European Jazz Jamboree 2009

AAJ Staff By

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Pianist Ulrich Gumpert's Workshop Band octet offered a young and fresh version of the longtime East German aggregate that once featured the leader with such contemporaries as trombonist Connie Bauer and drummer Gunter "Baby" Sommer. Here with Ben Abarbanel-Wolff (tenor), Martin Klingeberg (trumpet), Christof Thewes (trombone), Christian Weidner (alto sax), Henrik Walsdorff (baritone/tenor sax), Jan Roder (bass) and Michael Griener (drummer), the group's main obstacle was not necessarily the music but the distinct personalities customary to Mingus' own ensembles. Thewes' pronounced interjections on the baritone sax-led set opener ("Moanin'") revealed he was up to the task of providing Mingus' gospel and blues instrumental vocalizations, and certainly showed himself to be one in a very long line of traditionally excellent German trombonists—from Albert Mangelssdorf to Nils Wogram, and then of course there's the Mingus trombone tradition (e.g. Jimmy Knepper, Willie Dennis). Weidner's Booker Ervin-like wails on alto (versus Ervin's typical tenor) also drew inspiration from the group's water source. "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" displayed lots of group dynamics following Walsdorff's unaccompanied opening tenor solo, which transformed into a duo with bassist Roder, then into the full octet "choir' in fine Mingus tradition, returning to a tenor solo backed by rhythm, into a bass/drums duo then piano trio. Gumpert, however, seemed pensive, his playing showing a slight restraint, atypical of such Mingus pianists as Jaki Byard. The group's two-tenor attack on "Fables of Faubus" swirled in and out of the handful of busily contributing horns, an ensemble attack perhaps serving as the band's greatest asset, unenviable as the task might be to match such distinct voices that graced Mingus' ensembles. For instance, Weidner was no match for Mingus' alto alums: Dolphy, John Handy, Jackie McLean, et. al. So rather than to place the focus on individual soloing, when the collective improvisations in the European tradition (Globe Unity Orchestra, Willem Breuker Kollektief, etc.) can overshadow isolated soloists—the music soared to greater heights with simultaneous soloing and collective improvising. Thus the rare moments of free for all were welcomed by listener as much as player, as was ideally heard on the set's closer—"MDM," featuring Mingus-like multi-textural cacophony at its finest.

Arguably the festival's most successful tribute was alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard's POTSA LOTSA (the group named after an obscure Dolphy composition titled "Number Eight—Potsa Lotsa" from the seminal At The Five Spot) at the Oval Room. In a chamber music aesthetic, she showcased a sampling of nearly two dozen Dolphy tunes arranged for a unique quartet of alto (Eberhard), tenor (Patrick Braun), trumpet (Nicolaus Neuber) and trombone (Gerhard Gschlossl). Offering an enlightening listen to the composer's singular works, the double reed/double brass group thrived in this setting, only their fourth- ever live performance. Giving this tribute additional significance as ultimately a tribute to Dolphy the composer versus player, Eberhard didn't make much in the way of any noticeable efforts replicating Dolphy's playing style (rarely did she even reflect a direct Dolphy stamp on her own playing), nor did she try to incorporate two other instruments closely associated with Dolphy—one of which she has been known to play—flute and bass clarinet. The group successfully melded Dolphy's jazz with an overt classical facet, offering a refreshing listen to such intricate compositions as "Burning Spear," "Out There"(an alto/trombone feature, with Gschlossl ferociously spitting out walking bass lines), "The Prophet" (an excellent if not obvious selection with its inherent compositional beauty lending itself to the classical chamber ensemble interpretation and textural two, three and four part harmonies of various instrument combinations), "Serene"(featuring more demanding Dolphy lines that understandably found Eberhard actually gasping for breath before squeezing out the piece's final note after consecutively demanding and lengthy lines), the obligatory "Out to Lunch" (Gschlossl interweaving short jabs and long tones with Neuber while the two saxophonists provided a line underneath before the reeds took centerstage, frenetically bleeting, blowing, popping, then leading back into the strolling head as an empathetic as-ever foursome) and "Straight Up and Down/Hat & Beard" (given an intriguing bolero undertone). An already highly anticipated 2010 Jazzwerkstatt CD release is on the way, so be on the lookout for this one!

Another unqualified success was Monk's Casino, a project full of seasoned German jazz musicians. Covering in numbing fashion as much of the pianist's canon as could recognizably be squeezed into a single prolonged set—an endurance ride as much for listener as musician—were Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano) arguably at his most creative and certainly most proficient, Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet), graced with super-human projection, Axel Dörner (trumpet), Jan Roder (bass) and Uli Jennessen (drums). Most impressively—given the complexities of Monk's diverse catalogue of originals—was not a single sheet of music was present, most pieces being organically presented. And neither was there a single microphone used for the all-acoustic set in the large concert hall.

The well traveled tribute ensemble, with quite the busy touring schedule this past year (appearing in many an international festival from Oslo to Vancouver) organically presented naturally birthed pieces from various recognizable Monk themes sometimes in the form of succinct medleys. Each musician offered awe-inducing contributions. Schlippenbach's selectively spacious note placement selections, with an ever so slightly behind that beat approach, served up the proper quirky ingredient to keep the proceedings, as well as his bandmates, appropriately off-balanced. Mahall, who plays his instrument more confidently and capably than most anyone else on the scene today, is especially a rare bird in that the bass clarinet is his exclusive instrument (rather than a doubling one). Playing it saxophonically and with unmatched volume and clarity, many—including myself—questioned whether there was a microscopic mic somewhere up or down his sleeve! And Dörner, a fellow Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO) alum, opened several of his statements with a forceful notelessness, blowing windy tones before an actual brassy theme formulated from the bell of his horn, a style the trumpeter has mastered over the years. Towards the end of the set, he played with one hand grasping a cymbal for what looked, in side profile, to be an interesting trumpet hybrid instrument (at the very least a nice photo op). He culminated the tune by smashing the cymbal with its match held by Jennessen, who stood to complete the cymbal high-five! Like with Monk, the best advice when listening to Monk's Casino: expect the unexpected.

Pianist Aki Takase was involved in two distinct tributes. Her Fats Waller project consists of Eugene Chadbourne (guitar/banjo/vocals), Nils Wogram (trombone), Mahall (bass clarinet) and Paul Lovens (drums), all masters of working both inside and outside tradition, and a working unit for exactly six and a half years now (Chadbourne distinctly recollected the group's first recording when they heard the news that the US was invading Iraq). With all its original members and instrumentation intact since—other than the one-time trumpet chair Thomas Heberer—the group at Babylon Kino took familiar Waller material and flipped it on its head while maintaining the music's inherent jovial free spirit (given, Chadbourne's entertaining though offputting vocals and stage side antics can be an acquired taste: he even comically donned a Martha Washington-like wig at one juncture). Opening, as with the group's debut CD (Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller, 2003), the quintet charged into the upbeat "Lookin' Good, But Feelin' Bad," Chadbourne's vocals more Popeye than Fats. The version was as straight-ahead as one would or could expect from this group. Mahall, with his daunting sound on bass clarinet once again, proved that amplification and microphones were superfluous, taking listeners to a bygone era when there wasn't such a sound crutch available. His duo rendition with Takase on Waller's blazing up-tempo "Handful of Keys" was riveting, a dazzling display of technique full of traditional lines, swooping flourishes and stunning yet sensibly executed tangents that veered even if momentarily into the atonal avant-garde. The band also lit into "The Joint is Jumpin'" featuring an extended thick as mud opening Wogram trombone solo, Chadbourne (again on vocals) for the first time switching over from banjo to guitar, for an outrageously original and succinct take on the Waller 1937 ditty. Their encore of "Two Sleepy People" featured Chadbourne's inimitable narrative vocals lightly adding (or subtracting, depending on your tastes) charm.

Takase's two nights in duo with one-time student Eberhard (alto and clarinet) at Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop brought fresh colors to arrangements of Ornette Coleman's music, as heard on their 2007 release Ornette Coleman Anthology (Intakt): from "Peace" (Takase's inside of the piano expertise and modern classical approach stressing heavy, resonating bass notes and un-boppish impressionistic work in the treble register), "Long Time No See" (originally from Ornette's Friends and Neighbors 1970 recording, and fifteen years later featured on his Song X collaboration with Pat Metheny) and "Beauty is a Rare Thing" (its inherent spacious quality ideally suitable for the duo to exploit) to an extended "Una Muy Bonita" (a set highlight with each player at their most uninhibited).

Eberhard's work on the two clarinet family instruments (clarinet and bass clarinet) further removes the potentially overbearing tribute concept element without the common denominator instrument between performer and tributed composer. Saving her bass clarinet for the following set, however, Eberhard focused almost exclusively on Ornette's primary instrument, and his influence as a player admirably rarely crept up. Another unique aspect to this dedication is that Ornette rarely has ever included piano within his music, adding an even more refreshing dimension with Takase's masterful handling of the material while maintaining her own persona at the ivories. And like with Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino, these two performed without sheet music, impressively adding an even more daring element of spontaneity to their interpretation of the familiar themes while striking a trapeze artist balance between tonality and atonality through rather succinct and altogether new approaches to each piece. Not as far removed from the originals as the recording (being that Eberhard's featured on three reed instruments on the CD), it is quite an incredible feat live that the two played Ornette tunes in their own way utilizing his melodies as hooks, reeling in one unique interpretation after another.


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