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Jazzahead! 2017

Henning Bolte By

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Jazzahead! Trade Fair/Festival
Bremen
April 27-29, 2017

Jazzahead!, the annual market place of/for jazz in Hanseatic city of Bremen in North-Western Germany, with a total of 40 showcases and a concluding club night with more than 110 concerts, is impossible to cover adequately in one report. In this article you'll find a review mainly of the showcases of musicians/groups from Germany and some comments on the musicians/groups from this year's partner country Finland. It is not only the sheer number of showcases that makes it impossible but often also the accessibility and sound quality of the three halls that make inspection (im)possible. Too often the Schlachthof venue, a defunct slaughterhouse, was so crowded that it was not even possible to get into the concert hall, let alone to find a place to view or to sit down (or both). Of the performances I could see, these three (in alphabetical order) were my personal favorites for different reasons: the quartet of German drummer Eva Klesse because of the enthralling vibe emerging, the all female Shamania herd of Danish drummer Marilyn Mazur because of the sheer joy this 11-piece ensemble diffused and the flaring musical magic French-German Tarkovsky quartet of pianist Francois Couturier, cellist Anja Lechner, saxophonist Jean March Larche and accordionist Jean Louis Matinier ignited. Also I have a spot for the two Finnish drummers Markku Ounaskari and Teppo Mykänen and there was the opportunity to enjoy their playing in the two different piano trios of Aki Rissanen and Kari Ikonen and the group of Raoul Björkenheim.

What it is (not)

Jazzahead! is a trade fair primarily related to the musical product 'jazz.' It has become an indispensable place and main occasion to deal with and facilitate all affairs to make possible the live performance of jazz, its recording and distribution, its maintenance, and to improve it. There is an abundance of live music but it is no festival in the normal sense. It is a hybrid of 40 showcases for the professionals also open to local audiences and there is an added public club night on Saturday, spread all over the municipality with its more than 110 concerts among which concentrated shows at the old Sendesaal (broadcasting hall) (ECM night), concerts of Jazz Denmark at Marriott hotel or the French collectives at Spedition (shipping agency) at the Central Station. The club-night runs parallel with the Overseas Night. This set-up makes that Jazzahead!, besides its function as a trade fair, also attracts a multitude of local/regional audiences. The four days of the Jazzahead! trade fair are preceded by a 14-day multi-arts and culture festival, organized in a cooperation between the city of Bremen and the partner country (Finland). Therefore the opening ceremony of Jazzahead! is a double celebration, both of the end of that arts festival and the start of the trade fair.

What it offers

The 40 showcases with groups from 19 countries are divided into four modules: the eight showcases of the PARTNER COUNTRY, this year Finland (Thursday night), the 16 showcases of the EUROPEAN JAZZ MEETING (Friday), the eight showcases of the GERMAN JAZZ EXPO (Saturday), and the eight showcases of the OVERSEAS NIGHT (Saturday night). The musicians/groups showcasing in these four modules are chosen by four international juries consisting of presenters (of concert venues and festivals) who are mainly from Europe and a few from abroad (North America, Asia) plus the two representatives and artistic directors of the trade fair, Peter Schulze and Ulrich Beckerhoff. Noticeably there were no participants from Africa and South/Middle America. The juries could choose from a total of 547 applying groups from 55 countries. That means an average of 138 groups per category. The most important selection criteria are musical quality and the capability of performing internationally at an adequate level. For the final assessment also instrumentation or country of origin are taken into account in order to secure a varied and interesting presentation.

The outcome of the selection is a result of the interaction of the qualities of the supply and the application of mentioned criteria. In this way it is directed, channeled and filtered quite clearly and sharply. In short, it is a presentation for presenters prepared by presenters. The choice has to be taken and accepted from that background. It is therefore not meant as representative in a more general sense. If certain categories of music are missing it can be due to a lack of supply (applications) or a consequence of lacking quality according to judgments of the international jury. It seemed that the selection process this year went quite smoothly with considerable consensus and consent based on convergence of desired formats, characteristics and qualities. At the press conference it was said that a time ago it was decided no longer to involve media representatives/journalists in the jury-work (although this year a Down Beat journalist was part of the jury of the Overseas Night).

Finnish extravaganza

Finns have their very own characteristics that distinguish them from other Scandinavians, Baltics, and Russians and from other Europeans. They are as much inside as outside, a perfect precondition to go into jazz and express yourself through it. Finns can lean on strong own musical traditions in folk music, art music, tango and jazz. Daily life might be cold, dull and even depressing at times but expression in art and music is mostly especially original and rum, frequently extreme or trippy. The Finns had to suffer a lot before they won the bright place they have acquired now. For non-Finns certain Finnish things might seem a bit odd but high quality is not showed off as we see quite often in other cultures. Finnish things/art stuff manifests itself shaped in its very own ways, alternating between shrill and utterly sober and factual. Especially Finnish design (and architecture) is highly estimated worldwide. While in other cultures things are thrown out spontaneously and exuberant, Finns seem to take things in, absorb and condensate them in their very own way. The result often enough is something quite unique and of strong signature as for instance the spectacular work of one of the progenitors of modern Finnish jazz, drummer Edward Vesala, the crazy fireworks of accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen or the sublime work of leading contemporary female composer Kaija Anneli Saariaho proves. The extraordinary colorful and energetic threesome of vocalist/cellist Anni Elif Egecioglu, electronic reedist Pauli Lyytinen and noted drummer Olavi Louhivuori (known as Elefantree) that opened this year's Jazzahead! is another strong example (more see at Music Finland).

Noticeably five of the eight groups of the Finnish Night were not named after the leader of the group as is usually the case, but had been given names of their own like Gourmet, Virta, Ecstasy, Tenors of Kalma, Dalindeo. It demonstrated the potential and capability of the scene to regroup in productive up-to-date constellations with lots of fresh air and design. Under the name of the leader both piano trios were represented, the trio of Kari Ikonen and the one of Aki Rissanen. And there was the group of trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, scion of a famous Finnish musical family and the group of guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, an internationally renowned veteran. Some names, such as those of guitarist Kalle Kalima, drummer Markku Ounaskari, bassist Antti Lotjonen and electronic reedist Pauli Lyytinen, reappeared through the program. It is no exaggeration to state that jazz is booming and blooming in Finland. A glimpse of that could be caught through the showcases of the Finnish Night and the Finnish concerts during the Club Night. What the showcases and the concerts offered was of high quality, richly varied, up to the present state of art and appealing in a way that presenters had good chances finding something of their gusto/need.

German Jazz Expo

The German Jazz Exposition presented eight groups mostly from the younger and youngest generation and two groups with a female leader, pianist Julia Hulsmann with her trio and drummer Eva Klesse with her quartet. Three groups came from Berlin and the others from Leipzig, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and Brooklyn. There were three piano trios, four quartets (led by sax, trumpet, clarinet and drums) and one quintet (led by sax). It is a quite classical outfit with (bass) clarinetist Niels Klein's Tubes & Wires quartet from Cologne as the only mild outlier.

All groups operated on a fairly high level but could it be pure coincidence that the two female lead, highly integrated units were clearly the most remarkable, captivating and incisive ones? Howsoever these two women being of different age and personality were distinguishing for different reasons. Hülsmann is an accomplished musician relying on a through and through developed, deeply interconnected unit whereas Klesse is an astonishingly burning up-and-coming musician.

Hülsmann

Hülsmann has made a strong mark with her albums on the ECM label, amongst others with her trio augmented by British trumpet ace Tom Arthurs and for the Kurt Weill album Clear Midnight (2015) also by German-American vocalist extraordinaire Theo Bleckmann. Hülsmann's music blends the constructivist with the ethereal. With intriguing harmonic figures, and a never too emphatic timbre, her pianism has the effect of lightly dancing above the firm ground of Marc Muellbauer's stoic and sovereign bass and Heinrich Köbberling's playful tidal drum work. Her music is rather sparing, essential and of understated clarity rather than abundant.

With the work on her newest album Soon And Later Hülsmann is back in the deep mold she carved with her trio through the years. Her clear light strokes true to the sound and the almost autonomously spreading of her lines effortlessly took space and time during the 30 minutes of the showcase indicating which blossoming would be possible in a longer stretch. She apparently reached a higher level in the expression of her and her trio's very own approach.

Klesse

Drummer Klesse, who is from the youngest generation, has a different temperament. She is a humble and passionate musician underpinned by a good portion of challenging humor. It allows her to easily move to and fro between interior and exterior, between leading and following, between empathy and directing. It allows her to come up with extraordinary flowing drum work and distinctive dynamics of a kind -both highly captivating and enjoyable. The four musicians, Klesse, saxophonist Evgeny Ring, pianist Philip Frischkorn and bassist Robert Lucaciu are on a par with each other in the group. Mutual understanding, give and take and engagement in terms of surrendering to the music and serve the music are highly developed in the group. There's a special potential to spark the best in every musician resulting in fantastic timing and dosing. (Good) music lives by creative ways of unifying, reconciling opposites. Klesse—like Hülsmann—has her very own, strong way into that in her/the group's music (making). Especially subtleness and compactness are unified in a highly consistent and distinctive way. Klesse and her group also have a high degree of emergence in their music (making), another indispensable ingredient of good music. It is also called momentum and it means that the listener gets the idea that not a piece of music is played bit by bit but that the music itself is taking its route in the performance, emerge from one moment to another on its own, unfolds as if it's the first time it is happening.

The other groups

As already stated all groups operated at a high standard within clear formats. The quintet of young saxophonist Nico Lohmann combines a lot of jazz core virtues. The two horns frontline (Nico Lohmann and Brigitta Flick) sang wonderfully, the timing, turns and breaks were excellent, all driven by the first class rhythm tandem of bassist Marc Muellbauer (again) and drummer Tobias Backhaus, which resulted in marvelously flying dynamics. In short, it sounded fresh and everything a good old jazz connoisseur appreciates was there. The presentation was quite dull, but for that very reason allowed to fully focus on the flow of the music. It was music that belongs into the same excellent and appealing retro category as Teddy's Westcoasters of Finnish drummer extraordinaire Teppo Mäkynnen or the work of Danish drummer Snorre Kirk.

Young talent Lorenz Kellhuber engaged in a multitude of rich and highly virtuosic piano excursions, springing from seemingly inexhaustible effervescent sources. He consequently drifted away repeatedly without strengthening deeper connectedness with the trio and the audience. And, the abysses and the bad, wicked wolf never showed up during his wanderings.

Saxophonist Timo Vollbrecht from Lower Saxony (Stadthagen) made his way into the present vibrant Brooklyn musical landscape. He is a melodically nicely bending saxophonist without any tendency of becoming smooth. He is provoking and building in a lot of electronic textures produced by guitarist Keisuke Matsuno. The unit with first class bassist Matthias Pichler and ace drummer Sebastian Merk, two experienced and accomplished musicians, rendered an appealing set. There were a lot of good ideas turning up still in search for the well suiting riverbed for the precious waters to stream.

Claas (Ueberschaer) and Klein (Niels) went into 'heavier' territory, Ueberschaer with Claasue 4 and Klein with Tubes & Wires. Ueberschaer is a skilled trumpeter with a clear, far reaching tone. His unit Claasue 4 navigated through rock-and bop-affected pieces, touched upon ballad playing and drifted more and more into the direction of fusion. It was rendered solidly and quite parky, a fluid, distanced sounding going on but loosing tension in case of building it up, letting it grow and increase. Klein and his quartet went into the weirdest most far out sounds of all groups. With its combination of dark deep tones drowned in analogue synthesizers' high-pitched buzzing and curving it however did not get weird as a stage act for a fraction of a second. On the contrary: the foursome, with quite experienced musicians also in the Jazzahead! arena—guitarist Hanno Busch played two showcase last year and Jonas Burgwinkel, the most in-demand drummer of the republic ,has done it more than once—went into and through their kind of retro futurism as dry cloves. It bore out as quite a dry water appearance. Any kind of intrinsic or projecting dramaturgy was lacking. There were numerous deep tone enterprises recently, but this one did not bear out as one of the more thrilling ones. This contrasted shrill to the slightly strange and trippy note in the appearance of a lot of the Finnish groups.

Trio Elf, consisting of pianist Walter Lang, drummer Gerwin Eisenhauer and new young bassist Peter Cudek, another unit of the piano trio format, already went into 'heavier' territory more than ten years ago. It is a constellation that easily navigates through the fields of Brazilian Popular Music, drum n' bass, dub-step and hip hop taking and using those elements that fit in its trio context. It is well done with the typical early Jarrett inspired twists and turns by pianist Lang. It was quite progressive when they started. Meanwhile those new beats are history themselves and integrated by many trio units in jazz in different and also much heavier way. Nonetheless it is still pretty entertaining what Trio Elf is doing.

Compared to the more trippy impression the Finnish contingent evokes, the German one gives more and primarily an image of seriousness, firmness and solidity. Niels Klein's Tubes & Wires is the most garish and glaring in German bunch of flowers whereas you get the impression that the Finnish musicians are easier all over the place, crosscutting with great pleasure.

As memory can be short (especially these days) here is a reminder what was up at last year's German Jazz Expo. My highlights were the large Ensemble 11 of clarinetist Rebecca Trescher from Munich as well as the well-established and well- known piano trio of Pablo Held and the group Die Verwandlung of trumpeter Frederik Köster, both from Cologne. In the following Trescher toured with her 11-piece ensemble in Germany mainly in the southern region and played Porgy & Bess in Vienna. Pablo Held has a busy German schedule and is underway internationally also (Spain, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Denmark) and is continuing on a still higher level. Köster does a lot of touring this year in Germany with his group Die Verwandlung and there is just one festival date in Serbia.

Poland

The next country of Jazzahead! in 2018 will be Poland, which promises to become a quite interesting and challenging affair. Poland is one of the cradles of jazz in Europe with a strong scene and great history (think of the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree in the 50s) that brought forth a series of great musicians of international acclaim. Nowadays this goes together with a number of excellent festivals and a decisive cultural profiling strongly testified by the work of 25 very active Polish cultural institutes in Europe and festival activities in New York. The Polish jazz magazine Jazz Forum, established in December 1965 and still in existence, not only had an important function for communication and exchange between the countries of the Eastern bloc. It was published in English from 1967 to 1992 and additionally in German from 1976 to 1981. Distributed in more than 100 countries it was the first and only pan-European jazz publication platform with an extended network of correspondents all over Europe. Considering the economic situation after the fall of the communist system and Poland entering the free market, the English edition had to be stopped.

Conclusion

Jazzahead! is an ever-growing enterprise. Also this year the press release proudly and with great pleasure reported growth again (see on All About Jazz). Jazzahead! is no doubt an agora in the best sense, an agora regarded and accepted by visitors as 'their' place. The danger is that it can become overcrowded if it grows too much. Another danger is that "the product"—intentionally or not-is increasingly streamlined and standardized. It is already hard to find birds of paradise, heavy groove diggers, black or metal jazz, wild rides or instant creation units (free improvisation) in the showcase programs. Jazzahead! works from the assumption that jazz is a diversified unity. It sticks to the concept of variety in subsumptive unification. Maybe from a certain point it will be necessary to work with different streams to represent and achieve a more complete picture and find products of a more far out kind. The Polish Night in 2018 will certainly show and let us (re)consider.

Videos of the showcases are available at Jazzahead!/Arte TV).

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