WDR Jazzfest 2017

Phillip Woolever By

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Between fresh, unconventional concert line-ups and the extensive jazz library subsequently available for highly engaged consumers, WDR has established and maintained a vital connection between jazz and the public.
WDR Jazzfest
Gutersloh, Germany
February 2-4, 2017

The best friend of German jazz and a considerable number of passionate followers is probably a state funded media institution.

In a relatively short time span of six years, the WDR Jazzfest has blossomed from infancy to impressive European stature. WDR, a broadcasting conglomerate of radio and TV stations, has continued to expand jazz's public access with the help of government funding and admirable efforts from numerous civil entities.

Though recent financial realities in Western Europe have drastically reduced budgets or cancelled some events outright, many municipalities still recognize the importance of cultural funding and the current state of German jazz is apparently quite stable.

The Jazzfest, usually held around early February, offers some of the strongest evidence of WDR's widespread effects.

For 2017, the festival graced another rotating location, and as usual the results were spectacular. This edition saw a return to the charming town of Gutersloh, in the northwest region of Germany where the festival is based throughout a radius of WDR's base in Cologne.

The event spanned three enchanted evenings, featuring a typically strong summit of homegrown heroes, transplants and a mix of visiting maestros. Many performers are previous winners of the WDR Jazz prize, an award including cash which just expanded from four to five categories.

This year's Saturday night program offered a prime example of how WDR has cultivated success. Guttersloh venues are located on the perimeter of a welcoming central area with multiple dining or hotel options. There was, unfortunately for fans, an obtrusive distance between the first row of seats and the stage, which may have been a result of broadcast necessity. Other than that the sightlines, interiors, and sounds were exceptional.

Previous Jazz Prize winners appearing this year included each member of the Pablo Held Trio, including Jonas Burgwinkel and Robert Landfermann, who soared through another of their delightful collaborations with John Scofield.

That rewarding partnership began, in part, a few years back after a recommendation by Bill Stewart, an obvious expert on trios and what works with Scofield. An unusually strong dynamic led to some limited touring and a superlative recording, The Trio Meets John Scofield (Pirouet 2014).

The trio played those album tracks again at the WDR festival in Dortmund two years ago. This year saw a vastly different set; of equal quality, equal craftsmanship. After a few early soundboard adjustments, the players hit a rarely equaled stride for almost an hour's worth of fine mainstream experimentation.

They started a few minutes early and blasted off with Scofield's "Pretty Out," in an abstract remix of their initial explorations. The trio took the lead while Scofield sat like a visiting dignitary, which indeed he was.

Landfermann took the first solo under purple stage lights and set a high bar. Then came the one flaw of the night, crackling speaker static. It was only for a few interludes but definitely noticeable, and distracted from Scofield's initial solo.

They lagged a step on "Joni," a solid selection by Held, and audience response seemed a bit forced. Landfermann brought them back into noggin-nodding mode with another vibrant solo as Burgwinkle snapped off polyrhythmic patterns custom crafted for individual instruments and common chords alike.

Then, with the Gershwin classic "Someone to Watch over Me," the band achieved a peak that lasted the rest of the show and was likely the festival's apex. Held and Scofield seemed to share a blissful trance amidst near-astonishing acoustics. The audience soon followed.

Scofield weaved his strings between multiple time shifts, then segued the 1926 standard into a subdued, Mahavishnu Orchestra -type swing. Burgwinkle's brushes iced the cake.

Maybe the difference was that the group sounded more like a long established quartet tonight than when they last played together two years ago. Hopefully, another live album will follow.

A pair of Scofield tunes, "Blues" and "Kilgeffen," proved again how well the trio adapts his songs and the powerful closer "Joao" demonstrated the depth Scofield's ax can bring to Held's masterful compositions. The set may have been the band's best performance to date, but you'd have to ask them.

Perhaps there is cosmic synchronicity in the fact that Scofield and Held have consecutive birthdays, on December 26th and 27th respectively. AAJ spoke with Held about the latest WDR set, and his interaction with Scofield.

"He's really interested in how we operate as a trio and this is of course very encouraging," said Held. "John inspires us to find our own ways within his tunes, as opposed to us trying to sound like his usual rhythm section."

"We wanted to play some of the material we did on our 2015 tour, which consisted mainly of original tunes of John's and mine plus a couple of standards. He said he always likes it when we move in and out of time when playing standards.

"We always like to keep it elastic, that feeling where you can't predict where the music goes is what we're aiming for. To be in the moment is the most important thing. Everything else would be dishonest to ourselves, to the listener. Each day, each concert hall, each audience and every moment contains unique inspiration to draw from, " observed Held.

"If you try and keep playing the same thing that may have worked before, you lose the music. Like in life, it works it's own way and you can't predict what's going to happen. That's what we try to reflect."

That philosophy has kept the musical bond between Held and Scofield special. Hopefully, a live recording of tonight's set will be released and there will be new additions to the set list and the concert schedule.

Scofield and the WDR Big Band have shared an association since 1989. They sounded as welcoming as an oncoming spring, and provided the very cool opportunity to observe a master like Scofield work in varied domains.

The brass section, especially the trombonists, added a nice layer to Scofield's tunes. They also provided rhythm support opportunity to hit some untypical, lead layering licks.

Can there indeed be too much of a good thing? There were noticeable vacancies on the floor and the balcony audience dwindled considerably by the time the big band stepped out to ultimately re-energized cheers that defied the hour.

Maybe starting a headlining set after midnight isn't the most optimal way to pack an auditorium, but considering a huge audience for the live streams, perhaps attendance is secondary to simply allowing the musicians to ply their craft in an optimal environment and making the result accessible to the public, which is WDR's mission in the first place.
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