The Jazz.com Blog
May 21, 2009 · 0 comments
Stuart Nicholson has covered jazz events in a dozen or so countries for jazz.com. Now he reports on the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, where fans were treated to more than forty concerts over three-and-a-half days, as well as a symposium and more than 200 jazz-related exhibition booths. How many US cities host a jazz event on this scale? Yet Bremen has built up to this impressive level in just four years. T.G.
In four short years the Jazzahead! convention has become one of the most important events in the European jazz calendar. A unique combination of festival, showcase, exhibition and symposium, no one working in the European jazz economy can now afford to ignore it. Held annually in the beautiful Hanseatic city of Bremen, a centre of technology, space engineering and, perhaps less prosaically, the home of Becks beer, the event attracted more than 5,000 fans and music biz professionals from thirty countries.
With a history that goes back at least 1,200 years Bremen is also a tourist destination that annually attracts over two million visitors. High on the list of places to go include the bronze sculpture celebrating the Bremen Town Musicians (characters in a Brothers Grimm fairy story from the 1850s), the picturesque Town Hall dating from 1405 and the city’s imposing St. Petri cathedral dating back to the 13th century. But for those into things to do rather than places to go, you can dance ‘till you drop at the annual Samba festival (the biggest in Germany) or shop ‘till you drop at the October Friemarket or Bremen’s famous Christmas market. And for four days in spring, Bremen’s curriculum vitae as an international city of culture now has a significant new entry thanks to the growing significance of the Jazzahead! convention.
Held in the city’s huge Congress Centrum, there are over forty concerts spread over three and a half days; an absorbing series of seminars grappling with themes like audience building amongst the young; national jazz showcases and, in the exhibition hall, a sea of stands, 231 to be precise, manned from first thing in the morning to late evening by exhibitors from all over Europe. They included representatives of national jazz scenes; record labels; jazz magazines; plus music publishers, festival producers, artist management, agents, instrument manufacturers, audio equipment manufacturers and just about every service industry connected with jazz you can think of—and then some. And they’re all there for one thing. To network.
From the moment the Centrum opens at 10 AM to when the last concert at the nearby Kulturzentrum Schlachthof finishes in the wee small hours, deals are being negotiated at every level of the music business, from record companies setting up distribution deals to agents, managers and festival producers setting up tours, festival appearances and club dates for musicians and bands around Europe. Often, European promoters and audiences seem to know more about what is happening in the US than about jazz scenes a few hundred kilometres beyond their national borders, so one of the highlights of Jazzahead! is the European Jazz Meeting’s national jazz showcase. This year it was the turn of 13 promising bands from France, Luxembourg, Catalonia and the UK to take the stage in front of an audience of professionals and fans.
The French jazz showcase opened with bassist Héléne LaBarriére’s outstanding quartet performing music from “Les Temps Changent.” With solos from Francois Corneloup on saxes and Hasse Poulsen on guitar, one piece, based on a Brittany folk theme, mixed elegance and flair in true Gallic style. Pianist Yaron Herman is from Israel but has lived in France for the last seven years so probably qualified as an honorary Frenchman for the showcase, either that or his talent is too big to ignore. His style, full of rhapsodic arcs and darting, quicksilver runs was fascinating for the number of influences he has assimilated and integrated with such aesthetic precision; still only 27, when he finds his own voice he will be formidable indeed.
Luxembourg, Europe’s smallest state, has a population of less than half a million in an area of less than 900 square miles, but there’s no shortage of fine jazz musicians as sets by the Pascal Schumacher Quartet and Maxime Bender revealed. Guitarist David Laborier’s power trio was wide ranging; here was raw energy delivered by accomplished musicians who may have been playing jazz-rock but somehow refracted the whole jazz tradition.
The Catalonian jazz showcase was sparked by a set by Giulia Valle’s group who didn’t play the bass as much as caress it. Her music, featuring Marti Serra on soprano and Santi de la Rubla on tenor incorporated echoes of her native Catalonian music, often over asymmetrical meters. She opened with “Argentina,” a programmatic virtual journey through the second largest country in South America, but the highlight of her set was “Samba a Traición.” Born in Italy, and raised in Barcelona since the age of five, she later explained to me that, “The importance of my ‘origins’ in my music is a very strong point. My music is the result of my life; I always try and reflect this point [and it has helped] develop my own voice as a musician.”
Drummer Marc Ayza, one of the first call session drummers on the Spanish scene, formed his group Offering, with piano, bass, DJ and rapper Gant Mtume, in New York in 2008. Rappers usually have such a strong personality that fusions with jazz are usually neither fish nor fowl and often difficult to swallow. But Ayza hit the right understated approach; rap was used more of a color within the mix, giving his music an urban chic that suggested potential for growth.
The UK has always baffled its European cousins Separated from Europe by the English Channel and joined to America by a common language, it can never quite make up its mind which way it wants to turn. It has clung to its own currency when all the main European economies have changed to the Euro and the jazz scene has remained equally insular, so there was genuine curiosity in the first ever UK jazz showcase in Europe. Just what is the current state of Brit jazz?
Brass Jaw from Scotland opened and set the bar high. Describing themselves as “a cappella” horns, they comprised Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Paul Towndrow alto sax, Konrad Wiszniewski tenor sax and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone sax. Their mix of originals and standards, ranging from The Police to George Gershwin, was performed in cascades of intricate part writing and subtly moving inner lines that immediately had everyone’s attention. That and fact they wore kilts. Rarely have eight hairy legs been deployed to such effect.
The Welsh pianist Huw Warren’s trio essayed an elegant set of songs by Hermeto Pascoal, and were followed by the Indo-Jazz Fusion of the Arun Ghosh Sextet. The electronic drone that preceded their entrance seemed to suggest a set of quiet, medative jazz- influenced ragas was about to follow. Instead, what emerged was a set from completely left-of-field that took the place by storm. Everyone was doing a double take—who are these guys?
Ghosh begins his biography on his website by announcing he was, “Conceived in Calcutta, bred in Bolton, matured in Manchester and now living in London,” and this gives a clue to his music. Original themes, inspired by South Asia, emerged as dynamic riffs that were interpreted with audible glee by the sextet lifted by a powerful rhythm section sparked by Rasko Rasic’s drums. Ghosh is a dynamic clarinettist who threw himself physically into every solo. Alternating on Bb and A instruments, the clarinet was suddenly back in fashion as he wove endless melodic variations in and around the fabric of his music. Sharing the front line was tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings; full of energy and bite, he was the perfect foil for Ghosh’s sinewy lyricism. Within ten minutes of coming off stage, Ghosh had sold almost fifty copies of his latest album Northern Namaste.
In an age when a criticism levelled at many young jazz musicians for a similarity in concept and execution in their work, a common factor among several bands performing at Jazzahead! was how the artists created a distinct musical identity for themselves by drawing on their cultural and musical roots. I asked Arun Ghosh how these elements influenced his music. “Well first I felt very proud to be out there representing an example of British jazz,” he replied. “I was very pleased to be asked to perform,” he said. “I suppose the way I would define it is that I see myself as British-Asian, so all the things that come from a South-Asian background and growing up in Britain with Western classical music. [I] really loved rock music, hip hop, all those things. I used to go out raving in clubs, just had a very musical life I would say. So all of those things, and not just the jazz culture, are very important to me, they are things I just naturally want to play.
“Using Indian music is very important to me. It’s not something I’ve done all through my life; it’s only something I’ve done over the last six or seven years, and I’ve seen the importance of working on that, and that’s definitely linked to a real sense of returning to my roots. And linked to that is a sense that it is very important for me to be doing that. It’s something that’s natural and it’s something I really want to say and communicate.”
I suggested that folkloric elements from wherever their sources were in the world somehow lent themselves to jazz. “In the sense that there is a kind of World Folk language that is different to jazz but informed by jazz,” he responded—“jazz developed out of a world folk language as well, i.e. blues, i.e. African music, so I see this being a continuation of that. Certain kinds of rhythms and certain kinds of melodic phrases you hear across the world, which is very different to bebop and music that is rooted in bebop, so I think this is something that has become a major change in jazz and something that was made possible by certain pioneers such as Yusef Lateef, obviously John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Miles Davis, in the sense of opening up modal jazz. I very much see what I am doing as being inspired by Coltrane and Miles Davis in that sense, only I try to go deeper into the Indian side of it.”
The Arun Ghosh Indo-Jazz Sextet might have been a hard act to follow, but in the best Monty Python tradition of “Now for something completely different” the Portico Quartet calmly set off on an entirely different tack with a set of Gamelan-inspired minimalism. Comprising two hang players (the hang is a Swiss development of the Steel Drum, rather resembling an inverted wok), bass and soprano saxophone, they’ve been the London critic’s flavour of the month for, well, months and months and they set about showing why. With Jack Wylie’s suave soprano sax unravelling lines of increasing complexity over a gently pulsating chromium ostinato, they created a sound and mood in jazz that was wholly their own.
Away from the absorbing national jazz showcases, the main Festival Hall was host to vocalist Norma Winstone, the recipient of the annual Jazzahead-Skoda Award for outstanding achievement, who performed music from her eloquent ECM album Distances with Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier. One of the strange quirks of the UK jazz scene is she is better appreciated in Europe than in her homeland (she is not alone), and as a performance like this makes clear, UK audiences really are missing out on something special.
As part of the 2007 Jazzahead! programme, the Radio String Quartet Vienna appeared as unknowns at ACT records’ Paint it Blue exhibition at the Museum Weserburg. It was wholly fitting, then, that they should return in to the Festival Hall in 2009 as European jazz stars in their own right. With Klaus Paier on accordions they performed music from their latest album Radiotree. Live their music was stunning, especially a tribute to their fellow Viennese native, the late Joe Zawinul on “Good Vibrations.” The packed house they attracted was a testament to how important the Jazzahead! stage has become in launching emerging ensembles into the European jazz market.
The Congress Centrum closes its doors at around 10.30 PM, but the Jazzahead! program continued at the nearby Schachthof culture centre with three concerts per night that ran late into the wee small hours. In a wide ranging program, a set by the Mischa Schumann Trio, an eloquent pianist from Hamburg, provided an understated and unexpected musical highlight of the festival. A pianist who somehow could not help expressing himself lyrically, his superb bassist Pepe Berns was of similar bent and with drummer Heinz Lichius they spun intriguing musical tales with unexpected allusions beyond the jazz tradition that made you want to hear more, and more.
With each succeeding year, Jazzahead! has become bigger, but also better. The event has now got a sure sense of its own identity, as this year’s leitmotiv, “Face to Face,” revealed, pointing to a focus on personal contacts and dialogue. As Hans Peter Schneider, Managing Director of Messe Bremen who hosted the event, said, “A lot of business was done, bands were booked, and co-operations arranged.” Indeed, for one leading American artist agent who attended, the event it proved to be a revelation. With the rise of European jazz in recent years and a commensurate decline in the number of American artists appearing in Europe, word had it he was now considering adding European artists to his portfolio. How times are changing. . . .
This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson