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Jazzahead! 2014

John Kelman By

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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.

But the most intriguing group of the afternoon was, most certainly, Double Trouble. No, not Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing group reunited, but instead an all-acoustic quartet with one saxophonist (Peter Ehwald), one drummer (Jonas Burgwinkel) and not one, but two double bassists (Robert Landfermann and Andreas Lang). Blending elements of modern jazz, chamber music and a little rock aggression, this was a group capable of some real extremes: at times, far-out and far-reaching; other times, positively beautiful, with the use of two arco basses to create a deep, warm cushion for Ehwald's ruminations.

Any suggestion that the bass is a timekeeping instrument these days is hardly worth mentioning, but while there was no true chordal instrument in Double Trouble, the group's three linear instruments had the capacity for both contrapuntal interaction and vertical harmony. That there was plenty of opportunity for free exploration by the quartet was belied by Ehwald's assertion that the music was, nevertheless, "thoroughly composed."

The Köln-based quartet employed elements of Balkan rhythms and even some Kazakhstan overtone singing (albeit played on instruments rather than sung), with some of its music approaching chaos and elsewhere taking full advantage of the two basses to focus more heavily on groove and melody. Together for two years now, Double Trouble has been around long enough to forge an identity that goes beyond its unique instrumentation, while still being early enough days to suggest that there's plenty more potential for this unorthodox quartet to explore.

April 25, Evening: Overseas Night

Which, sadly, brings things to not the final evening of Jazzhead! but, with an early morning flight home for a quick respite before returning to Europe the following week for Mai Jazz in Stavanger, Norway, the last evening to be spent at Jazzahead! 2014. It's strange how things transpire. Despite being a mere 200 kilometers away from Montréal, it was necessary to travel nearly six thousand of them, and across an ocean as well, in order to find an opportunity to catch Christine Jensen's superb Jazz Orchestra. Since the release of Treelines (Justin Time, 2010) and its follow-up, Habitat—also released on Justin Time in Canada in 2013, but in the US just two months ago in March, 2014—the saxophonist/composer has taken some major steps forward, in particular in her evolution as a writer and bandleader of note.

Jensen, in a quintet front-lined with her New York-based sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, at last year's Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (in the same venue, L'Astral, the same evening as Phronesis, coincidentally), has long demonstrated her acumen with a horn—and as a writer, too. But this recent leap into jazz orchestra territory has now positioned her to be easily mentioned in the same breath as American-based large ensemble leaders like Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue.

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