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Jazzahead! 2014

John Kelman By

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The trio also has a curious but successful combination of characters: Eger, the crazy man of the group, with extreme facial expressions mirroring an approach to the kit that's just as outrageous, at times, as it is subtle and nuanced at others; Neame the quiet one who maintains eye contact with his trio mates but rarely cracks more than a slight smile; and Høiby, the true heart of the group, positioned center-stage and looking back and forth between Neame and Eger with something ranging from bemusement to flat-out amusement. Its fiery set may have been brief, but it only served to prove, once again, that Phronesis is one of but a few European piano trios with real— and sustainable—international potential.

If Phronesis was a tough act to follow, Aske Drasbæk Group managed to do so by being something completely different: a two-guitar, bass, drums and saxophone quintet led by baritone saxophonist Drasbæk. It's rare to hear a group with two guitarists in jazz—the most notable group last heard might even be Gary Burton's quintet of the mid-'70s, which featured Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Metheny in the line-up—and even rarer to hear one where the lead instrument is a baritone sax.

Performing music from its recent debut, Old Ghost (Gateway Music, 2013), the group was slightly disadvantaged by a last minute substitution for regular guitarist Soren Dahl Jeppesen, but his replacement (name unknown) seemed to fit in well with the rest of the group—guitarist Per Møllehøj, double bassist Tapani Toivanen and drummer Andreas Fryland. With both guitarists favoring warm, hollow body tones, the combination with Drasbæk's rich baritone, the similarly deep sound of double bass and only Fryland's cymbals providing much of any high frequencies meant an intrinsically attractive sound that was all the more so thanks to its leader's easy-on-the-ears writing.

While the tendency was towards a lovely, lyrical, dark and earthy sound, there were moments where the group swung elegantly, in a very modern way, while elsewhere in the set the two guitarists not only demonstrated some fine interplay, but in a way that wasn't afraid of getting too close, harmonically speaking; a risky move, to be sure, but one which succeeded admirably.

That Drasbæk only picked up the baritone a few years ago made the success of his showcase all the more unexpected, perhaps, but while his primary early influence, Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, seemed to loom a tad large over Drasbæk's overall approach, it was also clear that here, in the context of this unusually configured quintet, this young saxophonist has already found his own voice, both as a performer and a writer.

Singer Live Foyn Friis was up next, with her regular quartet of guitarist/backing vocalist Alex Jønsson Christensen, double bassist/backing vocalist Jens Mikmkel Madsen and drummer Andreas Skamby joined by a four-piece string section (violinists Amalie Kjældgaard and Louise Gorm; violist Mikkel Schreiber and cellist Maria Edlund). Cited as an up-and-comer on the Danish scene with her first album, Joy Visible, both critically acclaimed and nominated for Best Vocal Jazz Album at the 2012 Danish Music Awards, there was no denying her appeal to the Jazzahead! audience.

If there was any single complaint, and it has to be said, it's that as lovely a singer as she was, there was a little too much Björk in both her presentation and the quality of her voice—soft, slightly innocent and almost naïve, but without the unexpected extremes and more experimental nature of the vastly influential Icelandic singer. Still, there are far worse influences to cite, and if Friis demonstrated at least some of Björk's ambition by the very addition of a string quartet to her regular group, and the fact that this is Friis' first recording, versus Björk having already achieved much with the Sugarcubes prior to launching her solo career in 1992, perhaps it's unfair to judge so soon or so quickly. Certainly, while the strings added an extra dimension to her music— impressionistically introduced, for example, as "a tribute to the spring sun after a long winter"—her core group clearly has some ideas of its own, with Christensen, in particular, contributing some nice effects-laden color.

Like Christensen, Friis also employed some electronics, in particular on the opening song, where she used a harmonizer to create a softly layered effect. Still, she didn't resort to overuse—though, if there were any other complaint to be made it would be that, at times, there was so much going on around her with guitar, bass, drums and string quartet as to overwhelm her delicate voice. Not so much in terms of the amount of sound, but the amount of music actually being played—though it may have been the room, as other artists mentioned, over the weekend, that it did feel a little weird to them. Still (and again), it was a bold move to bring a group double its normal size to a showcase event, and for any marks lost Friis made plenty more for being just plain bold enough to make the attempt. Perhaps, then, there's more to be considered about this apparently Björk-informed singer, whose stage presence was gentle and generally quite lovely.

The last time the curiously monikered Girls in Airports was seen was in a very packed, very hot and very sweaty Hamburg club called Golum, part of the 2013 ELBJazz Festival. While there was something to be said for this group—like Aske Drasbæk's group, another curiously configured quintet that this time paired two saxophonists (Martin Stender and Lars Greve) with a keyboardist (Mathias Holm), drummer (Mads Forsby) and percussionist (Victor Dybbroe—it was tough to really assess the group, as it just barely fit on the Golum stage, the sound was more than a challenge, and it was so crowded that it was just about possible to remain upright with both feet lifted off the ground.

The environment, sound and overall context for the group's Jazzahead! showcase was much, much better; there was plenty of room for everyone to actually move about a bit, though as it turned out, everyone but Dybbroe was fairly static. Still, the grooves were much clearer—and with drums and percussion this was a group about groove, in some ways reminiscent of early Portico Quartet before co-founder/hang player Nick Mulvey left the group and it turned far more electronic (and, at the same time, far less intriguing). While both saxophonists demonstrated no shortage of chops—in particular Greve, whose circular breathing and simultaneous leaping around registers and harmonics was most impressive—the music was similarly form-based, with Holm doing double duty as both chordal provider and low-end supporter—sometimes on his Fender Rhodes, sometimes on a synthesizer.

The music often revolved around repetitive keyboard figures, with truly pan- cultural influences coming from climes as distanced as Africa, Asia and, according to the press literature, Nordic countries (though that was the least obvious reference point). But this was, ultimately, music that sounded easy but had plenty more going on under the covers. Some of the writing was episodic in nature, with melodies written for a variety of reed combinations—from two tenors and tenor and clarinet (Greve) to alto (again, Greve) and soprano (Stender)—that provided plenty of tonal variety, even as the writing would begin with the two horns in unison, then open up into broader harmony, only to pull back into unison once again.

The Girls' closing piece was particularly impressive, with Dybbroe moving from congas and other hand percussion to some kind of balafon for an a cappella intro. More's the pity that when the rest of the group came in, this wonderful, woody sound was swallowed up amidst the density surrounding it. But regardless, Girls in Airports, chosen by the Danish Arts Council as its Young Elite pick for 2013, was another group in this evening of Danish artists that will hopefully find its way across the pond to North America and beyond as the result of its fine showcase performance.

April 25, Afternoon: German Jazz Expo

After a morning of meetings, meetings and more meetings it was time, mid- afternoon, to head back to Halle 2 for an afternoon of German jazz. Pianist Martin TIngvall's Tingvall Trio opened, a solid piano trio with considerable success in its native country—its 2011 album, Vägen, reaching number one on the German jazz charts and receiving two ECHO Jazz Awards the following year. Perhaps when thinking of a real successor to e.s.t., Tingvall has more of what's needed for widespread appeal than Phronesis: the trio's opening piece revolved around a very simple, very poppy three-chord pattern and singable melody. Still, while Tingvall Trio's eminently accessible approach has almost instantaneous appeal, it would sure be nice to see the mantle go to Phronesis, if only to demonstrate that it does, indeed, seem possible for a group delivering more substantive complex music to reach a broader audience, as Phronesis appears to be doing.

As easy on the ears as Tingvall Trio was, there's a fine line between being accessible and forgettable, and while there were plenty of attractive elements to the group's music—Tingvall demonstrating a touch of Herbie Hancock amidst his more European lyricism, bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo a fine anchor and drummer Jürgen Spiegel supporting the pianist's occasionally funky overtones with some solid grooves of his own—amidst a plethora of piano trios (in Germany, in particular, with pianist Michael Wollny garnering a lot of attention and possessed of considerably broader virtuosity), it's hard to know if Tingvall Trio can sustain the wave it currently seems to be riding. All the more likely, unfortunately, that it has already peaked, though it's possible that such a prediction is premature. Only time will tell, but until then, as immediate as Tingvall Trio is in engaging an audience, there needs to be something more substantial, more meaty, to make it last when the next round of piano trios comes rolling around, as most certainly will happen...and very soon.

SLIXS, on the other hand, may be poised for greater things—an a cappella vocal sextet that has already reached the ears of Bobby McFerrin at a show in Gdansk, the result being a tour in Europe with the legendary vocalist this year. While a little slick for these ears, it was hard to fault SLIXS for its choreographed ability to use five male voices (Michael Eimann, Gregorio Hernández, Karsten Müller, Thomas Piontek and Konrad Zeiner) with one female (Katharina Debus) to create a vocal mix as capable of getting down and funky as it was soulfully melodic.

The sextet clearly knew how to keep things interesting, using the stage to create an ever-shifting array of sub-groupings in support of the individual singers who all got at least some moments in the spotlight, even during this abbreviated showcase. Beyond vocal range, beatboxing and emulating jungle animals, SLIXS was, indeed, a group with real star potential—a European Take 6, perhaps, with every member of the group representing something different, with plenty of fun built into the equation.

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