Jazzclub Singen (Hohentwiel, Germany) 15th Anniversary


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Fifteen years ago Jazz-Club Singen was established in relation to the modest little theatre cum cinema (called GEMS) at the edge of the little industrial town of Singen-am-Hohentwiel, in the handsome German hinterland of Lake Constance (the Bodensee). About halfway through this period I became a part-time resident of the region. I hopped on a train one night in February 1998 and there was one of the concerts of my life: Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell celebrating Friday the 13th with lots of Monk.

A starry concert a few years later had a rave review in the local press, and a photo labelled "Phil Barrow and Kenny Woods." Conveniently built against the side wall of a traditional inn, GEMS has gardens around it. Philbarrows may sound like handy things in gardens, but the photo showed Phil Woods and Kenny Barron. Away from here between mid-October and Christmas 2004 I was denied Ravi Coltrane, Simon Nabatov and several more of the Jazz/World performers marking the 15th anniversary with one of the busier seasons.

Jazz-Club doesn't mean the likes of Birdland in New York or Henry's in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's the organization of music lovers whose administration books and programs the one or two starry concert nights each month. A club membership fee earns a discount on tickets to see the visiting Americans, or Swiss (Daniel Schnyder back from New York) or Russians, or South Africans (the pianist Surendran Reddy, visiting from his teaching base in Konstanz).

Konstanz is the university town (and home of Konstanz Jazz Club), where my German bed is. Someday I'll organize an account of what other jazz happens there (or do I mean "here?"). A restaurant opposite the Minster (technically speaking an ex-Cathedral, because a few centuries ago the bishop relocated) has one or two very nice jazz things per annum. Not so long ago the American altoist Allan Praskin came from his teaching post in Bavaria and played a not-to-be-missed straight bebop set with a number of Gigi Gryce tunes. Aged approximately 55, he ought to be at least approximately famous. He'd the outstanding young pianist he deserved, imported from the big city of Freiburg (at least a couple of hours away). I hope to recognize (meaning hear) that pianist again. I took no notes that night. Footnotes will follow. Early October I was in Germany, but out of town, so I missed the more adequately famous altoist Vincent Herring with his own quartet, moving on to participate in a series in the big city of Zürich, 90 minutes away across the border in Switzerland. I'm due to miss him again in March, when I won't be in range of him in Singen.

In Singen I've seen Mark Feldman a couple of times in different company and he was in Konstanz with his Swiss partner during the October-December period when I was away. All the other performers seemed to be German or Swiss or Austrian.

I did hear part of one free admission Friday gig in the Hotel Graf Zeppelin, Konstanz, the night I'd gone to Singen to hear Michel Rosewoman. This being early September 2001 she was stuck at Newark Airport. Their website hadn't quite got their information service into gear, but the organizer sat in the inn adjacent to GEMs to console anybody who turned up. I couldn't complain. Dark days. One local musical highlight in Konstanz in 2004 was the tremendous performance by the Irish "great guitarist" Louis Stewart, with his German guitar duo partner Heiner Franz. Hear these guys play "Body and Soul!" Ethereal. There are CDs.

The area's fairly prosperous, pretty and rural, and, in small towns across the lake like Ueberlingen or Friedrichshafen, others of international star class turn up. A couple of years ago I basked in sunset in the modern hilltop church above the tiny village of Allensbach, listening to Charlie Mariano play south Indian temple music and more American things on his alto, in duo with the pianist Georg Reiter. Here in a little more detail is a concert review from Singen during its current anniversary year:

Eric Watson and Christof Lauer
GEMS, Singen-am-Hohentwiel, Germany
October 5, 2004

Eric Watson (American, based in Paris) has the musical command and huge piano technique needed to inhabit the harmonic realm of Monk (as well as Charles Ives). A desire to check his trio CDs was intensified by an encore slower and simpler than the program which preceded it, a single item more like you'd hear in the course of a standard gig. The night's non-standard program had comprised lengthy workouts, including attempts to play every item on the quartet's new CD, Road Movies. I'd not heard the CD at the time and couldn't imagine it being quite on the lines of the live delivery. Every item was an extended arrangement with alternating sections, and both transitions and sudden switches between very soft and volcanic and back. There had been rain during the second set. Shortcutting down one alley on my way back to the station I saw lightning. My disdain of international fast-food joints vanished on finding a new one had opened across from the station. I could wait for the train there. Had there been thunder when the band was blasting fortissimo? Had that music actually started this storm?

There had been times, though. when one raindrop would have startled the audience. The saxophonist the series program called unsere (our) Christof Lauer went through a range of sounds wider than I remember from any tenor saxophonist who knew what he was doing. At one extreme, if he'd blown any less lightly there would have been no sound at all. This was the more startling after a sustained solo which might have blown a curved soprano saxophone straight.

From pianissimo his tenor went into a rather dry-toned version of cool. When that seemed to be over, Lauer, to considerable purpose and musical effect, produced sounds kittens melt hearts with. On one second set item an infant exploded into tears from the same saxophone.

Other performances were vibrant with a slightly hairy-edged Coltraneish sound (not the mock-Coltrane which is all some fools know). On yet others Lauer played soprano saxophone impersonations on the same tenor: he sounded exactly like somebody playing soprano, though not like himself playing soprano. The tonal versatility came a little too near excessive fluency. The problem with such an exceptional expertise with sonorities (many of them far from what's conventionally termed sonorous) is that the listener can lose the place. Is anybody there and saying anything? In this case, presumably yes. Every number began with the youthful-looking Watson lifting a meter or more length of sheet music from a pile on the floor of the small theatre stage, and de-concertina-ing it across the piano top. One or two lay flat, the two meters of one alarming score half stood up in a hillscape of zigzags, other expanses of paper held positions in-between.

Each item began with a highly organised statement by concerted ensemble, or piano or trio, an arrangement of the theme and the very opposite of perfunctory. These statements were without exception interesting and, when a performance had reached its end or final climax, the reprise of the complex prelude added contrast and depth -complementary to the often dionysiac frenzy the audience had experienced since last hearing the thematic section.

A program comprised by compositions each with a succession of (improvising at length) sections makes item by item mapping (like "next they played a ballad") impossible in the review of a live performance.

Jean-Philippe Morel took over in the middle of some performances, Lauer presumably finding a perch offstage, Watson on the piano stool certainly no less delighted than anybody in the audience, Christophe Marguet either joining in with France's response to Charnett Moffett (who needs to watch his back) or sitting back like the rest of us as the slight-looking flying-haired bassist went supervirtuoso. Morel seemed dwarfed at times not by his bass but by quite how much music as well as sound was coming from it—not least when Marguet was as so often being aptly unsubtle. That drummer seems generally accomplished in every respect, but this was no quiet night.

The opening of "Hard as Nails" let me sample Watson as trio pianist. His left hand kept going, way down there (Morel's string bass operating at a higher level) and he worked up huge tension with both mitts pretty well entirely left of center of the keyboard. Then his right hand broke out suddenly and daringly got halfway up toward the top, far-right notes. He didn't solo on everything and sometimes barely a little finger got above middle C. The extension of the performances probably owed something to an expert mingling of rabblerouse through musical substance. It was the mood at least Watson was in, swapping grins with the drummer amid the din. "Hard as Nails" also had Lauer's one-man Roland Kirk and then some roaring with the drummer alarmingly pugnacious. Heavy metal's for sissies! On this title Morel also pulled a bass string further than I have seen one stretched for musical purposes from any soundboard. Attention to the tender meditative sections was not skimped; but away from these it was What the Hell! Recorded with Steve Lacy in 1987 (Watson has been recording for almost a quarter of a century?) "Situation Tragedy" was the present quartet's last number before encores. Watson opened with legit classical business, Lauer's tenor cut in and Marguet really did make the subsequent thunderstorm seem slightly effete.

Oh, yes—"Hardware" seemed to be an oblique and modal descendant of Ellington's "Caravan" and several other themes recalled Lacy compositions (though Lacy did not himself go into such overt sustained artillery mode).

I'd acquired the new issue of the Herbie Hancock/VSOP Under the Sky tapes shortly before the Watson-Lauer gig, the Tokyo concerts with several thousand by now certainly middle-aged Japanese young and ballistic in a stadium. How did Watson do it with just the couple of hundred Germans who filled the modestly proportioned modern arts center theatre which is the home of this concert series?

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