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Internationales Jazz Festival Münster 2017

Henning Bolte By

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Theater Münster
Münster, Germany
Internationales Jazz Festival 2017
January 6-8, 2017

Münster, city of 300,000 inhabitants, situated in the northern part of German state North Rhine-Westphalia, with 18 million inhabitants the most populous state of Germany, has an ambitious biannual jazz festival now in its 27th year. The northern part of the state with Münster as the center clearly differs from the southern North Rhine part with its old and densely populated Ruhr area and the region of Cologne, the state´s largest city. The area has produced a couple of known jazz musicians as saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Jan Klare, drummers Christian Marien and Eva Klesse and guitarist Eberhard Hirt. This three-day festival is held in the local theatre and organized by the cultural department of the city with the support of an organization of private sponsors. The artistic direction has been in the hands of Fritz Schmücker since the foundation of the festival, which provides for a remarkable continuity of esprit. There is a remarkable continuity of artistic direction of the festival that has been done since its foundation by. In the last ten years the festival sold out in just a few days. This also happened this year with a lineup of presenting many young new groups and lacking the usual big names: proof that courage and risk-taking with regard to programming is rewarded and pays off under supportive circumstances.

The music

The number of daily concerts increased from four concerts on Friday to six on Saturday to seven on Sunday. Performing musicians and groups came from a greater diversity of European regions: Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Morocco, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, UK and the US. My personal highlights during this festival were the Swiss-Italian-Finnish unit A NOVEL OF ANOMALY of Andreas Schaerer, Luciano Biondini, Kalle Kalima, Lucas Nigli, the Alexander Hawkins/Elaine Mitchener Quartet from the UK and the unit CIRCLES of French drummer Anne Paceo.

Highlights and Thematics 1 (Friday)

The red-hot combination of Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer, Italian accordionist Luciano Biondini, Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli embodied the surprising, swirling and freely crisscrossing apotheosis of the first festival day. It was defined by the class of these musicians and their driven and flexible interplay. They knew how to adapt their instruments expression to a common purpose with a high degree of spontaneity, bringing about a strong feeling of momentum—a felicitous match of temperaments, energies and signatures, and a convincing entrée.

Captivating in a different way was the reworking of Charles Mingus pieces by the Berlin trio of Silke Eberhard (alto saxophone), Nikolaus Meuser (trumpet) and Christian Marien (drums). By calling their program "I am Three," inspired by the three personality traits of Mingus according to the master's own confession, the threesome put itself in the context with its daring instrumentation. Mingus had great saxophonists (Eric Dolphy, Charlie Mariano, Jackie McLean, JR Monterose, George Adams, Charles McPherson, Wayne Shorter, Book Ervin) as well as trumpeters (Ted Curson, Johnny Coles, Jack Walrath) in his groups but the core of Mingus' music was formed by the unique dynamics of the symbiotic bass-drum tandem of Mingus and Danny Richmond. It was a real challenge to step in with this reduced instrumentation. However, the sound of Mingus' own group is only one reference point. The other one are his strong compositions rooted in a rich tradition. Alto saxophone, trumpet and drums seem a daring choice, but are in first place a choice for each other as musicians, which matters here. So Eberhard/Meuser/Marien now joined the series of Mingus reworking with Hal Willner's Weird Night Mare: Meditations on Mingus (1992) as most prominent example.

The rhythmical intensity of Mingus' music was secured by the two horns taking rhythmical functions. It was in a way a European approach formerly also applied by Django Reinhardt in his large as well as in his small groups. As a consequence now and then the threesome even sounded charmingly 'traditional' in a pre-bebop sense. Mood and melody of the pieces were secured by unison horn lines and especially by Neuser's trumpet introductions of touching beauty. A real something became the rendition of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which they intoned as an encore. Here even something shone through of Lester Young to whom Mingus dedicated his piece. It would have enriched the concert and kept the tension even higher had this kind of varying detour from the more sober approach appeared earlier.

British group Empirical, the festival opener, is a proven group deeply entrenched in the Afro-American jazz tradition, which the group represented sharply and clearly with a knack of its own. Its present installment with only one alto and a vibraphone as counterpart makes the group compact and coherent, but in the long run just a bit too formatted, predictable and monochrome.

Spanish pianist David Peña Dorantes and double bassist extraordinaire Renaud Garcia-Fons delivered a highly virtuosic flamenco informed performance—as expected. Garcia-Fons, from the Syrian school of François Rabbath, was the first to introduce a five string contrabass played on a high level combining stunning arco work in the high register with plugged and strumming work in the lower register in jazz, Near Eastern music and flamenco. It has since been perfected and too dominantly electrified such that it has become an immaculate but also unmoved virtuoso routine, alas lacking a feeling of emergence and momentum, let alone duende.

Highlights and Thematics 2 (Saturday)

The likewise new configuration of pianist Alexander Hawkins and vocalist extraordinaire Elaine Mitchener together with bassist Neil Charles and drummer Steve Davis appeared to be a benevolent match too, and Elaine Mitchell not less than a revelation. The four musicians let arise a heaving wave, a wave swelling and ebbing away in a close to nature's way. The extensions of the basic tune as well as a great variety of extended techniques used provided immediate enthralling and strong meaningful expressiveness in a subtle connected and connecting way. The brilliance and urgency, the openness and the irresistible inner swing of the movement captivated the audience (think-like-the-waves-approach). Consequently the group took the audience as its fifth member on a stunning many-sided sonic tour.

Mitchener unites traces of Jeanne Lee, Betty Carter, Cathy Berberian, Brigitte Fontaine, Anca Parghel and even Billie Holiday in a highly fascinating, movable and pointed way in her highly dynamic, brisk and boisterous stage action. It is so much more than just vocalizing and singing. She can switch rapidly between leading and following and always manages to take the audience with her. Outstanding moments were the internal vocal conduction through STOP—MOVE—STAY shouts that strongly drew everybody into the movement. The other astounding moment was the performance of "The List," her reciting of an endless LIST OF THINGS TO GET RID OFF on a lovely undulating groove. Bassist Neil Charles went flying, from the first moment filling the space with the sound of his mighty wings. Steve Davis acted as an enormously spacy percussionist moving the clouds and Alexander Hawkins played or juggled the balls. The musical action went beyond known limits with a lot of known and familiar tools.

Likewise convincing with great dynamics was young German drummer Eva Klesse appearing with her quartet of saxophonist Evgeny Ring, pianist Philip Frischkorn and bassist Robert Lucaciu. About Klesse's appearance at the 12Points festival in San Sebastian last summer I wrote

"Drummer Eva Klesse and her group from Leipzig shone brightly through mysterious narratives alternating whispering airy passages with dense climaxes and suspended sudden halts. In its highly inventive playing Klesse's group (...) united subtleness and compactness in a highly consistent and distinctive way." (London Jazz News)

The group started with "Klabautermann" (Ship's cobold), the strongest piece of its brand-new album Obenland (Enja). The Klabautermann is a delusion that can become very real under certain (extreme) circumstances when perception is instable and constantly changing. The piece was an example of reducing, restarting, destabilizing and disturbing the expectable progression of musical lines in a highly sophisticated way—overtly by stops and restarts but also quite imperceptibly through different kinds of detours. It created an intense tension of smooth versus disruptive. The narrative element of this specific title functioned very well as a focus and imaginational projection mechanism for the audience. It was a structure that gave Klesse wonderful opportunities alternating between her discreet steering impulses and expressionistic bursts. Something similar proved itself in "Descend and Resurface," devised by pianist Philip Frischkorn. It sounded as a far echo of two famous Adagios, the one of Albinoni (1708) and the other one of Joaquin Rodrigo from "Concierto de Aranjuez" (1939). Frischkorn and the group played their very own game with the descending line-striding in Albinoni's case or more hovering in Rodrigo's case. The quartet's piece was full of subtle turns falling in a Latin groove all of a sudden included. It was no rollercoaster of emotions, but bold and coherent leaps in a flowing line. 'Escape and Resurface' would be another apt indication for the group's game. The quartet's music was a great combination of strong tunes in a highly dynamic game with subtle turns that made the music such a big pleasure. In that respect the group's music has an attraction comparable to the music of Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick.

With respect to the latter, it was good to hear that Klesse would do a series of European concerts with well-known Finish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola as part of the 2017 Westfalen Jazz Prize won by Klesse. This prize is awarded to musicians related to the Westphalia area part of German state North Rhine-Westphalia. Klesse was presented the prize during the festival, a well-deserved award given her specific fulfillment of a drummer's role and the special coequal collaboration in the group.

Another trump of the second night was US-drummer Allison Miller with her high caliber sextet Boom Tic Boom comprising violinist Jenny Scheinman, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, reedist Jeff Lederer and bassist Todd Sickafose, the only US-American group at the festival. Allison Miller is a very present, melodically bouncing drummer with a pointed dry attack. She is the kind of drummer that can reply every other strong instrumentalist on equal level. Especially her complementarity with bassist Todd Sickafose was of special class. She led and carried the group of musicians along a rich variety of modes between which she switched effortlessly in brilliant transitions. Miller built with her group wonderful elaborations of clear themes along the usual jazz pattern of unfolding a piece. Very down to earth it was a feast full of convincing interaction, exciting variation and variety, great soloing and coherent transitions. Miller's clear signature connects and unites variety, which could be deepened further still.

German trio I Am Three and French large unit Brotherhood Heritage were the ones most concerned about and outspoken of the musical heritage of a great figure in jazz: Afro-American bassist/composer and leader Charles Mingus (1922-1979) and South African pianist/composer and leader Chris McGregor (1936-1990) with his legendary large unit Brotherhood of Breath—one of the most appropriate and beautiful band names. While connection to the heritage of Mingus was realized by a reduced line-up, connecting to McGregor was celebrated by a high-caliber line-up of ten musicians led by pianist Francois Raulin and bassist Didier Levallet, himself member of the second, mostly French installation of the Brotherhood in the 1980s. Also British altoist Chris Biscoe, member of the third and last London installation of the Brotherhood took part in the Brotherhood Heritage.

The enterprise marks the French involvement in that Afro-American-South African-European triangle in the history of jazz. It was made possible by the cooperation of seven French festivals and supported by the French state. Besides France especially Great Britain was involved in this exchange and collaboration with South African musicians, although Switzerland, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden also played their parts. In all these countries the musicians from South Africa and their music left strong traces. It perfectly matched the mainly European set-up of this year's edition of the festival. The concert was not only remembrance and vital celebration, but also proof of the vitality and potential of this trail in European jazz.

Another French contribution was made by the duo of piano star Jacky Terrasson and trumpeter Stephane Belmondo, augmented by well-known Moroccan lutenist (ûd and sintir) Majid Bekkas. Bekkas played the festival six years ago in a memorable performance of high energy, full color trio of German pianist Joachim Kühn and Spanish percussionist Ramon Lopez. Duo Terrasson-Belmondo rendered a tidy performance, a nice, neat and unexciting piece of jazz. It did not change significantly when Bekkas joined them in the second half enriching the music with an exotic tinge.

Highlights and Thematics 3 (Sunday)

The last day of the festival offered a dense and varied program with plenty of great music. My personal highlight finally was the group Circles, a group of renowned French drummer Anne Paceo with vocalist Leila Martial, Tony Paeleman on fender rhodes and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, a German première. The group started a bit shallow but quite quickly revealed how strongly it operates from deeper layers opening wide horizons and giving its captivating melodic elements a kind of Nordic ambient character. This horizontal stretching was accompanied by a strong feeling of rotating axes and of circling through opposites to get re-balanced—clearly influenced by absorption of Asian as well as African traditions. It gave the music a special ascending force, let it shine and groove brightly. As a consequence—due to close kinship-the group concluded with its enchanting "Folk Song from Myanmar"—a song she learned in the streets in Myanmar (Burma) when she was touring in that country with her former group she recorded Triphase (2008), Empreintes (2010) and Yokaï (2012) with. Pat Metheny's collaboration with musicians from Cambodia on his album Secret Story (1992) (see his song "Above The Tree Tops") came to mind. It would be interesting to listen to both that of Metheny and Paceo.

This year's edition presented many remarkably new groups and challenging music. The equal crew of three of pianist Kaja Draksler, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Christian Lillinger, was another premièring affair. Coming forth from the recent October Meeting of the Amsterdam Bimhuis this crew made its first outside world appearance at the Münster Festival. It was good to see this kind of group on the smaller, intimate stage of Kleines Haus of the Münster Theater. The Draksler-Eldh-Lillinger unit did not come up with new minimalism nor chamber music delicacies. It entered the arena with a vital, obsessive, repetitive, connecting sound storm that grew into a freshly whirling sound spectacle of a convincing balance of energy, freedom, stark shapes and forward dynamics. It was enthusiastically welcomed and highly appreciated by a broad audience.

Swiss vocalist Lucia Cadotsch has developed a remarkable sober treatment and rendition of evergreens and jazz standards in collaboration with bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Otis Sandsjö. About a recent performance of Cadotsch at Jazzfest Berlin I wrote:

"She articulates the tunes very pure with a lot of space and the very own voicing of Eldh and Sandsjö. Eldh has an almost gruff tone with a melodic interior and Sandsjö has developed a very own voice with his cooing, burbling, gurgling saxophone. She took high risks by giving her interpretation of Abel Meeropol's "Bitter Fruit" that has evolved into the famous "Strange Fruit" as well as "Willow Weep For Me." Cadotsch indeed purified the songs and the real touchstone came when she intoned John Jacob Niles' "Black Is The Color of My True Love's Hair"—convincingly. She surely can still win depth." (London Jazz News)

Their treatment comes to life through a special contrast. It could be conceived as an inscription of which the ink is still fluent. The voice—as the fluent ink—was quite airy and of great clearness. Next it was heavily confronted with the texture of the material into which it is inscribed: the rubato, clattering, grainy and multiphonic sound of the bass and tenor saxophone. The bass and the tenor for example conjure up the gloomy lugubrious sphere of the "Strange Fruit."

The trio works—in an almost Brechtian epic theatre way—with disillusionment rather than surrendering to conjure (outworn) illusionistic moods. From the tension and dialectics of the purified voice and the palpable drossy, visceral sound of the instruments something unheard then emerged to be taken up by the thrilled active listener.

It is a valid approach of great potential. It does however not automatically guarantee a deep(er) expression and should first be about depth of expression, not avant-garde or dusting down older work. The depth of expression very much depends on the dramaturgical role and the 'gestus' (gesture) extended techniques and special voice quality are executed in. Choice and sequencing of the songs play an important role in how dynamics unfold and last but not least the inner fire of the performance plays a crucial role. The whole can lose expressional force when the voice becomes too static and/or the extensions and detours of the instruments get something too much of their own. Both happened now and then, especially in "Speak Low." There is some good work to do.

And then the guards of good old Amsterdam Instant Composer Pool marched in to bring the festival some serious fun of disillusioning Luftlucht where no single house remained standing upright. Now operating on stage without founder and spiritus rector Misha Mengelberg, born in Kiev in 1935 and disturbing sound-making in and from Mokum town for decades now. Yonder now suffering from dementia, he still lends his smiles and being to his musicians. They are still cooking ICP's airy earthy dishes of all of a sudden changing degrees of cool hotness drawing from an exquisite stock of especially equipped Ellington, Nichols, Monk pieces and from the cheerful Mengelberg bestiary as "Back to Lippiza" and "De sprong, oh romantiek der hazen." Speaking of hares: cellist Tristan Honsinger was still developing the exactness of his Kangaroo conducting, thereby increasing the spontaneity of the orchestra.

Finally ICP left the stage after having sung together a chorale for the festival in catholic Münster as an encore. As a matter of fact however it was a typical loitering (rumtrödeln) way of psalm singing known from Dutch Reformatory services (as it is also documented on the latest ICP-album East Of The Sun (2014). It can also be regarded an unintentional commentary on the famous crucial Westphalian Peace Treaties ending the European religious wars, signed in Münster in 1648.

Conclusion

The parts of the festival covered here show a daring programming and a stimulating working of confrontation and contrast positively taken up by the audience. There were some clear accents like the three female drummers, the strong European perspective and some exciting new sounds, which altogether gave Münster 2017 a special character and distinctive shape among European festivals. It is interesting that my personal choices have a strong vocal component: Andreas Schaerer, Elaine Mitchener, Leila Martial. All three together with Lucia Cadotsch represent a new type of vocalist, which was a clear choice too.

Two things deserve a critical remark, both of them relating to stage presentation. One is the presentation of (reworking of) socio-political loaded pieces as "Fables of Faubus" (Charles Mingus) and "Strange Fruit" of Abel Meeropol and strongly associated with Billie Holiday. Both are pieces that are not neutral with respect to who is singing/playing where and why. It seemed there barely was any reflection let alone that there were attempts to put into perspective and find forms to do so in appealing ways. Second, the stage presentation in general, in particular the lighting. Münster has the red grand piano as a recognizable marker, a good start. But the tableaus of musicians' stage positioning seemed at least quite stereotype. A bit more loosened and dynamic was the stage appearance of Schaerer & Co's A Novel of Anomaly, and the stage appearance of the Hawkins/Mitchener Quartet. Light and lighting has a considerable subconscious effect on perception and feelings. The lighting during the festival was quite static, plain and flat in general. It remains a heavily neglected area with potentials remaining untapped. Who will take it up, and tackle it? Münster is on its way already.

Photo credit: Henning Bolte

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