Jazzahead! 2012

Jazzahead! 2012
John Kelman By

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Jazzahead! 2012
Bremen, Germany
April 19-22, 2012

While folks around the world debate the future of jazz—and, for that matter, what exactly jazz is and even what it should be called—an annual trade show in Bremen, Germany, now in its fifth year, has managed to demonstrate that jazz as a brand may be facing challenges like everything else, but is far from approaching its death bed. Jazzahead! also makes clear that the future of jazz is absolutely and undeniably predicated on the tireless efforts of a surprisingly connected (and growing) community of passionate people, who travel each year from points around the globe for a few days of showcase performances, meetings, educational streams...and just plain hanging. From Penang to Portland, Montreal to Molde, Brooklyn to Bologne, Reykjavik to Rotterdam, Tallinn to Tampere and Kuala Lampur to Köln, musicians, record label reps, festival promoters, booking agents, artist managers, writers, photographers—and people who just want an opportunity to catch as many as fifty acts, selected by an international jury each year, strut their stuff for a brief but important thirty minutes—have made Jazzahead! an annual cannot-miss event whose incremental growth will surprise those who think that the end of jazz is nigh.

If anything, 30% growth in 2011 and a projected growth for 2012 of a whopping 35% would suggest that Jazzahead! may soon need to consider extending its core event by another day and look for a larger night-time showcase venue than Schlachthof, the converted slaughterhouse where getting in is becoming increasingly difficult and—unless you're prepared to line up two hours early (sacrificing valuable meeting time)—in which finding an actual seat is next to impossible. With so many people to see during the daytime, and an overwhelming number of showcase acts beginning at two in the afternoon and running well past midnight each evening, it's an exciting place to be, but one where there's a constant sense of trying to keep up—or, even worse, catch up. Two floors in the Exhibition Centre Bremen sport about 100 booths—occupied by labels like ECM, ACT, Pirouet , Edition Records, Challenge, Effendi, Hubro, Rune Grammofon, NORCD and Enja; larger booths which act as focal points for a variety of interests for countries ranging from Norway, Denmark, Canada and Iceland to The Netherlands, Sweden, The UK and Brazil; festivals including WartaJazz from the Far East, ELBJazz from closer to home in Hamburg, and Skopjejazz in Macedonia; magazines including Germany's Jazzthetik, Norway's Jazznytt; and artists ranging from pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs and trumpeter Gunhild Seim and saxophonist Yuri Honing to Kairos 4tet and Levantasy.

And then there are the people who come to Jazzahead! to just "float"—media folks like Jazzwise's Jon Newey, Jazznytt's Jan Granlie, and freelancers like Luca Vitali, Madli-Liis Parts, Henning Bolte, Christoph Geise and Karsten Muetzelfeldt; festival representatives including Palatia Jazz's Hagen Daten, Earshot Jazz's John Gilbreath, Molde Jazz's Jan Ole Otnes, Vancouver Jazz Festival's Ken Pickering and Penang Jazz Festival's Paul Augustin; and management/publicity folks like Nadja Von Massow, Antje Hubner, Burkhard Hopper, Don Lucoff and Matt Merewitz. What's more surprising than the sheer number of people who attend Jazzahead! is how many people know each other—the biggest challenge, next to accomplishing everything you'd planned for going to Jazzahead! is actually leaving; unless hurrying away under cover of darkness, most Jazzahead! regulars need a good 60-90 minutes to say goodbye to everyone, before actually being able to exit the venue(s).

That's not to suggest the road ahead for jazz is an easy one, but with the number of international festivals continuing to increase, and the virtually untrackable volume of new releases coming out each and every month from artists known and unknown, it's clear that few may be getting rich in jazz, but plenty are dedicating their lives to it, whether they're artists, journalists, publicists or festival promoters. Jazzahead! is the place to be to find out about the European jazz scene, to be sure, but in the last couple years the event has broadened its purview to include showcase performances from artists farther afield, with this year's "Overseas Night" featuring Canada's François Bourassa Quartet, American saxophonist/clarinetist Oran Etkin, Brazil's Trio Corrente, and the return of vocal artist Vinx, who burst onto the scene in the 1980s, opening for artists like Sting, but who later seemed to be MIA.

And then there are the awards. This year, Siggi Loch—founder and primary producer for Germany's ACT Music+Vision label (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, though Loch's involvement in the industry has now eclipsed the half century mark)—was the recipient of the ŠKODA Award, while the European Jazz Network, now celebrating its silver anniversary, inaugurated its first Award for Adventurous Programming. Few could argue its choice of Ireland's 12 Points Festival which, thanks to Founder/Artistic Director Gerry Godley, has focused on bringing one dozen cutting edge, up-and-coming European acts to public attention each year since its inception in 2007.

All in all, Jazzahead! 2012 was a smashing success, even with the problems that are beginning to show as a result of its rapid growth. And while it was impossible to catch anywhere near all the showcase performances presented, those caught—ranging from Spain's Benavent-Di Geraldo-Pardo and England's Kit Downes Group and incendiary Marius Neset Golden Xplosion, to Norway's sublime singer Solveig Slettahjell and outrageous Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and the ACT-sponsored feature for saxophonist/clarinetist Tim Garland, pianist Gwilym Simcock and percussionist Asaf Sirkis—demonstrated the breadth and depth of an international jazz scene that may be dealing with the same fundamental industry shifts that are affecting everyone in the arts, but remains vibrant and strong, evolutionary and revolutionary.

Chapter Index
April 19: Spanish Night
April 20: ACT Presents: Jens Thomas and Simcock Garland Sirkis
April 20: Omer Klein
April 20: Vinx and Oran Etkin Kelenia
April 21: Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Kit Downes Group
April 21: Marius Neset Golden Xplosion
April 21: Solveig Slettahjell with Morten Qvenild

April 19: Spanish Night

Jazzahead! 2012 kicked off its first evening of showcases with a themed evening dedicated to musicians from Spain. Early in the evening, drummer Guillermo McGill transcribed the music of Ramón Montoya (considered by some to be the father of flamenco guitar) and saxophonist Fernando Vilches, who released three albums together in the 1920s. With Dani de Morón handling guitar duties, and bassist Manuel Posadas filling the bass chair, it was saxophonist Julian Arguelles who brought the music to life—and into the 21st century. Despite being born and raised in England, Argüelles' familial background includes some Latin blood and, between his 2011 performance with pianist Mário Laginha at the 2011 Jazz no Parque in Portugal and his stellar performance here, it's clear there's no escaping at least some of his roots, even as he applied a more sophisticated vernacular to music nearly a century old.

Unfortunately, saxophonist José Luis Gutiérrez and his quartet didn't fare quite so well, despite a promising start. Clearly imbued with an absurd sense of humor, Gutiérrez came onstage with his alto and soprano saxophones, but also with a bevy of other strange implements and found objects. Beginning the performance with what looked like a microphone stand that had a series of rings on the bar, he created a jangling percussive intro that seemed intriguing until the group entered, rendering it largely superfluous. And that was the modus operandi for the rest of the quartet's short set, despite everyone clearly being capable. Guitarist Luis Giménez was the least dominant of the bunch, capable but lacking flair. Bassist Marco Niemietz and drummer Tommy Cagginani were more impressive, muscularly navigating Gutiérrez's sometimes idiosyncratic music, often filled with stop/start accents, with ease. As a saxophonist, Gutiérrez was also impressive, running the range of both instruments and employing a number of extended techniques to great effect.

While at least some of the crowd enjoyed Gutiérrez's wacky sense of humor, it ultimately became tiresome, however, when a set-closing duo between Cagginani and Gutiérrez found the drummer introducing all kinds of found objects onto the mix, ranging from small, battery-driven devices to keep his cymbals ringing to squeaky toys, garbage pail lids and more. Comedy is about timing and knowing when to quit; unfortunately, Gutiérrez and his group went well past that time, and it's a shame, as it was a group with some promise. Nothing wrong with humor in music, but a little more restraint might have gone a long way.

While the looming effects of jetlag meant being unable to stay for the entire final show of the evening, it was well worth waiting for even a few minutes of Benavent-Di Geraldo-Pardo, which featured two musicians best-known internationally for their collaborations with Chick Corea, most recently on 2005's Rhumba Flamenco: Live in Europe (Chick Corea Productions) and the pianist's ambitious The Ultimate Adventure (Stretch, 2006), but here performing their own music from Sin Precedentes (Nuevos Medios, 2009).

Bassist Carles Benavent is a completely different kind of electric player—capable of anchoring the pulse with drummer Tino Di Geraldo but, coming from the flamenco tradition, also imbuing the music with a strong melodic foil for Jorge Pardo, who opened on flute but had saxophones on hand for the rest of the set. Together, this trio of fifty-somethings played with the energy and commitment of folks half their age, but with the experience and comfortable ease of players who've been around the block more than a few times. The music was, indeed, flamenco fusion, but whereas McGill was often a little too literal and Gutiérrez way too over-the-top, Benavent-Di Geraldo-Pardo was the perfect combination of passion, power and lyricism.


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