French Connections - The Jazzdor Experience

Henning Bolte By

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Jazzdor is a French festival with two annual editions. The main part is held in the Strasbourg area (France) in November and the other one in Berlin (Germany) in June. Both editions present a considerable number of bilateral and multilateral collaborations; an essential part of the festival's philosophy and policy.

The Strasbourg festival is the older part and home of the organization. The Strasbourg festival covers two weeks in November, collaborating with the neighboring German city of Offenburg that also offers a stage for some bigger concerts held. The festival presents two or three groups a day, four groups incidentally. This year's 32nd edition took place November 10-24. This article covers the five-day stretch of November 14-18.

Gardening and French satellites

As a festival, Jazzdor is a place of cultivation: a gradual process of cultivating music of individual musicians in fitting, developmental, exploring and challenging combinations. It is also a place for the cultivation of different kinds of music in contrastive or complementing interconnections. It is a gardening thing, complementing deeper rooted plants with younger plants offering new colors, textures etc.. The task is entrusted to musical master gardener Philippe Ochem and his proven team.

This year offered a vast variety of vegetation, sensuous ensembles of plants, bushes, trees and lawns. During my four day's attendance there were no less than nine different but interconnected types of vegetation as the area of percussion discussion (Edward Perraud / Julian Sartorius), pianoscapes (Eve Risser, Roberto Negro, Colin Vallon Trio, Dieter Ilg Trio), the blooming scrape space area (Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, Illegal Crowns, Louis Sclavis/Benjamin Moussay) and the roar + soar place of the duo of Mette Rasmussen and Chris Corsano, and The Thing.

There were also the primal grounds of Sidsel Endresen and Stian Westerhus, the trancextension of Daniel Erdmann Velvet Revolution + Cyril Atef and the time l(e)aps of Post K as well as the strungulation of the double quartet of IXI and Melanoia. Finally the audience could enjoy the orchestral maneuvers of Airelle Besson leading the Euroradio Jazz Orchestra 2017.

The program is set up in a clear long-term developmental perspective to stimulate exploration, discovery and growth. On the one hand it is built around French satellites, French groups with guesting musicians from outside or French musicians guesting in groups from outside. On the other hand musicians and groups that made/make a relevant/important contribution to developments in the jazz field are presented like this year's vocalist Sidsel Endresen or guitarist Mary Halvorson.

The French satellites in this part of the festival were Benoit Delbecq (p) playing with New York group Illegal Crowns, Edward Perraud (dr) in a duo with young Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius, Cyril Atef (dr) and Theo Ceccaldi (vln) in German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann's group Velvet Revolution, Patrice Héral (dr) playing as part of the trio of German bassist Dieter Ilg, Airelle Besson (tr) leading the Euroradio Jazz Orchestra 2017 and Quatuor IXI (string quartet) playing with German drummer Dejan Terzic's group Melanoia.

Areas of gardening

I will walk along the promenade through the festival's different areas of gardening and cultivation; not in in chronological order, but in another order somehow making sense starting in the percussion discussion area.

Percussion discussion

Sartorius and Perraud, drummers from different generations, are both known for their astonishing creative use of a vast variety of sound sources and materials they produce music from. They perpetuate the line of Max Roach's percussion discussion and the Pierre Favre Singing Drums Ensemble with Favre, Fredy Studer, Paul Motian and Nana Vasconcelos and last year's drum duo of Hamid Drake and female French-Japanese drummer Yuko Oshima.

The doubling of instruments in general opens up a great space to give shape in lively interaction with the doubling of drums as maybe one of the richest variants. During their duo set at CEAAC, Sartorius and Perraud traversed a rich, thrilling and entertaining percussive landscape, finely balancing groove-emphasizing parts and vast orchestrated tinkling, ringing, crackling sound varieties. They gave a wonderful example of how to enliven a diversity of materials, make those vibrate, talk and sing—a true enjoyment.

Primal grounds

Voice and percussion are the primal means of human music making, originating from incantation, coordination of work rhythm and joyful communal celebration. Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen is not just singing along (song line patterns) or scatting out of instrumental beddings. From a wide variety of human vocalizations and ways of singing she has distilled a unique deeper bare core of voice that she freely, without any pre-structured steering, shapes in real-time, in highly sensitive, confronting, liberating and deeply touching way. One of her longer-term partners in crime is Norwegian heavy electric guitarist Stian Westerhus. Both musicians work, in a radical way, on the materiality of their respective sounds. Endresen articulates language like sound units free(d) from conventional denotative meaning. At certain moments it resembles speaking in tongues. The sound itself and its special quality of articulation and voicing is the message then. The unveiled, seemingly less quality is just more, gives leeway to a higher intensity and direct way of vocalization and its emotional impact. The same applies to Westerhus and his electric instrument. He goes to extremes to detect the core in the ongoing process of playing. At times it was quite disturbing and confronting but also full of gentle traces. From this all together great moments arose during this concert when melodic contours of a distant, indestructible beauty emerged and shone. This would be impossible without the invisible hand and sensible ear of sound designer Asle Karstad. He is always at Sidsel Endresen's side, who is armed solely with a mike when she is performing. His mastership to secure the naturalness and balance of the sound is extraordinary. With him the listening is not smoothed or pushed by enhancing, broadening or pumping up the sound. He ensures the listening audience is IN the sound.

Scraping space

The band name Punkt.Vrt.Plastik stands for the three different perspectives of the trio's members: it's Point for Swedish bassist Petter Eldh, Garden(ing) for Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Sculpture/ing for German drummer Christian Lillinger. The constellation has been emerging from the October Meeting 2016 at Amsterdam Bimhuis. Having seen it performing four times within a year -at the Bimhuis meeting, at the Jazz Festival Münster in January 2017, at Berlin Jazzfest and at Jazzdor Strasbourg in November 2017—I could observe a rapid resounding development. The musical roles are clearly differentiated, dynamically layered and they now fit together and into each other wonderfully. The music now has a clear identity, a compact and sophisticated structure, strong dynamics without losing the attractive playfulness. The unit made a huge leap within just one month.

Illegal Crowns, a quartet unit consisting of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and pianist Benoit Delbecq, performed its very own kind of unrolling and furling polymorphic music containing intriguing dialectics of continuity and fragmentation, of confusion and orderliness, materiality and ghostliness as well as sophisticated rhythmical variation and appearing catchy melodic snatches. Despite highly sophisticated playing it didn't burn in my experience and the potentials of the music didn't come out full force. It was different in the Roar+Soar area of the festival.

Roar + soar

Suitably the same evening Illegal Crowns was followed by the duo of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen from Trondheim, Norway, and US-American drummer Chris Corsano and The Thing in the festival's main venue Fossé des Treize, both roar+soar units par excellence.

Both configurations make music in a (highly) predictable way while holding on to misty darkness as well. It would become a trailblazing affair open to how the musicians would achieve a soaring state and at which intensity.

Rasmussen's doughty far-reaching cry carried on by Corsano's dauntless propelling, fine-grained precise drumming provided a great uplifting experience especially through the combination of 'small' sonic gestures and hard blowing from an inexhaustible roaring energy. Reinforced by the visual wild grace of both musicians the performance left a strong mark. Both musicians have a slim body elegantly facing a strongly blowing wind, together riding huge waves in bold upswings and racy downswings.

The subsequent appearance of The Thing was a transition from a gracefully roaring duo to an athletically raging herd. The Thing, this particularly close and strong Viking unit of Swedish reedist Mats Olof Gustafsson and his two Norwegian companions, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, is presently one of the most successful live-acts playing a great diversity of festivals and venues. The Thing's music making is highly predictable in its roaring sort but not in the way it leads into soaring climaxes, which is emerging from deeper abysmal grounds.

For sure the threesome will roar and rage full force and no doubt Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten will soar. The question is, what centrifugal force will their relentless roaring and raging unlock and how will it start to soar, transcending itself? It is different every time, in terms of intensity and lucidity, dustiness and duration. On a scale of 1 to 10 the Strasbourg performance ultimately reached a full level 9 of density and intensity. It was a full-grown Klanggewitter the three musicians induced via strong and puzzling maneuvers. The actions to get there, to achieve it, were theatrical as well as (trail blazingly) real. Musicians can achieve the skills to reach these kinds of limits, that's one thing. However, to get to The Thing's upheaval intensity is quite a different story. Doubtlessly these three masters pushed the music and its experience quality to the highest level (again).


Velvet Revolution plus Cyril Atef, one of these new plants in blooming colors, turned out to be a memorable highlight. Atef, the magician of the vitally pulsing, veering beat, marched in, bombarded German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, French violinist Theo Ceccaldi and UK vibraphonist, then kept the threesome under straight seditious fire incessantly, thereby sparking an intoxicating, trancing drive. Frenetically they spurred each other concluding in a joyous, blazing finale. It became a stirring, exuberant affair with the audience extending the reach of the music and considerably pushing the Velvet Revolution envelop to new frontiers.
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