, the lovely, old school Hollander Hof situated by the 400 year-old footbridge spanning the Neckar River). For those who spend a substantial percentage of their year traveling, it's these kinds of small but significant details that engender a terrific level of comfort and make it a lot easier to get the work done.

Returning to Enjoy Jazz is like visiting with old friends while making new ones, all the while afforded the opportunity to experience a diverse program of jazz and, occasionally, things outside its broadest purview. The real challenge is deciding when to come; the best thing to do, invariably, is to pick a couple of shows that are of specific interest, and then flesh out a week-to-ten-days around them. This year it was easy, with a consecutive program ranging from guitarist Bill Frisell's collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Great Flood, drummer Manu Katche's current quartet and the American super group James Farm, to rising German star pianist Michael Wollny and his [em] trio and unexpected treats, like German bassist Manfred Bründl's Silent Bass quartet, and Manfred Eicher's The Art of Listening session, where the ECM label head played some as-yet-unreleased music from albums due for release in 2013. And the opportunity to spend nearly 10 days at the festival and soaking up the culture of picturesque Old Heidelberg made returning to the festival a no-brainer.

Chapter Index

October 30: Portico Quartet

In the five years since releasing its debut, Knee Deep in the North Sea (The Vortex, 2007), England's Portico Quartet has gone from strength to strength both in the studio, with its 2009 follow-up, Isla (Real World), to captivating live performances like its 2010 show in Montreal, Canada.

At Portico's core is the hang—an instrument that looks like two wok pots welded together with a series of dents in them and which, when struck with mallets, sounds something like a mellower version of steel pan drums. The group's largely acoustic setting—a strange blend of post-minimalism, lyrical song structures and group interplay—has always allowed for a small degree of electronics, but the paradigm shift of Portico Quartet (Real World 2012) has come at a price. With the departure of co-founder/hang player Nick Mulvey—and the recruitment of Keir Vine in his place—Portico has moved further away from its jazzier roots and more towards an electronic-drenched approach that still confirmed a substantially changed Portico Quartet with many of its foundational premises intact.

Unfortunately, as good as the Portico Quartet is, the group's performance at Heidelberg's Karlstorbahnhof was something of a disappointment. Performing material from Portico Quartet in the first of two sets, it seemed that the quartet was, in fact, leaving a number of important markers behind and, in its pursuit of a more electronic aesthetic, losing some of its strengths and defining touchstones. Drummer Duncan Ballamy no longer employs a conventional drum kit—something that was still used, to great effect, on Portico Quartet tracks like "Rubidium"—instead, utilizing a rig that combined synths and sampled drums with just a couple of acoustic drums and cymbals. Vine spent much of his time on the hang, but often split his attention with a synthesizer; everyone in the band, in fact, was wired up, though bassist Milo Fizpatrick did spend most of his time on his primary instrument, as much an anchor where necessary, elsewhere a textural and melodic foil for his band mates.

While Portico has never been about overt soloing prowess, saxophonist Jack Wylie has, in the past, been a more dominant voice; now it seems, his role has been diminished significantly, and if he was never a particularly engaged-looking performer live, with far less to do it seemed that there was certain element of boredom setting in. The biggest problem, perhaps, was the group's extending its music from the relatively short durations on record to much longer investigations of sound and repetition. These things, in and of themselves, are not a problem; Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch continues to do this with great success in his band, Ronin, heard most recently on Live (ECM, 2012). Unfortunately, the more concise material of Portico Quartet did not translate well to lengthier explorations. Perhaps a better approach would be to find a balance between the Portico of Isla and the Portico of Portico Quartet. Clearly this is a talented group of musicians, with a distinct approach. The addition of Vine has resulted in a change that, at this time, works really well on record; hopefully Portico will find the right combination to more successfully bring it to the concert stage in future.


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