May 3-5, 2018
The city of Bonn, situated on the banks of the Rhine River south of Cologne in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia, is the southernmost part of the Rhine-Ruhr region, Germany's largest metropolitan area, with over 11 million inhabitants. Bonn formerly functioned as the capital of the Western part of Germany (1949-1990) and as the seat of government of reunited Germany. Bonn currently shares the status of Germany's seat of government with Berlin, with the President, the Chancellor and many government ministries maintain substantial presences there, with about 8,000 of the 18,000 federal officials remain in the city. A total of 19 United Nations (UN) institutions operate from Bonn today. Therefore, it holds the name of Federal City. The city has a rich musical life with an historical foundation provided by a significant classical music tradition. Ludwig van Beethoven was born there in 1770 and Robert Schumann died in Bonn-Endenich in 1856. Concerning composers nearby city of Cologne had greats such as Jacques Offenbach, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Bernd Alois Zimmermann.
Design, mission, practice
Jazzfest Bonn could still be considered young festival, now in its ninth year. With strong determination, the festival team, led by saxophonist Peter Materna
, has worked to establish and imprint its name upon the city, the region and on a wider scale. The festival has a clear, recognizable structure and focus and has been successful with its moderate and audience friendly programming policies. Audience friendly here means that the festival attempts to tailor a selection from the broad(er) field of jazz that suits the specific tastes of its local/regional audience. It turned out that the Bonn audience has its strongest affinity with the transitional zone between jazz and pop (like this year's appearance of Incognito, Julia Biel, Lyamboko, Ed Motta]. That core is augmented by adequate and strong challenges in the presentation of musicians and groups (for a list of musicians that took part in the festival see here
The basic unit of presentation is the double bill concert, taking place at carefully chosen significant locations across town during 12 nights, totaling 24 concerts this year. Bonn does not simply rely only on big names as ticket sellers but on a combination of that core and challenging enrichment by national and international names giving the program a clear profile every year. Of this year's edition 24 acts, ten were from Germany and three had a German connection. Five acts had a mixed European line-up, four were from the US, three from the UK and one act came each from Brazil, Japan, Norway and Sweden. Three female led groups, Saskya, Ulita Knaus and Julia Biel
, participated and two egalitarian female/male duos played the festival. Saskya is a young all female group consisting of saxophonist Anna-Lena Schnabel
, bassist Lisa Wulff
and pianist Clara Haberkamp Trio
That the festival is treating its audience as an intelligent partner is apparent from the remarkable design of its information and educational component. The clearest example is the unparalleled high-quality festival magazine zettbe:
with its solid and attractive graphic design and its stimulating and reflective content. It illuminates a series of basic themes of music making in jazz and improvisation in a collection of articles by known writers. It lends the festival integrity and a solid image (in competition with classical music events in town). zettbe: has its very own design resembling a bit (but not too much) Germany's largest jazz print-magazine Jazzthing, produced in nearby Cologne. Also the educational component of the festival has some fine examples of familiarizing interested and engaged novices with the process of music making as in the program
"lusty glances through keyholes" for young people giving them access to the sound checks etc..
The first night presented two duos at the small amphitheater hall of the van Beethovenhaus: first, Cologne singer Inga Lühning and bassist Andre Nendza
, and second, the Berlin duo of pianist Julia Hulsmann
and vibraphonist Christopher Dell
. These could not have been more opposite. Lühning/Nendza presented a nice basket of an improbable, homespun collection of pop-songs, jazz standards and chansons (from The Jackson Five to primal German Liedermacher Franz-Josef Degenhardt) together with original material of their own. While they hopped through that nicely fenced territory, Hülsman and Dell, meeting for their first public performance, entered unexplored territories to discover nodes they have in common and unfold those by creatively navigating along them. Nendza and Lühning were much appreciated by a sympathizing part of the audience identifying itself in high degree with that approach. A greater part of the audience became fascinated too by the approach of Hülsmann/Dell's music. This kind of double bill requires finding productive matches such that audiences that come to see one act might be curious about the other too and cross over. It happened here -in different degrees -with followers of Lühning/Nendza.
Diversity is connected to unity, looseness and openness. There are different manners and degrees of realization and presence of these properties in performances. Openness, as a key property, relates to the unfolding of the musical process as well as to the possibilities for the audience to connect to it, to get in deeper touch with it and co-discover with the musicians in stimulating ways. In the performance of Hülsmann and Dell it was realized on a deeper (or higher) level of challenge, surprise and unification. During the concert, Dell introduced and demonstrated the notion of Plötzlichkeit/Suddenness in a solo piece, which functioned as one of the perceptive ear-openers. Alternating between pieces by Hülsmann and Dell a multitude of colors, moods and tempos emerged, from angular Thelonius Monk inspired moves via beautiful Mal Waldron shades to Eislerian melancholic incisiveness yielding an overall unity. Both musicians had to step with one foot out of the own zone to catch the productive nods. It happened with sparkle, enriching each musician as the music itself. Through interaction, their instruments started to sound as extensions of each other. Looseness and momentariness here both provided captivating pointednessa classical, productive paradox in jazz. It was a promising debut clearly calling for more.
Next night's double bill at Brotfabrik/Bakery was guitar-centered, presenting younger generation Norwegian wizard Lage Lund
(1978) with his high-caliber North-American trio of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Justin Faulkner as the first half, and veteran Philip Catherine
(1942) from Belgiumone of the three outstanding Belgian musicians beside Django Reinhardt
and Toots Thielemans
, both guitarists tooas the second half. Catherine performed in a duo with New York based German bassist Martin Wind
. There was a difference of age and loudness, a difference of Blues Brothers suit and gypsy hat between the two and as commonality a wry humor that spiced the unfolding of the program. Lund, a sly, cliché-free guitarist, is an unquestionably appreciated enrichment of the present guitarist palette. Brewer and Faulkner are no doubt highly accomplished musicians but their combination did not speak to me. In my ears, organic and subtler interlocking was missing too much from the trio. Bass and, more particularly, drums were overpowering Lund's lines too much. In that sense, I personally did not experience the trio as a well-integrated undertaking.
My first encounter with Philip Catherine's duo-partnership with bassist Martin Wind proved to be much more charming to me. Guitar-bass-combinations can be magical affair (see my recent review of the guitar/bass duo of Bill Frisell
and Thomas Morgan here
). Sparked by the delight of previous performances of Catherine (mostly highlights) I was looking forward to the concert that indeed prolonged the old magic enriched by a new attractive sound. Catherine talked his way into the pieces by referring to his left brain (my automatic spelling corrector urges me to hyphenate the expression but that would destroy the ambiguity Catherine was playing with) opening up a chain of escalating confusion, Belgian surrealistic practicality and understatement, redeeming hilarity and endearing coziness. Catherine and Wind complemented and carried each other in a manner so equally dreamlike and down to earth that beauty itself took the lead and transported the music onward and upward to timeless heights. Although the Catherine/Wind-concert did not capture the whole audience (for variable reasons, not least that some were more into Lund's language, I am sure most listeners had a wonderful night.
The double concert on the third evening took place in a larger hall at Haus der Geschichte, one of the museums in Bonn's the new museum quarter, situated in the former government district. The concert covered the core area of the Bonn audience's preference. The night opened with British singer/songwriter Julia Biel and her three-piece electric band. As with the previous two nights the hall was sold out, indicating that the festival organizers know what they're doing and can rely on their audience. This night there was an audience of all ages with a notable female presence.
Unfortunately, Biel's music did not get contrast and depth of field due to an extremely flat and dry sound from the electric instruments. Biel made a lot of effort to give it more soul and flair, heighten the tension, but could not increase the impact, which was a real pity. Excitement immediately heightened with the appearance of drummer Wolfgang Haffner
and his three fellow musicians pianist Roberto Di Goia, bassist Christian Diener and vibraphonist Christopher Dell in the game again after his duo with Julia Hülsmann the other day. What followed was an utterly infectious, superior piece of showmanship staged by Haffner in full support of, and cooperation with, 'his' dedicated audiencealmost like a soccer match. Haffner, an accomplished drummer of international reach and a compelling storyteller, fully exploited his position as drummer, his MC-ing capabilities and his popularity. A show with him will never be dull or boring. Often he applied a procedure of speeding up towards a climax by means of a pompous bass drum and a finishing theatrical flourish. This way he worked with his accomplished fellow musicians through classic pieces such as "Django" and "Concierto de Aranjuez," also recorded on his recent album Kind of Spain (ACT) and finishing with Joseph Zawinul's "In A Silent Way." You could say that the more introvert serene pieces on the album received an extrovert, faster, and louder arrangement in the live-context of the festival. Should it be regarded as circus? Yes, as far as many classical conducted concerts of notorious pieces could also be considered as circus. No, if you consider it as a format based and relying upon sedimented popularity of the music/musician, an acknowledged repertoire a wider audience is dedicated to. The audience can get caught up in it but it can also trigger curiosity and further reaching desires. The latter is what the festival aims for. It offered serious options during the second weekend with Cologne pianist Pablo Held's brand-new group comprising Kit Downes
on organ, Percy Pursglove
and the secret joker Irish drummer Sean Carpio
, and the wonderful quintet of Norwegian pianist Eyolf Dale
with drum-legend Audun Kleive
, and the multimedia crossover undertaking of Martin Albrecht's Skriabin Code.