WDR 3 Jazzfest 2018

Henning Bolte By

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Theater Gütersloh / Bunker Ulmenwall Bielefeld
Gütersloh / Bielefeld
February 1-3, 2018

WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which is the public radio organization of the German federal state of North Rhine Westphalia based in Cologne, the jazz capital of the federal state. WDR 3 refers to the third program-line nowadays also indicated as Kulturradio (cultural broadcasting).


I experienced a remarkable coherency of a surprisingly rich and vivid regional radio landscape and a sympathizing audience culture relying on a generous local theatre infrastructure. Solidity was the main characteristic of the program. Less a big bouquet of international hip acts its strength was rather its concentricity and a gradual unfolding radiation culminating into two concluding acts: the dramatic open exploration of the Michael Wollny Trio together with Geir Lysne's 24-piece Norwegian Wind Ensemble and the Stockhausen dive into a heavy sound odyssey. Trust and familiarity of a matured mixed audience were key factors of the remarkable way audience and musicians moved towards each other, thereby even providing viable ground for further expansion into/exploration of more rugged edges—a quality now lacking somewhat. All concerts are available on demand here.

Also an essential part of the festival is the highly profiled and appealing presentation by the two Götzes: Götz Bühler, bright smile, competent, elegantly hurrying, and Götz Alsmann, Blue Note vocal artist, parading, slightly ironic and never lack of effective punch line.

The city

Gütersloh is situated in the North Eastern part of the federal state of North Rhine Westphalia. With its 18 million inhabitants it is the most populous federal state of Germany and as populous as The Netherlands. Gütersloh houses the headquarters of the Bertelsmann Company, the biggest German media conglomerate operating in 50 countries (116,000 employees) with corporate centers in New York, Beijing, New Delhi and São Paulo. It includes broadcaster RTL Group, trade book publisher Penguin Random House, magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr, music company BMG, service provider Arvato, the Bertelsmann Printing Group, the Bertelsmann Education Group and Bertelsmann Investments, an international network of funds. The other well-known company is Miele, a high-quality appliance manufacturer. A peculiarity of Gütersloh is its large Aramean community (10% of the population). It is the largest one in Germany. Music is covered by renowned German contemporary composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012), born and raised there.

The radio

WDR 3 was one of the first highly profiled arts, music and culture oriented radio stations in Germany and it still is. Programming jazz and world music (called musical cultures here) forms an important part of it. Under the direction of Bernd Hoffmann about 20 freelancers provide a daily program of two hours before midnight, plus frequent jazz nights like at the festival that was broadcasted in a cooperation of WDR, ORF, the Austrian national public service broadcaster, and ARTE TV. And still more, the department has access to a full professional ensemble of its own, the WDR Big Band. The WDR Big Band as a professional ensemble fully dedicated to jazz emerged in the second half of the '80s from the WDR's general show orchestra (Tanz-und Unterhaltungsorchester). Its present director is Bob Mintzer, and the composer in residence is Vince Mendoza. This is part of the greater whole of Germany's public radio system. Other jazz departments you find in the public radio of other 15 federal states (see more details below)

Festival structure

A central role during the three nights was reserved for the WDR Big Band and a central place was occupied by the five annual awards, an award for young talent(s), for improvisation, for musical cultures and for composition. The award was first presented in 2004. Claudio Puntin, Markus Stockhausen, Sebastian Sternal, Jonas Burgwinkel, Andreas Heuser are all recipients of the WDR jazz award. It has become a tradition to give the laureates the opportunity to return to the festival in subsequent years.

The first night presented two Big Bands sandwiching the Alan Pasqua Trio ending out with Jean-Paul Bourelly's Kiss The Sky unit. The second night was fully dedicated to the award ceremony and the music of the award winners. The third night had a triad of the quartet of Finnish tenor Timo Lassy, followed by the Michael Wollny Trio later joined by the 24-piece Norwegian Wind Ensemble led by Geir Lysne and confined by a 7-piece ensemble of trumpeter Markus Stockhausen. This triad was preceded by an opening concert of guitarist/violinist Heuser of Transoriental Orchestra, last year's award winner music cultures, with two guest musicians, Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari and Swiss clarinetist Claudio Puntin. In a parallel stream the venue Bunker Ulmenwall of neighboring city Bielefeld presented the unit of Cologne pianists Jurgen Friedrich with Hayden Chisholm, Robert Lucaciu, Philipp Scholz and Sebastian Sternal with Larry Grenadier and Jonas Burgwinkel as well as the duo of the Nuss brothers Hubert and Ludwig.

Festival flow 1

The Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, a WDR Big Band counterpart founded in 2004 that nourishes and recruits from the rich Cologne scene of composers and instrumentalists, kicked off the festival. Since 2004 it serves a focusing role in the scene and functions as a kind of house ensemble of Stadtgarten, the main, internationally well-known Cologne venue (besides the smaller Loft venue). For Gütersloh 2018 the CCJO presented "Expat Echoes," compositions by Austrian saxophonist Marko Lackner, Cologne resident for about 20 years now. It revealed as a skillful interweaving of musical traces of his Austrian musical heritage and a sonic reflection of the in-between-experience in an ever-developing working interim.

The CCJO as a kind of compositional laboratory and sound-shaping workplace has done a greater variety of programs in different line-ups. It has achieved an impressing high level of unity and a masterful sound culture. It could be compared with other large ensembles like Trondheim Jazz Orchestra or Orchestre National de Jazz. The Cologne way, it seems, is solidity and sophistication, not the freak-out. That quality can be found in the super large trippy ensemble of The Dorf from the nearby Ruhr area.

Then a diptych, with pianist Alan Pasqua and drummer Peter Erskine as main actors, took its course. Pasqua and Erskine, familiar with each other since college times, have a rich history in a wide range of illustrious collaborations in jazz, pop and world-music (a.o. Bob Dylan, Santana, Kate Bush). Here they were joined by long time US expat John Goldsby, bassist of the WDR Big Band. While Pasqua with a great feeling of proportion and an extraordinary delicate sound is a master of golden ratio, Erskine is a master of accentuation in an amazingly effortless flow, which was revealed again in this performance. There are few like him who can make slight cymbal strokes sound so clear and prominent in the center of the music as he did again brilliantly during this concert. Goldsby fitted in closely. He sometimes counter-balanced but at times also merged with Pasqua's lines. It was an unweighted departure and entrance to a realm of larger sound waves to come. The threesome crossed a territory from a piece of Jaki Byard, Pasqua's teacher, to the concluding "Gumbo Time" by Pasqua unifying a diversity of material and thereby letting the song sing itself.

Subsequently the massive forces of the WDR Big Band directed by Vince Mendoza blossomed in the company of Pasqua and Erskine, providing wonderful bedding for both to shine. Along a proofed procedure the orchestra made its way into and through several beguiling pieces as Erskine's "Each Breath" and Mendoza's "Spring Is Coming." In to-and-fro surging movements spiced with a long row of excelling solos—all on high level and in the case of alto-saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer with an extra dose of fully glowing fire. Feasting in bright colors, changing temperatures and gripping temperaments it evoked lasting elevating effects. Magnificence along a repeated procedure reaches a point of saturation. Happily it was not overstretched here. Rather, for weaning abrasive, a right into your face electric guitar sound was offered. Jean-Paul Bourelly, presently residing in Berlin, made his appearance on the studio stage high above the roofs of the city, with two rhythm forces, bassist Daryl Taylor and drummer Kenny Martin. With quaking funk and hot breath they scraped and kissed the nightly winter sky of Gütersloh.

Highlighting the regional scene: awards

The second night was dedicated to the annual awards and ceremony and related a good portion of music. The award ceremony had a pleasant flow with well-measured humor and serious political content mutually reinforcing each other thanks to the ping ponging duo of WDR 3 program director Karl Karst and renowned mc and Blue Note recording artist Götz Alsmann. As a consequence every next step was curiously awaited. The role and relevance, the merits and the future fate of public radio/tv were the central threads of the addresses and laudatory speeches. Karst invited and encouraged every individual in the audience to testify about the indispensable blessings of a well-functioning public system in its own everyday living environment. Best evidence appeared to be the public media anchoring of the festival itself. The example of neighboring countries show that the public system has been seriously damaged, like in The Netherlands, or is heavily under threat like presently in Switzerland. It leads into exclusion, elimination, impoverishment and serious deterioration. In concrete terms Kars pointed out that a vivid public station like WDR is something worthwhile not only to defend but also to develop and improve. Cooperation is essential here as well as having access to strong platforms like ARTE that provide and secure a larger amount of viewers/listeners.
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