The Jazz.com Blog
May 05, 2008 · 0 comments
Stuart Nicholson must be the most indefatigable traveler among current jazz critics. He recently covered events in Dublin and Oslo for the jazz.com blog, and promises to send us reports from several other countries during the next four months. (Coming soon: a first hand account of jazz in Estonia.) Below Nicholson reports on his visit to the Jazzahead! gathering in Bremen, Germany, where he got a glimpse of some of the likely leaders of the next generation of European jazz stars. T.G.
It’s not as straight-forward as you’d think getting from London to Bremen. It’s cheaper to fly to Hamburg and go the rest of the way by train. And while Hamburg may have many claims to fame, such as playing host to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he attempted to evoke memories of John F. Kennedy’s famous June ‘63 Berlin speech by declaring “Ich bein ein Hamburger” to startled civic dignitaries, Bremen has mostly kept in the shadow of its sister city.
It seems a bit unfair. After all, it dates back to at least 150 AD and is a Hanseatic city (the Hanseatic League was a powerful trading organisation in northern Europe in the Middle Ages). Today it’s the home of Becks beer, a huge Mercedes plant and a pretty good football (or soccer) team that’s well placed near the top of the German Bundesliga. There’s a lot of civic pride in this lovely, orderly city with its impressive sights such as the St. Petri cathedral, the Gothic town hall that dates back to 1400 and its picturesque market square.
But the Jazzahead! convention has well and truly put the city on the cultural map of Europe. Held in the huge Congress Centrum Bremen, built at a time when flying concrete buttresses and artsy aluminum-and-plate-glass architecture was in fashion, this three-day event attracts visitors, fans, musicians, media and music professionals from over 40 different countries for concerts, conferences, panel discussions, educational symposiums, lectures and trade exhibitions.
In the space of just three years Jazzahead! is well on its way to becoming one of the premier events in European jazz – indeed, it probably already is. The concert program began in the late morning and continued late into the night at the nearby Kulturzentrum Schlachthof. This former slaughterhouse has been converted into a well equipped performance center with good sight-lines and excellent sound. The concerts start at 10.30pm and wind-up in the wee, small hours of the morning.
The Schlachthof programme featured three one-hour concerts each night (a total of nine performances in all) of European jazz selected by a Jazzahead panel of experts. During the day, concerts at the Congress Centrum featured upcoming German jazz musicians, and in the evening a couple of international headliners such as Wallace Roney, Trilock Gurtu and Marilyn Mazur were added to the program.
Considering Germany’s enormous size, relative to the rest of Europe, its economic clout and its awesome musical heritage, it’s fair to say its jazz musicians have been somewhat under represented on the European scene. In fact, probably their most famous musical export in contemporary times has been James Last, who although once a jazz bass player, has long moved out of that line of business.
If pushed to name a couple German jazz musicians, most would probably begin and end with Albert Mangelsdorff, whilst others might add Klaus Doldinger, Heinz Sauer or Manfred Schoof at a push. But in the last three years, a generation of young musicians have emerged who have begun turning heads on the European scene. Some have made their breakthrough through the initiative of record producer Siggi Loch’s Young German Jazz series on his ACT label, such as pianist Michael Wollny’s trio [em]. This ensemble was a hit of the first Jazzahead meeting and promptly went on to considerable acclaim at festivals across Europe.
This year the ACT Young German Jazz series included Berlin trumpeter Matthias Schriefl and his band Shreefpunk. Full of awkward melodies, edgy rhythms and darting references to classical music, Shriefl projects enormous potential which is occasionally dissipated by pushing in several directions at once.
Yet Schriefl’s agitated, fragmented approach is typical of many bands from Berlin not signed to ACT, such as Hyperactive Kid and Johnny La Marama, whose music seems to reflect the changing face of the city itself – old buildings are being pulled down, new ones being erected faster than you can blink, underpasses and overpasses are being constructed here there and everywhere, old roads are suddenly diverted or closed while new ones devour houses, apartments, shops and offices in their path. Change is everywhere and this feeling of disconnect was apparent in their music – rich with quotes and parodies, odd rhythmic shifts and allusions to Weill, they made their crazy collages of sound work through a combination of deft musicianship and attitude.
While lot of young German musicians are drawn to the Berlin scene, pianist Laia Genc went the other way and settled in Cologne. She has already accumulated enough awards and prizes to fill a room in her apartment, and this highly regarded young talent is now setting about to deliver on her enormous promise. Fellow Cologne resident and pianist Anke Helfrich saw her career sidelined for six years due to illness, but announced her return with her album Better Times Ahead. This release hit the upper reaches of the German jazz charts, and it’s easy to see why. Her trio set was calm, understated and totally beguiling.
In contrast, Jazz Kamikaze was anything but. The Danes, Swedes and Norwegians who make up the band have devised an adversarial mix of rock and jazz designed to invoke shortness of breath and dizzy spells among jazz purists. Yet they were serious fun; saxist Marlus Neset is a young musician who created enough elbow room in a band of strong personalities to show he has considerable potential. He could go far.
One of the most interesting sets of the whole weekend was provided by saxist Matthieu Donarier’s trio from Paris, a city that’s often dubbed the crossroads of Europe. With Manu Codjia on guitar and Joe Quitzke on percussion, they wove mid-Eastern flavours and asymmetric rhythms into an intimate yet intense set that built and built in lyrical and rhythmic intensity, gradually bringing the late night trade at the Schlachthof bar to a standstill.
But for those who wanted a glimpse of who the future stars of European jazz might be, then three classically trained virtuoso pianists put their hands up as likely contenders to enjoy the kind of success being enjoyed across Europe by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, (or e.s.t., as they are often known). The UK’s Gwilym Simcock impressed the international audience with his stunning technique, and by breathing new life into the standards repertoire, while the Carsten Daerr Trio seemed to have worked out their own personal jazz language.
Filling his short set with concise yet absorbing originals, each seemingly constructed to leave you wanting more, Daerr proved to be a cunning alchemist who in another life could probably make gold out of base metal. He was joined by long-time associates Oliver Potratz on bass and Eric Schaefer in drums, and the trio demonstrated that they have developed a shared musical idiom that was intense yet rich with meaning.
But it was Jef Neve from Belgium who took Jazzahead! by storm. With bassist Piet Verbist on bass and Teun Verbruggen on drums they presented a rhythmically charged set that delighted a capacity audience at the Schlachthof. Classical and jazz influences were seamless mixed into an original style that climaxed with the powerful “Nothing but a Casablanca Turtle Sideshow Dinner” from his album Nobody is Illegal. It earned the loudest ovation of the whole event as everyone sensed the arrival of a major talent.
This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.