Though jazz doesn't sell the albums it used to, it remains popular as a live art form, particularly in the festival format and especially in Europe. What has been somewhat distressing, however, is that most European festivals feel the need to bring over American artists as major draws instead of highlighting the region's own impressive talent.
Not so for the inaugural year of the European Jazz Jamboree, a compelling new festival in Berlin organized by Jazzwerkstatt Records (see label profile
). Label owner Ulli Blobel, once a concert promoter in 1980s East Germany, put together a festival that illuminates a fascinating cross-section of the modern European jazz scene.
The European Jazz Jamboree took place in various venues around Berlin from Sept. 18th-24th; this correspondent was able to catch only the middle three days, with no disrespect to German reedplayer Gebhard Ullmann, who played both the day before arrival (The Clarinet Trio with Jorgen Kupke and Michael Thieke) and the two days after departure (Ullmann's Ta Lam 11 Plays Charles Mingus).
The first stop was Jazzwerkstatt's new retail shop in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin for a solo set by acoustic guitarist Uwe Kropinski, who proved a hard musician to classify with forays into classical technique, avant-garde musings, folk-like thematic material and even vocalizing and percussive effects. Next up was a trip to the beautiful Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie, an architecturally stunning, if not necessarily good for jazz, room. There, a double bill was presented that was certainly strange and sadly not well-attended: The Parco Della Musica Jazz Orchestra led by Maurizio Giammarco and vocalists Georgie Fame and Uschi Bruning backed by the Alan Skidmore Quartet.
The 19-piece Italian ensemble was making its first Berlin appearance and seemed tentative at the onset. The material was written by various members of the group and ran the gamut from spunky grooves to shades of Mingus to Continental Latin. The textural arrangements never exceeded 10 minutes but included nice solo turns, especially from the leader's various saxophones. Towards the end of the set, the Orchestra became looser with energetic contributions from drummer Pietro Iodice. The set that followed began with English saxophonist Alan Skidmore's quartet playing an instrumental version of Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." as a warmup. Skidmore has left behind his avant-garde playing from the '60s to devote himself to the work and style of Coltrane but has an appealingly bluesy rasp along with a strong young rhythm section. When Fame became involved, it was to the detriment of Skidmore, who could have easily carried an entire set himself, though he used his solo spaces to good advantage. Fame is an older British rhythm and blues singer who is hard to take for long periods. There was much posturing, and the collaboration frankly felt anachronistic, particularly Fame's exhortational chanting of Skidmore's name.
Soon, it became apparent that It was necessary for your correspondent to leave the show early for a longish S-Bahn ride to Schlot Jazzclub for the eagerly anticipated Clarinet Total. Schlot is a cozy little venue that seems to discourage walk-in traffic by being located down several dark alleys off a main street. There clarinetist Theo Jorgensmann played a lengthy set in duo with bassist Hagen Stuedemann, before inviting several guests, clarinetists of all stripesWolfgang Schmidtke, Rudi Mahall, Michel Pilz, Ernst Deuker, along with drummer Michael Grienerfor some impromptu collaborations.
Jorgensmann and Stuedemann began their performance with two long improvisations (both over 20 minutes), the first slow and mysterious with Jorgensmann swirling around both musically and physically on his clarinet. The second was more minimalist, relying on arco bass and heavy clarinet overtones, a slightly-too-long exploration of extended technique. An apocalyptic seven-minute solo clarinet piece was next, followed by a solo exposition by Stuedemann and then a final duo. Jorgensmann and Stuedemann then ceded the stage to the clarinet quartet, which played a 20-minute improvisation that featured less melodic and motific development than chaotic examination of the low register in solo, duo and full group configurations. Jorgensmann and Stuedemann then returned with drummer Griener in tow for a 12-minute finale. As the rest of the band left the stage, elder statesman Pilz, possibly the first jazz musician to play solely bass clarinet, led the rhythm section for a dark-toned encore.
The next day featured the main attraction of the festival. Legendary pianist and one of the fathers of avant-garde German (and European) jazz Alexander von Schlippenbach was feted at Radialsystem V, an attractive venue that once was a water treatment plant. Schlippenbach's career path has shaped much of the rise of European jazz over the past 40-plus years, and his significance was confirmed by a packed house that traveled deep into the eastern part of the city for this three-set celebration. First he appeared solo. Then his long-standing trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Paul Lovens played a set. And the resurgent Globe Unity Orchestra capped off the evening.
Schlippenbach, in the first of his three shirts, began his solo segment slowly and delicately, building up the improvisation's architecture methodically. The gentle approach segued naturally into the more aggressive style for which he is known and if the 37-minute long piece was primarily classical in aesthetic, it contained enough bluesy and avant-garde elements to qualify as a clinic in the history of jazz piano. Some of the placidness of the solo set leaked into the beginning of the trio portion of the evening. The floor around Lovens was littered with percussion and cymbals and Parker played only tenor while Schlippenbach had changed out of his sweat-soaked shirt. This 36-year-old trio is not an every-man-for- himself-and-hope-for-the-best type of improvising group and even with its extended history, there never seems to be repetition or retreading. Some remarkable minimalist moments preceded equally impressive monsoons, the contrast and range of the group owing much to Lovens' judicious formation of structure. At the close of this also-37-minute piece, Schlippenbach, once again dripping, was gracious, if somewhat overwhelmed, in accepting the waves of applause.
To follow these two sets up with the Globe Unity Orchestra overrunneth a lot of cups. The 14-piece edition played for one 51-minute improvisation and wasted no time in generating a maelstrom of slurring motion. What is most fascinating is the spontaneous groupings and the textural variety. This is even more compelling now that Globe Unity Orchestra is not only a multi-cultural band but a multi-generational one as well. All members of the group had features, with a belligerent Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky on alto, a duet of trombonists Johannes Bauer and Christof Thewes and Schlippenbach playing over the dual drums of Lovens and Paul Lytton among the highlights. A Globe Unity Orchestra performance is the musical equivalent of a fireworks display, complete with a grand finale unrivaled in all of music.
The final night for this reporter brought him back to the Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie for another unfortunately under-attended show. Continuing the clarinet theme of the festival, three sets were presented by Europe's most expert proponents of the instrument: Michel Portal (in duo with cellist Vincent Courtois), Rolf Kohn (elder statesman of German jazz appearing with a rhythm section of much younger musicians) and Gianluigi Trovesi (in trio with pianist Umberto Petrin and percussionist Fulvio Maras). Portal may be the world's best bass clarinetist and even in a first-time collaboration with Courtois, it is obvious why. Few if any players since Eric Dolphy have been as expressive and Portal's technical facility is unparalleled. Anyone who plays alongside him, particularly in the demanding duo setting, has to give better than their best effort simply to keep up. The woody combination of bass clarinet (with occasional straight clarinet) and cello (augmented by tasteful electronics) was a particularly appealing one for six pieces in a 45-minute set filled with endless dramatic tension. Kohn's set a mere five minutes later was a stark contrast with a traditional band format and concept but that included an open dynamic and some fractured originals.
Two-thirds of Kohn's band is part of Hyperactive Kid (a Jazzwerkstatt labelmate) and the coordinated accompaniment powered Kohn's strong playing. Almost 80, Kohn looks 60 and plays like he is 40. To describe the music would be to use terms like protoswing and free-bop, which are accurate but imply a certain aloofness. There was none of that in Kohn's 48-minute set, an exhibition of the various styles, from trad to disco to the most avant-garde squalls, he has played since the '50s. Trovesi, the youngest of the three, played the longest set of the night55 minuteswith nine originals from all three members of the group as well as some pieces from modern Italian composers. Trovesi and Petrin are impressive instrumentalists and Maras is a good percussionist when he stays acoustic. It was the latter's ventures into sampling and looping that gave the set a very odd timbre. Each piece was so different that it is difficult to give an overall impression; suffice to say the few all-acoustic pieces were the most successful.
The First Annual European Jazz Jamboree bodes well for future editions. Venue choice may want to be reconsidered in the case of the Kammermusiksaal but the overarching goal of having a European jazz festival be just that shouldn't be changed one bit.