The Jazz.com Blog
November 25, 2008 · 0 comments
Stuart Nicholson covers the world for jazz.com. Over the course of 2008, he has reported in this column on jazz events in Oslo and Dublin and Bremen and Estonia and Moers and Bergen and Umea and . . . Well, you get the idea. In short, E.T. is not the only one who needs to call home.
Below, Nicholson offers his account of the latest installment of Jazz Cologne. What does this festival have to offer? Where else, I ask, can you find a bill that includes big band arrangements of Björk, impassioned saxophony from James Carter, trumpet work from the son of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and a stirring suite of new music inspired by Kind of Blue? Nicholson fills in the details below. T.G.
With the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue just around the corner, it was wholly appropriate that this year's Cologne Jazz should have been dominated by a performance of Blauklang, meaning blue sound, by the Vince Mendoza Ensemble. Performing music from his 2008 album of the same name for the German ACT label, it represented the climax of the whole four-day festival and provided its most enduring memory.
This was the fourth annual Cologne Jazz�the fifth if you count the pilot event held in July 2004�and it has quickly established itself as an important event in the cultural life of the city. Produced under the auspices of Radio WDR, one of the biggest public broadcasting stations in Germany along with NDR and HR, it reflects the cultural policy of German public radio (radio funded by public taxation) of supporting the arts, of which jazz is a beneficiary.
WDR is one of nine regional public radio stations in Germany (in addition to the national stations DLF and DKultur) each with their own dedicated jazz departments that each broadcast around 300 hours per month of jazz in secure program slots. Public radio stations play a vital role in sustaining the local and national jazz scenes in Germany, broadcasting live jazz (thus providing frequent paid work for jazz musicians) from the studio, festivals and stages in addition to commissioning works and developing young talent. The strong relationship between public radio and jazz in Germany is best illustrated by the fact that the jazz departments of the ARD, the association of public broadcasting stations in Germany, support more than 30 jazz festivals a year between them.
At Cologne Jazz, WDR broadcasts every concert, opening with the Jazzpreis awards which take place on the first night in the impressive Klaus von Bismark Saal, the radio station�s own concert hall within the WDR Funkhaus. The Nachwuchspreis (meaning the prize for �new blood� or �young talent�) went to Big Stuff, the big band of the music academy at Wipperf�rth; while the Jazz Komposition award went to saxophonist and clarinettist Gabri�l Perez, who performed with the WDR big band.
Cologne pianist Hubert Nuss won the prize for Jazz Improvisation, and performed a short set with his trio that opened with an original inspired by Oliver Messiaen. Earlier in the year he had made a striking impression on drummer Wolfgang Haffner�s album Acoustic Shapes, released on the ACT label, which showed the world Cologne had in its midst a real upcoming talent. Geed up by Haffner�s inspirational drumming and Lars Danielsson�s suave bass, Nuss revealed an individual style that was expansive and at times uplifting, providing ample evidence of why he was so deserving of the award.
A series concerts were also presented in the Kleiner Sendesaal, a smaller stage within the WDR Funkhaus, of which Austrian guitarist Andy Manndorff�s trio was a highlight. A purveyor of odd, asymmetrical themes, this was a group that fascinated through the give-and-take of complex musical lines between three talented musicians. Yet it was strange to reflect that a musician so conspicuously accomplished as Manndorff should have devised a style of playing that somehow seemed to keep the listener at arms length.
As well as concerts within the WDR Funkhaus, a parallel series of concerts under the Jazz Cologne rubric were also presented at Cologne�s impressive Stadtgarten performance centre, a ten minute taxi ride across Cologne. For many fans the best was a rip-roaring concert by saxophonist James Carter�s quintet. There is probably no finer custodian of jazz saxophone legacy than Carter, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the great masters of the past is legendary. This was straight-ahead, on-the-money jazz, with pianist Gerard Gibbs as intent on raising the roof as Carter, who seemed to be everywhere at once on his instruments�tenor and baritone saxes, bass clarinet and flute�frequently climaxing his saxophone solos with high note flurries beyond the normal range of the instrument that must have delighted any Labradors in the neighbourhood.
After concerts by the student band Big Stuff and the WDR big band on the opening night, the third big band concert of the festival was held at the Stadtgarten with the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, who performed Travis Sullivan�s arrangements of Bj�rk songs. However, his relentless arrangements made you yearn for more imaginative writing as names like France�s Sylvia Versini�who has been dubbed �the European Maria Schneider��the UK�s Gwylim Simcock or Tom Richards and Norway�s Geir Lysne began drifting in and out of the imagination.
The appearance of three big bands in four days brought home how much arrangers can still learn from the past. So often, orchestrations are sliced in half by long, drawn out middle sections devoted to extended solos that may or may not relate to the thematic material at hand. Gradually the orchestration becomes a distant memory and its purpose equivocal. Yet in the big band�s hey-day in the 1930s and 1940s, the solo was much more closely integrated into ensemble writing. You only have to think of Duke Elington�s 1940-41 orchestra (�Jack the Bear,� �Harlem Airshaft,� �Bojangles�) or trombonist Jack Jenney�s remarkable eight bars on Artie Shaw�s �Stardust� to get a sense of this. Here the soloist constructed their improvisations around the needs of composition, sustaining its mood and finding a voice within it that did not alter its meaning. Yet today, the soloist is often presented as a counter attraction to the ensemble�soloist plus rhythm�that seems at odds with the ethos of a large ensemble. This is less a criticism of the big bands that appeared at Cologne, more a reflection on standard big band practice today.
Maybe they should take a leaf out of Vince Mendoza�s scores for his album Blauklang (ACT). Produced by Dr. Bernd Hoffmann, Head of Jazz for WDR and responsible for commissioning the piece, Mendoza has created an album that manages to inhabit the same atmospheric space as Kind of Blue while exploring and extending its emotional range, climaxing with the six movement Bluesounds suite.
I was at the rehearsal of the band as they prepared for the Sunday night concert which was to be followed by a short tour of Germany. The line-up presented a fascinating combination of instruments, with Markus Stockhausen on trumpet (and yes, the son of you know who), Arkady Shilkloper on French horn, Jon Sass on tuba, Claudio Puntin clarinet and saxes, St�phane Gulillaume clarinets and saxes, Niels Klein clarinets and saxes, Christopher Dell on vibraphone, Ulla van Daelen on harp, Nguyen Le on guitar, Lars Danielsson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums plus the RED URG 4 string quartet.
During a break in the rehearsals I took the opportunity to speak to Vince Mendoza about Blauklang, and began by asking him how it came about. �Most of the music on Bluesounds was part of a commission by the WDR for the Traumzeit music festival in Duisburg that took place in the Summer of 2007,� he explained. �Originally, I discussed with the producers the concept of writing music that was inspired by a collection of paintings being exhibited at the festival on the theme of the color blue and how the music of my concert could somehow match the mood of the works in the exhibition.�
These were the paintings of the famous German artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968) that are a part of the ACT Art+Music Collection of label owner Siggi Loch. The idea was that colored tones of Nay�s �rhythmic pictures� from the 1950s and displayed at Duisburg would inspire a musical response from Vince Mendoza. �The essence of my approach to this music was not so much to �paint� with music or embrace the effect of a particular color but to capture the feeling of the music of the era of Miles and Gil�and in particular Kind of Blue. In other words the space, attitude, harmony and approach to improvisation,� continued Mendoza.
I had been fascinated by the range of instruments Vince Mendoza had chosen to write for, and I wondered how he had arrived at that combination�especially the inclusion of a string quartet, harp, French horn and tuba. �After a long period of writing mostly large ensemble music, including big bands and symphony orchestras, I found that using the individual voices in a chamber music setting would be most effective,� he explained. �The first concern was how to best feature the rhythm section players in the context of the chamber group. Omitting the piano was a way to clear out sonic space for the other instruments and to allow the harmonies to be freer and sometimes even ambiguous. Fortunately the woodwind players are amazing and I found an enormous resource in their ability to play so many instruments. For me, one of the most effective parts of Gil Evans�s orchestrations had to do with the motion on the bottom. My choice of the tuba had a lot to do with this. And I used the contra alto clarinet and the �tubax� to reinforce the motion on the bottom. Finally, the choice of wind instruments needed to compliment the harp, vibes and string quartet without overpowering them.�
I asked him about his choice of material, which included two numbers associated with Davis, �All Blues� from Kind of Blue and �Blues for Pablo� from Miles Ahead, a traditional piece called �Lo Rossinyol,� a piece entitled �Habanera� and a piece called �Ollie Mention.� �It was my intention to lend a different point of view to the melody and form of the Davis pieces,� he began. �I did this by varying the orchestration, harmony and rhythms associated with the original versions and presenting the improvisations in a different context. However, the same could be said of the Catalan folk song �Lo Rossinyol.� I thought that there might be a way of approaching this music to make it evocative of the Kind of Blue �space.� The themes from �Habanera� come from a dance piece that I wrote in 2006 called �JAM!� I thought that the emotion and space of this piece was part of what I was trying to achieve on the Blauklang recording. The same is true with �Ollie Mention,� which was originally written for John Abercrombie years ago for the Animato CD. I always thought �Ollie� was destined for a chamber music setting.�
Finally, I asked him how he approached the challenge of writing the album�s centrepiece Bluesounds, a suite in six movements. �After I went back to Los Angeles and began improvising and sketching I felt like my ideas were not so much affected by the color of the paintings in the exhibition as the patterns, shapes and illusion of motion in the paintings,� he said. �This was for me the springboard for something more interesting. After the initial stages of writing, I was most attracted to ideas that could feature the broad selection of instruments in the ensemble and the soloists that were to play in the group, especially the combination of woodwind doubling instruments. In particular I was interested in the role of the string quartet and how it would relate to the winds and rhythm section. I was concerned that the quartet would be integrated rhythmically with the rest of the ensemble. Of course, the color possibilities of the mixed ensemble was most interesting to me, especially in the piece �Bluesounds� which for me is an exercise in form and color.�
Watching Mendoza rehearsing the ensemble was fascinating. Paying careful attention to dynamics and articulation, he might occasionally stop the ensemble when a glitch appeared and go over it until the ensemble internalised his directions. Sometimes he might break the passage down: first the rhythm, then the brass, then the woodwinds. One run-down of an eight bar section with vibes, strings and harp was captivating, illuminating just one corner of one arrangement in dazzling Technicolor detail.
There was a hushed expectation the following night as the audience filed into Klaus von Bismarck Saal concert hall. Beginning at 8 PM precisely, so as to fit in the WDR broadcasting schedule, this shimmering ensemble of elusive density created stunning re-imaginations of the classics �All Blues� and �Blues for Pablo� that established the �blue� mood of quiet melancholy from which Blauklang took its inspiration.
The quality of sound and mixing were perfect within the hall, with pieces like �Lo Rossinyol,� �Habanera,� and �Ollie Mention� stepping stones towards the concert�s climax, the six movement Bluesounds suite. In both conception and execution, this ambitious piece seemed like a blossoming of the musical ideals expressed almost fifty years ago in two memorable sessions in Columbia�s 30th Street studios when Kind of Blue began its epic journey from an album that on release received favourable reviews to the iconic status it now enjoys as the greatest jazz album ever made.
Mendoza�s imaginative writing included several highlights: a duet between the bass clarinets of Niels Klein and Claudio Puntin, Markus Stockhausen�s perfect articulation and intonation on �Movement III,� Nguyen Le�s subtle flourishes on guitar, and the empathy and energy of String Quartet Red Urg 4, especially during the final section of �Movement IV.� Yet each soloist was seamlessly integrated into the overall architecture of the compositions, sustaining its mood rather than offering disjunctive contrast. At the end, the ovation seemed to go on forever: for Mendoza himself, for his ensemble, and for each musician in turn, who took a bow. There should also have been an ovation for radio WDR as well, who made this impressive artistic achievement possible.
This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.