European Jazz Jamboree 2009

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European Jazz Jamboree
Berlin, Germany
September 18-24, 2009
20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the global appreciation of Germany's jazz is arguably finally getting its due, with no small help from the European Jazz Jamboree (EJJ). In its sophomore year, EJJ has quickly garnered attention throughout Europe, and now the States, too, is (and/or should be) taking notice. Founded and run by entrepreneur Ulli Blobel (who a few years ago also started Jazzwerkstatt, a most distinctive jazz record label), this year's festival, sub-titled "Composers & Improvisers" focused overwhelmingly on the music of mostly bygone American jazz legends (11 of 16 booked acts were "tributes," some more successful than others) such as Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Steve Lacy, Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry. With only a pair of American headliners—pianists Uri Caine and Dave Burrell, perhaps the most impressive feat of this European festival is its devotion to homegrown talent, a mix of living legends and a crop of up and comers, as well as musicians from countries in close proximity who share somewhat similar if not necessarily complementary aesthetics.

Unofficially the festival got under way a day early at the Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop, a quaint street level CD shop and cafe cozily fitting 50 people with natural if slightly boomy acoustics. The wall to the side of the stage featured a dedicated display of Jazzwerkstatt's 70+ deep catalogue of titles, a visually stunning mural effect of exquisite award-winning cover art reflecting bold fonts and images of mostly black, red and white binding the music with Blobel's music mission. Alan Skidmore's recent release S.O.H. Live (with Tony Oxley and Ali Haurand, recorded over 25 years ago in London) was one of those titles on view.

Skidmore's trio expertly and intensely covered the terrain of John Coltrane, his primary mentor in, strangely enough, one of the few unadvertised tributes. German bassist and drummer, Johannes Gunckel and Thomas Alkier respectively, both stuck to the legendary English tenor saxophonist's relentless blazing runs like glue, an easier said than done task. And having only rehearsed (let alone met) together earlier that day in the context of a more expansive Don Cherry large ensemble tribute which took place the following week (more on that later), this threesome's empathy and cohesiveness was not only surprising but inspiring from this first time live meeting. Between sets Skidmore could be heard repeating the word, "Fantastic!" as if incredulous how natural the music seemed to collectively flow forth from the threesome—"I feel like we've been playing together our entire life!" With Coltrane arguably the saxophonist's greatest influence as both person and musician (Skidmore's daughter Alice is named after Coltrane's recently deceased second wife and his grand daughter, Naima, after the late saxophonist's first wife!), the trio performed renditions of "Good Bait"(which Coltrane recorded with Dizzy in the early '50s though most memorably on his Soultrane), "On Green Dolphin Street" (a Miles staple which Trane recorded on several occasions with the trumpeter), "Some Other Blues" (the last track of Side B on Coltrane Jazz from 1959), and "Impressions" (which undoubtedly placed Skidmore as one of the obvious though sorely neglected great post-Coltrane tenors for those uninitiated). Latching onto a melodic theme and stretching it beyond with awe-inducing and blistering note runs, and utilizing an extended technique of momentous tones and harmonics, Skidmore rarely took the horn from his mouth. Never taking the conservative route, as was the case with his mentor—the sky was quite literally the limit. (Kudos to festival organizer and promoter Blobel for having the foresight to present Skidmore in his festival's first two editions)

The festival's primary venue, the famous East German landmark Babylon Kino (Mitte)—a popular movie hall with a capacity near 450—was the site for German jazz legend Rolf Kühn's early 80th birthday celebration on the festival's official first day (coincidentally Babylon was opened 80 years ago, consequently celebrating a similar birthday around this time, too). One couldn't miss the historic cinema's stunning marquee upon exiting the U-Bahn subway stop right down the street, and the theater's refined modern Expressionist style inside and out, a fine welcoming for music fans walking towards it and then upon entering the lobby and main space's spacious slightly inclined main orchestra level of seating. Here Kühn was reunited with younger brother, pianist Joachim, and at concert's end was presented with the "Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik" Honorary Diploma Award ("Ehrenurkunde") for Lifetime Achievement (an award bestowed to artists ranging from Pierre Boulez and Martha Argerich to BB King, Neil Young and fellow jazz musicians Charlie Mariano, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lee Konitz). One of the finest modern clarinetists in jazz history, Kuhn's name and music should be ranked alongside Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, and there is arguably not another living clarinetist who can better play in and out of time. With a recently published biography (given in German, but with a hopeful future English translation) as well as a boxed set collection and the above mentioned notorious award, this cross seas under-acknowledgment will more than likely be rectified.

Kühn displayed originality in a spectrum of music, from his working small Tri-O group in the first set (guitarist Ronny Graupe, bassist Johannes Fink and drummer Christian Lillinger, and joined by Joachim as well as trumpeter Matthias Schrieffl) to the second set's dedication (with the NDR Big Band) to one of his original influences, Benny Goodman. Graupe, the quartet's "second voice," was comfortably given prominent space by the leader on each the first set's tune selections, all originals taken exclusively from material found on the group's debut and sophomore releases—Rollercoaster and Close Up (both on Jazzwerkstatt). His "Caneveral" opened the set, its airy minute-long rumbling prologue giving way after a brief pause to demanding clarinet-guitar lines. The two hornmen in fleet-fingered unison worked surprisingly well in tandem. A frenetic, busy single-note specialist, the guitarist's style nicely contrasted the almost modern classical approach of the leader whose emphasis was more on complimenting warm but daring elastic tones within the structure of each composition. The next two pieces ("29FF" and "Spacerunner"), both compositions by the leader which open the most recent Close Up, revealed a fine tuned and flexible balancing act of collective themes and individual improvisations.

The remainder of the set had Joachim joining the group on piano. For "Mamarazzi" and "Changing the Umbrella," the now quintet performed actually much of the time as a quartet if not a powerhouse trio (sans guitar), either bass-less or drum-less in sections, with Graupe tending not to play while the pianist was and vice versa—thus reinforcing the notion that two harmonic instruments don't necessarily make ideal bed fellows. Trumpeter (and also guest artist on the group's latest CD) Schriefl then joined, with the group becoming noticeably more experimental in their improvisations: Graupe took what looked like a long red chopstick, placing it under his guitar strings, then tapped it back and forth for an eerie springing musical effect; Schriefl, first muted then on open horn, avoided notes per se, rather blew through his instrument for sound effect, including sudden outbursts of blurts and growls.

The second set, the Benny Goodman centennial dedication, found Kühn fronting the NDR Big Band conducted by Jörg Achim Keller. Kühn is obviously graced with a Benny Goodman-like proclivity and influence of classical as much as jazz, naturally handling material from each with ease and imagination, as well as a youthful vigor and chops which he's developed and maintained since his first recordings in the late '40s. Perhaps as admirable as his diverse range of sounds was not only the open-eared programming of the Goodman set placed as the evening's last (following the clarinetist's small group and the parameter- stretching The Salmon duo—more on that later), but the open ears in attendance who absorbed each end of the spectrum equally and provided perhaps the fullest house of the entire festival. Imagine a meeting of 92nd St. Y's "Jazz in July" program sprinkled into a night of the Vision Festival or vice versa and you have an idea of how unlikely this concept would be in New York.

Kühn shared the frontline with guest clarinetist Fiete Felsch and soprano saxophonist Walter Gauchel, performing almost Rahsaan Roland Kirk-like in their multi-tone configuration, an in essence three-headed horn. The set was tailored to appease to any and all straight-ahead Swing fans in the audience (who may have patiently sat through the more experimental preceding sets), in addition to those with more diverse tastes. Schriefl politely asked to join what in essence became an unplanned jam session on stage, then proceeded to contribute one of the strongest solos, starting muted once again then featuring half-valve Cootie Williams-like embellishments. The birthday boy's interesting selection of "Lover Man" sneaked into the program (even though Goodman evidently only recorded it once, in 1949) and other standards such as "Easy Living," "Falling in Love with Love," "When You Wish Upon A Star" and "Just Friends." The obvious conclusion, "Sing Sing Sing" culminated the concert in a unique, and arguably successful (though a tad loose) rendition. Drummer Lillinger took a single floor tom to the front of the stage and weaved syncopations with NDR drummer Danny Gottlieb who meanwhile maintained the Krupa beat. All in all, probably not what NDR had in mind, but they all seemed good sports about the informal complexion the set suddenly took on, though Lillinger noticeably grew tired of awkwardly bending over his drum and furiously beating out rhythms, which left his contribution more an inconsistent novelty.

Of the two Mingus tributes—by Ulrich Gumpert's Workshop Band and another German collective known as Dok Wallach—the latter, at the smaller upstairs Oval Room space at Babylon Kino won out for its raw energy, originality and interplay. Playing material found on their recently released Live in Lisbon (Jazzwerkstatt), the quartet's nominal leader, Michael Thieke, showcased his reed mastery on "Tijuana Moods Montage" (alto), "Self Portrait in Three Colors" (clarinet), to "Hobo Ho" and "Meditations on Integration" (alto clarinet). Joined by tenor man Daniel Erdmann, bassist John Fink and drummer Köbberling Heinrich, Thieke and company brought more a contemporary energy to the music of Mingus. Heinrich's drumming fused Mingus' Dannie Richmond with the likes of Jim Black, Kenny Wollesen and Joey Baron, and spurred on memorable group improvisations. The theme to "Self Portrait" was supported by a Phillip Glass- esque repetitive arco bass line as if adding a lost chapter of heretofore previously lost, novel even though un- Mingus like, bridge before again returning to the theme. This in a nutshell explained why their tribute to Mingus came off so successfully: while being true to the spirit of the music's composer, Dok Wallach was as true to their own take on Mingus' music, adding to the tradition versus regurgitating it. Certainly a candidate for "Best Tribute Release of the Year."


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