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Punkt in Mannheim: Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 11-12, October 30-31, 2009

John Kelman BY

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Days 1-2 | Day 3-6 | Days 7-10 | Days 11-12

Since its inception in 2005, the Norwegian Punkt festival has been gaining an international reputation for innovation and creativity. With a founding premise of Live Remix—where individual concerts, crossing the breadth of jazz but also beyond, are remixed immediately following the performance with other musicians interacting with the remixers- -Punkt is more than a music festival, it's a movable feast. All that's required is a venue that has the capability to link up two rooms: one for the live performances, the other, the Alpha Room, for the remixes.

When Enjoy Jazz Festival Director Rainer Kern decided to bring Punkt to the festival for a single day run, the obvious choice for location was Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache (The Old Firehall), one of the festival's regular venues, managed by Egbert Ruehl. The Firehall—originally, indeed, a fire station but, threatened with extinction nearly 30 years ago when the city wanted to build a campus of four high rise towers, but ultimately saved as a Heritage site—is more than just a performance venue.

Inside the large building is a radio station that reaches the entire Mannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafen region and can be used by aspiring radio journalists to broadcast their own shows; rooms used by local artists, including a remarkable old stone printing press, rehearsal rooms for musicians, a café and more. The main performance venue has flexibility to allow seated or standing concerts, and the Alpha Room for Punkt was upstairs in a smaller studio where, for this event, a stage was added and a backdrop to allow Punkt's regular lighting wizard, Tord Knudsen, to create some terrific visual projections.

With a capacity, in the main hall, of approximately 500 people, Kern wasn't expecting anything near a sellout—with Live Remix, it's perhaps difficult to promote as it really only makes sense after experiencing it—and so, it was a very pleasant surprise to see the hall almost packed, so much so that it was sometimes difficult to make it into the Alpha Room for the remixes. The concept of Punkt is, in many ways, antithetical to the premise of Enjoy Jazz, with three shows and three remixes, all back-to-back, from 8 p.m. in the evening until 1:30 a.m. the following morning, and before the day, there were those who felt that it was too much music to absorb in too short a timeframe. All was forgotten however, once the attendees began to experience Punkt, and the evening was a resounding success—so much so, in fact, that Kern is already planning to bring the festival back in 2010, also intending to expand it to a two-day event.

Chapter Index
  1. Setting Up Punkt
  2. Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street
  3. Live Remix: Erik Honoré and Kammerflimmer Kollektief
  4. Ensemble Modern
  5. Sweet Billy Pilgrim
  6. Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm and Eivind Aarset
  7. Caravan Palace
  8. Festival Wrap-Up

Setting Up Punkt

The logistics of setting up a Punkt festival are challenging enough when festival co-artistic directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré are on home turf in Kristiansand, Norway. Doing it in an unfamiliar venue could only work with the cooperation of local Mannheim technical folks, and it's a certainty that Punkt in Mannheim couldn't have succeeded as it did without the efforts of Egbert Ruehl and the venue's technical manager, Michael Ohnmacht. The solution to connecting the main hall and the Alpha Room was, as it turned out, a straightforward one, as it was easy enough to run a 16-channel snake between the rooms, allowimg the remixers access to the live performances.

Still, with three performances and three remixes, it was a grueling but very well-organized schedule to get the two rooms prepared and all the artists sound checked in the seven-hour period beginning at noon on October 30. In the main hall, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Ensemble Modern and Jon Hassell set up, one after the other, dealing with minor technical issues and ensuring that, on stage, everyone could hear one another. Still, minor issues arose. During the Hassell sound check, when it was discovered that the room's subwoofers were not in front of the stage as usual, but beneath it, there was some difficulty in getting the levels right so that Hassell's group, Maarifa Street, could play comfortably.

With Sweet Billy Pilgrim, there was the matter of four vocalists, and the technology being used to play programmed tracks behind the band's live performances. For Ensemble Modern the challenges were different, with five horns and two percussionists, getting a proper monitor balance onstage took time.

And yet, the sound checks in the main hall went off with precision and few delays. One difference between Punkt in Kristiansand and Punkt in Mannheim was that, in Norway, there are also complicated set designs, lighting changes and multi-media presentations that make each performance not just sound different, but look different as well. In Mannheim, other than stage lighting, there was nothing in the way of set design; instead, it was a simpler matter, with the only changes between performances the actual musicians themselves.

The Alpha Room was also different. In Kristiansand, the laboratory nature of the Live Remixes means that there's little lighting and no stage; just a couple of lights and bleacher seating. In Mannheim, with visual artist Tord Knudsen and Kristiansand Alpha Room sound engineer Johnny Skalleberg in tow, Mannheim's Alpha Room had a more extensive setup, with projectors, cameras and lighting to turn the Live Remixes into multimedia affairs. And, as is often the case, things did not go completely without a hitch as, when one of the technicians was on a ladder to mount one of the projectors, the handle literally snapped off, the projector falling to the ground and breaking irreparably.

But in relative terms, such difficulties were minor, and by 7 p.m., when the doors opened, Punkt was ready for business.

Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street

It's been a little over a year since trumpeter Jon Hassell performed at Punkt 2008 in Kristiansand, and his Mannheim Punkt performance revealed a significantly altered Maarifa Street group. Still present were Jan Bang—doing programming, beats and live sampling, where he sampled his band mates, processed what he recorded, and fed it back to them to spur more improvisational stretching—and remarkable violin virtuoso Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche. Gone were bassist Peter Freeman—who had worked with the iconic trumpeter innovator for more than a decade—and percussionist Pedram Khavarzamini, replaced by Norwegian guitar anti-hero Eivind Aarset, also doubling on bass.

The result was a group far less grounded in conventional rhythm. As Hassell said in a 2009 AAJ interview, ... "when bass and drums get together they lock in and start going someplace. I actually resist that groove thing because in a way it's so easy to do." When he spoke of ... "what's a groove to me is Pygmy or other forms of African drumming, where there's not an even division between the 8th notes," who knew that he'd be moving even further in that direction, without conventional percussion? Between Bang's samples, and Aarset's unparalleled ability to pull completely unorthodox textures from his guitar and mad scientist's desk of effects, computer and other devices, the music—much of it culled from Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)—possessed a pulse to be sure, but one that was deeper, more elemental than what has come before. Aarset's ability to take the simple sound of tapping his electric guitar body and turn it into something huge and deep, as well as his mbira emulation, lent the performance an entirely different complexion.

Hassell's effected trumpet tone, with harmonized-and reverb-drenched tones augmenting a natural timbre that's equally distinctive, was the thematic focal point in the 50-minute set. Bang drove the music's form with the rich orchestral chords of Last Night's title track, while Aarset contributed the breadth of colors that have cemented his reputation as one of today's most creative guitarists. M'Kachiche—who plays the violin with the body on his lap rather than in the crook of his neck—demonstrated here, as he did at Punkt 2008, that the more traditionalist tendencies shown in his participation with Norwegian keyboardist Jon Balke's Siwan (ECM, 2009) project maybe at the root of his approach, but he's as much a forward thinker as the rest of Maarifa Street. Feeding his violin through a small array of effects, the alterations were subtle but, like the rest of the show, turned the music into a confluence of the old, the new and the yet-to-be-discovered.

Hassell's ongoing quest for musical integration, where cultural markers come together in something that's referential but not exactly reverential, has been evolving at a more rapid pace in the last couple years as he's busier than ever. With an unorthodox group performing unconventional music that's both cerebral and physical (bringing together, as Hassell calls it, "The North and South of You"), the trumpeter's lifelong musical quest is one that may never actually reach its destination but, with performances like that of Punkt in Mannheim, is certainly finding its way closer to it.

Live Remix: Erik Honoré and Kammerflimmer Kollektief

Germany's Kammerflimmer Kollektief's 2007 Punkt performance in Kristiansand was, with the benefit of hindsight, more successful than it appeared at the time. The core trio—guitarist/electronics manipulator Thomas Weber, bassist Johannes Frisch and keyboardist/vocalist Heike Aumüller—worked with Punkt's Erik Honorü to create a Live Remix of Hassell's performance that expanded the cultural references to include a kind of skewed hint of American blues.

With samples of Hassell's music creating a near-static harmonic center with barely a hint of pulse, Weber layered bluesy lines that made the remix feel as though it were the late 1960s in London, with the more psychedelic version of early Pink Floyd. Frisch's unfettered yet measured approach to his double-bass—creating more texture than rhythmic anchor—lifted the remix into the ether as he applied his own series of arco-driven harmonics. Seated on the stage without a chair, Aumüller added sounds from both a harmonium and small electric keyboard, while Honoré drove the base context of the remix as he grabbed snippets of Hassell's show, processing and looping them into an even richer sonic tapestry.

It was a rare opportunity to see the people involved in Live Remix working while the source performance was still going on in the performance space below. Listening carefully to the music, certain ideas were discussed that gave the Live Remix its starting point. Despite being only sketchy discussions, they demonstrated Punkt's approach to Live Remix, which allows for maximum expression but inevitably begins with a core idea. As creative as the main performances always are, Live Remix is more consistently about music without a safety net, one where it's impossible to predict what will happen. They may not always work, but the trip is always worth taking. Still, at Punkt in Mannheim, all three remixes were highly successful experiments that provided an unfamiliar audience with three stellar examples of the festival's creative breadth.

Ensemble Modern

Ensemble Modern has been around for nearly 30 years, evolving into one of the world's greatest new music ensembles. Best-known outside classical circles for its remarkable look at the music of the late Frank Zappa on The Yellow Shark (Ryko, 2003) and its collaboration with Fred Frith on The Traffic Continues (Winter & Winter, 2000), the fluid personnel of Ensemble Modern has, perhaps more importantly, acted as a significant advocate for contemporary classical composers including Heiner Goebbels, Helmut Lachenmann, Mauricio Kagel and George Benjamin. For its 50-minute Punkt performance in Mannheim, the ensemble was trimmed down to seven pieces—five brass players, one percussionist and a pianist/sampler.

Beginning with "Sequenza V," Luciana Berio's composition for solo trombone, Ensemble Modern demonstrated that new music needn't be serious music.

A piece that requires extended techniques including multiphonics, singing while playing, using a plunger in rather unusual ways, like rattling it in the bell of the trombone. But most important is the delivery of the piece, and Ensemble Modern's Uwe Dierksen delivered Berio's piece—a tribute to Glock, called "the last of the great clowns"— with a prerequisite mix of instrumental virtuosity and comedic timing. Engaging the audience by playing brief, vocal- like phrases, then stopping to ask for a response, Dierksen, at one point, emulated a racing car while miming and, ultimately, asking the audience, simply and directly, "Why?"

Trumpeter Sava Stoianov's performance of Edison Denisov's "Solo for Trumpet in B" and Rainer Römer's look at Iannis Xenakis' "Redondo," a solo piece for percussion, were more serious but just as compelling. The three solo compositions led to the set's longest piece, Heiner Goebbels' "Herakles 2," first recorded by Ensemble Modern on La Jalousie / Red Run / Herakles 2 / Befreiung (ECM New Series, 1993). A challenging piece to perform, it was an equally difficult listen, and yet the almost sold out crowd was enraptured by the Ensemble's navigation of Goebbels' knotty compositional constructs.

At a festival that rarely has problems, the only problem with Punkt in Mannheim was that the Alpha Room was considerably smaller than the main hall and, with a large audience, there was the risk of not making it into the Alpha Room, which is exactly what happened for the Ensemble Modern Live Remix, with Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré; particularly disappointing as the word is that it was the best remix of the night. Still, speaking with Honoré after the evening was over, he reiterated one of the fundamentals of Punkt that also distances it from many other festivals: they don't work through agents to make musical connections, it's all done via networking. Whether meeting musicians for the first time at Punkt festivals taking place outside of Norway, or on tour with other groups, it's these experiences that lead to future collaborations. Based on the Ensemble Modern remix, it's clear that this may be but the beginning of future collaboration.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Another of Punkt's fundamental premises is this: while the Live Remixes are, indeed, highly improvisational in nature, the grist for these experiments needn't be. In past years, Punkt has drawn on everything from jazz of a stricter definition (2006's duo performance by Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap) and stylistic cross-pollination (2006's Wagner Reloaded Project and 2007's Trio Mediaeval Performace) to contemporary classicism (composer/double- bassist Gavin Bryars' 2008 performance) and Zen Funk (Nik Bartsch's 2008 performance with Ronin).

Britain's Sweet Billy Pilgrim exemplifies Punkt's broadest purview. A thinking person's rock band, the group has appeared at more Punkt festivals than any other group—first, as a slimmed-down duo in 2006, and then as a full four-piece unit at Punkt's London festival in the fall of 2008, and finally earlier this year, at the 2009 edition of Punkt in Kristiansand. Eight weeks later, to the day, Sweet Billy Pilgrim played its first gig in Germany as the closing group at Punkt in Mannheim, and while the set and performance was similar to that in Kristiansand, there were some differences.

The most notable difference was the addition of some programmed tracks, triggered by drummer Alistair Hamer, fleshing out some of the songs culled from the group's 2005 independent debut, We Just Did What Happened and No One Came, and its second release, Twice Born Men (Samadhi Sound, 2009). When the group was at Punkt, it was days away from finding out if it was to win Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, for which it was nominated. Eight weeks later, the group didn't win the prize, but the combination of receiving the nomination, having their new album out on British singer/conceptualist David Sylvian's label, and the evident growth of Twice Born Men is giving the group the trajectory it's deserved from the very beginning.

Tim Elsenberg, the writing force behind Sweet Billy Pilgrim, is a clear triple threat: a fine guitarist who combines the traditional leanings of Richard Thompson, the progressive tendencies of Robert Fripp and, occasionally, a jagged indie rock disposition; a singer whose rich expression is all about nuance and absolutely nothing about melodrama; and a songwriter who's equally capable of appealing hooks and more complex song forms. With Hamer, keyboardist David Preece and banjoist/bassist Anthony Bishop all singers as well, there was plenty of opportunity for moving, four-part harmonies, especially on the set closer, the near-hymnal "There Will It End." All the more remarkable, then, that Hamer comes relatively recently to singing; with some of the vocal arrangements resembling rounds, there are brief moments where Hamer—an even better drummer, with a terrific kit sound and a relaxed strength that, at times, speaks with the same kind of behind-the-beat backbeat of Fairport Convention's Dave Mattacks—was singing on his own, and sounds like he's been doing it for years.

As ever, regardless of the often revelatory nature of the music, between songs the group is as informal and self-effacing as it gets, sounding like a bunch of lads down at the pub. The instant appeal of Elsenberg's songs is almost at odds with their often quirky nature; yet as knotty as they can sometimes be, they never feel contrived. Instead, Elsenberg's songs possess a charming honesty that's impossible to deny. Lines like, "Sometimes I catch a flicker, and I think you see it, too. Sometimes I see a dead man, with his dying left to do," from the gentle, folk- centric but sonically expansive opener "Atlantis," and the direct yet evocative "It breaks my heart, like photographs," from "Stars Spill Out of Cups" captured Enjoy Jazz's particularly attentive crowd from the start and held them for the balance of the 50-minute set.

The idiosyncratic "Future Perfect Tense," with synth lines from Preece that might sound cheesy if they didn't fit so well with everything around them, was a highlight of the set, as was "Kalypso." While the greater soundscaping of Sweet Billy Pilgrim's albums means considerable rearrangement/reassignment of the parts in performance, with the addition of Hamer's triggered programs the group is gradually bridging the gap. Live, Sweet Billy Pilgrim is definitely a performing group, with a different set of dynamics, neither better nor worse than on the albums, only different. But as the group gradually integrates more technology into its live sets, a collective voice is beginning to emerge that holds even more promise for the future than is already being delivered in the present.

Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm and Eivind Aarset

With so many strong performances, it was almost a certainty that the Punkt Live Remixes would be just as powerful. Still, they are risks, each and every one of them. Sometimes remixes fall into the category of failed but worthwhile experiments; sometimes they are actually better than the source performances. But the best possible outcome of is when a remix takes parts of the original show and creates something new, but which could not have existed were it not for that source material.

Not only is Eivind Aarset a Punkt regular—a part of what Honoré and Bang call "The Punkt Family"—but so, too, is J. Peter Schwalm. It was his material that was the basis for the Wagner Reloaded Project in 2006, and he's been at Punkt every year since, either in concert performances or remixes. Both artists have an acute ear for possibilities and for twisting sound every which way, to create music that consistently defies categorization. Remixing Sweet Billy Pilgrim was, in some ways, especially challenging since, despite Elsenberg's distinctive writing, at the core it's still song form. How to take music that, at least, skirts the edges of convention and turn it into something even more?

With a clear understanding of arc, Schwalm and Aarset started with a looped drone that began to take shape with Aarset's remarkable mbira-like rhythms. Some guitarist's work at advancing their technique; Aarset, instead, works at expanding the timbral palette of his instrument, and it's fascinating to watch, year after year, as it continues to evolve. The remix may have begun in near-ambient territory—hypnotic and soothing—but what was evident throughout was the interaction between Schwalm and Aarset, as each pushed and pulled the other, Schwalm introducing new samples from Sweet Billy Pilgrim's show that included a snippet from "Future Perfect Tense"—even some processed slices of the group's between-song patter. Just when it appeared that the remix was coming to a close, things turned more eminently aggressive, as both Aarset and Schwalm introduced more jagged textures and turned up the volume before, finally, fading to an end.

Just as compelling were Tord Knudsen's visuals, sometimes using a camera to record the musicians, only to—much as the players were doing with sounds samples from Sweet Billy Pilgrim's show—process the source samples and project images that, overlaid on top of Schwalm and Aarset, worked as a discrete visualization of the music being presented.

And so, the Mannheim edition of Punkt finished on a very high note. With Rainer Kern already thinking of bringing Punkt back to enjoy jazz next year, it's proof that, slowly but surely, Punkt's reach is expanding as it conquers the musical world, one festival at a time.

Caravan Palace

While in North America, there's much discussion about the demise of jazz and, in particular, how to attract a younger demographic to the music, attending festivals in Europe tends to suggest that this is a problem that doesn't extend to the rest of the world. Of course, there are groups attracting under-thirties in North America— Medeski Martin & Wood, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Charlie Hunter and Benevento/Russo Duo just a few of them. But one issue with most of the more contemporary groups is that they bear little connection to anything resembling the roots of jazz, which makes France's Caravan Palace all the more intriguing. The group calls itself "Electro-Swing," and if the sextet's Enjoy Jazz performance on the last day of October was anything to go by, they may well be on to something.

The veneer may have been that of rock spectacle—a stage combining the old with the new, and enough lighting and smoke to fuel a KISS concert. But when the instrumentalists hit the stage running—guitarist Arnaud De Bausredon, bassist Charles Delaporte, clarinetist Camille Chapelière, turntablist/synthesist Antoine Toustou and violinist Hugues Payen—it was an exciting blend of old style swing and contemporary beats. Toustou's scatting through a vocoder, Chapelière's moves and the programmed beats all felt like a modern hip hop show, but Delaporte (playing an electric upright bass) swung mightily, as Payen and Chapelière wound serpentine old-school lines over De Bausredon's accompaniment. This was a group of young players who understood the tradition but were bringing it into the 21st Century with, in many ways, the same focus on entertainment that the swing bands of the 1930s and '40s did.

The spectacle heated up even further when singer Sonia Fernandez Velasco took to the stage after two songs. Dressed like someone out of the roaring '20s, she scatted with aplomb as she strutted the stage, engaging her band mates in some serious call-and-response and whipping the audience into an even greater frenzy. It's important to recall that in the original swing era, it was dance music, a characteristic not lost on Caravan Palace or the sold-out crowd—ranging in age from teens to seniors—who not only danced inside the Karlstorbahnhof hall in Heidelberg, but out in the foyer, where there was considerably more room to move.

The group is already on a rapid trajectory in France, but in some ways it may have been a risk for Enjoy Jazz, as the group is virtually unknown there. Still, between a French community in the region, regular Enjoy Jazz attendees who try things out faith in Festival Director Rainer Kern's clearly strong instincts, and the promotion in the region—it's impossible to walk anywhere without seeing at least one festival poster—the show was a resounding success. To some it may seem anathema to combine the swing tradition with hip hop attitude, but if it brings more people to the music, how can it be anything but a good thing? The group's shelf life may be limited—the shtick factor is definitely high—but based on the number of CDs, LPs and shirts that were leaving the concert with new fans of Caravan Palace, at this point the group has nowhere to go but up.

Festival Wrap-Up

While AAJ's coverage of Enjoy Jazz comes to a close, the festival still has nearly two weeks left to go, with artists including Overtone Quartet (with Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Jason Moran and Eric Harland), Wayne Shorter, Erik Truffaz, Ulf Wakenius, Tord Gustavsen and more. With its breadth of programming and, in this year, two festival- within-festivals, it's grown over its relatively short history, to become Germany's most important festival for jazz and more. Festival Director Rainer Kern's story remains a remarkable one, all the more so considering his background is in chemistry and that he's essentially learned about all the ins and outs of running a festival by experience and an intrepid confidence in his vision. But the proof is in the pudding, and with the past two weeks of outstanding programming, Enjoy Jazz 2009 is going to be a tough act to follow. But while Kern often makes decisions close to the festival, there's little doubt he's already thinking about possibilities for the next edition of the festival.

With a small but dedicated staff that treats musicians and media as if they were guests in their home, Enjoy Jazz becomes an even more apt title for this six-week festival. A thoroughly enjoyable time that, with largely only one show per night, also operates at a very relaxed pace, the festival not only encourages checking out new music, but all the sights of the Mannheim/Heidelberg/Ludwigshafen region. The best festivals possess some quality that distinguishes them from the many others around the world—with rich programming delivered at an easily digestible pace in a multitude of wonderful venues within a truly spectacular tourist region, it's safe to say that there's no other jazz festival in the world like Enjoy Jazz.

Visit Punkt, Alte Feuerwache, Jon Hassell, Kammerflimmer Kollektief, Ensemble Modern, Sidsel Endresen, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Eivind Aarset, J. Peter Schwalm, Caravan Palace and Enjoy Jazz on the web.

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman

Days 1-2 | Day 3-6 | Days 7-10 | Days 11-12

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