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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Jazzfest Berlin 2019

By Alexander Dubovoy

“If I could, I would build a theme park. Walt Disney is one of my idols,” said Anthony Braxton during a panel discussion on the third day of Jazzfest Berlin. At first, this statement took me aback, but the more I thought about it, the more it revealed its mysteries. Artists and ideas do have their own theme parks; even creationists and Dolly Parton have their own, so why not a seminal figure like Braxton? I asked him what the entryway to his theme park would be, and he responded, “You can start anywhere. I don’t aim to tell people which way to go. What I want to do is to present a set of menu of options through which the friendly experienced can travel at will.” Braxton seems to be fascinated by the concept of cartography, of conceiving of his art more as a landscape to be wandered than a fixed set of instructions and, at times, even directly using airport maps as graphic scores.

Sonic Genome. Photo by Cristina Marx
Indeed, as the opener of the 56th Jazzfest Berlin, Braxton got one step closer to building what I hope would be called Braxtonland. With his Sonic Genome project, Braxton took over the Gropius Bau, one of Berlin’s eminent contemporary arts exhibition spaces. The Gropius Bau centers around an imposing atrium, with smaller spaces extending off. Braxton assembled a group of 60 impressive musicians (I spotted Ingrid Laubrock, Alexander Hawkins, and many more). They began in one corner of the space playing long tones. Soon, however, they dispersed into smaller groups, into the foyer and even the exhibition halls. Over the course of 6 hours, a changing array of larger and smaller ensembles played compositions from Braxton’s sizeable ouevre. James Fei, Chris Jonas, and Braxton himself conducted some of the larger group works. Kyoto Kitamura performed vocal works and led one of the ensembles in a particularly joyous moment of collective interaction. As a listener, the experience was unparalleled. All of Braxton’s compositions are designed to interlock and intersect. Consequently, walking through the Gropius Bau was a bit like a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book” in which the listener shaped a musical journey through heterogeneous pieces of the same story.

As I spent the weekend trying to attend as many of the Jazzfest Berlin’s events as humanly possible, I felt like I was continuing to navigate a musical cartography. This sense came in no small part due to the excellent work of Nadin Deventer, the festival’s artistic director. Anthony Braxton called Deventer a “visionary and an activist”, and I have to say I agree fully. Often flagship jazz festivals of major cities can feel like smorgasbords of (largely straight-ahead) musical content. Jazzfest Berlin is different. It is a deliberate, curated affair, this year centering around the work of Anthony Braxton and the mottos “Escape Nostalgic Prisons” and “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done”. The resulting festival, rather than taking an agnostic or all-encompassing approach, made a compelling and largely unified case for contemporary innovations in jazz.

Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Photo by Cristina Marx
In my opinion, one of the most innovative and future-thinking sets was that of Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Lillinger’s dense metric compositions had an amazing sense of grace. Though the music was often in crazy time signatures and intricately orchestrated between different parts of the ensemble, it also left space for interaction and communal groove. It takes a deft band to play music like this, and the unusual instrumentation (1 drummer, 3 pianists/keyboardists, 2 vibraphonists, 2 bassists, and 1 cellist) held together due to the high level of musicianship. The collective interactions of pianists Cory Smythe (on acoustic piano with computer-based microtuning effects), Kaya Draksler (on upright piano), and Elias Stemeseder (primarily on synths) astounded me. Though the music was extremely complex, it never felt forced and instead pushed forward with an urgent sense of naturalness.

Anthony Braxton. Photo by Cristina Marx 
The festival largely centered around the Braxton’s work as an innovator and a pioneer who paved the way for this new generation of musicians in creative music. At the performance of his ZIM Music on Sunday evening, his towering creative achievement was apparent. During an earlier discussion, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Chris Jonas demonstrated the parts of Braxton’s 12 Language Music types, a classification system of twelve sounds. The system begins with long tones (1), then trills (2), and extends further. Eleven refers to “gradient formings”, the transition of parameters over time (for example, dynamics). Braxton’s compositions can be said to live “in the house of” a particular number/type. Ghost Trance Music, for example, which featured heavily in the Gropius Bau performance, makes use of a steady stream of eighth notes and is therefore said to be more “static” and live in the “house of one”. ZIM Music is in the house of eleven, a sacred number that approaches the spiritual unity and transformation embodied in the number twelve (the culmination of Braxton’s system).

Ingrid Laubrock. Photo by Cristina Marx
During the performance, the musicians followed a series of graphic scores with lines that indicated the “gradient formings”, or transitions, of musical characteristics like timbre and pitch. Within this larger macro-composition, however, they were welcome to play others of Braxton’s compositions, as well as to improvise. The resulting music combined macro-level transition with micro-level playfulness, resulting in a confluence rather than dichotomy of improvised and composed elements. The ensemble, featuring Ingrid Laubrock on sax, Erica Dicker on violin, Adam Matlock on accordion/voice, Jacqueline Kerrod and Brandee Younger on harp, and Dan Peck on tuba played beautifully and interactively. Every time Braxton picked up his horn to solo, it was magical. Though I spent much of the weekend enmeshing myself in Braxton’s philosophy and in the Tricentric Thought Unit Construct, I hope and imagine that an “uninitiated” listener could also have appreciated the sheer inventiveness of the performance.

Kim Collective. Photo by Cristina Marx
Not only did the festival’s artists innovate sonically, they also drew techniques from other art forms, like theatre and dance. The Berlin-based Kim Collective staged a “fungus opera,” a wild multimedia work that incorporated composition, improvisation, choral music, name it. Over the course of the performance, a rhizomatic set piece rose from center stage. The fungus opera was the newest culmination in a continued relationship between the Kim Collective and Jazzfest Berlin. The collective also designed an installation (“Gardens of Hyphae”) in the foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, in which they conducted (intentionally awkward) interviews, played occasional music, handed out the odd spring roll, all from the comfort a billowy, white fungus canopy. The collective stayed in character during the festival, and Liz Kosack wore a mask even during a panel discussion.

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek & São Paolo Underground. Photo by Cristina Marx
A highlight of these multimedia works for me was the performance of T(r)opic, a work originally conceived by trumpeter Rob Mazurek and guitarist Julien Desprez for the Sons d’Hiver festival. In collaboration with the dance project COCO and São Paolo Underground (an alliance of Brazilian musician formed during Mazurek’s time living in São Paolo). The performance began with members of COCO producing rhythms through dancing the coco—“a dynamic folk tradition from the [Brazil’s] northeastern region, born out of slavery and marked by a rhythmic manner of stomping”(program notes). Soon, São Paolo Underground began playing rhythms reminiscent of Brazil’s batucada bands. The horn-heavy band featuring such luminaries as Mette Rasmussen and Lotte Anker played music that was somehow immensely experimental and free, while also grounded in Brazilian folk traditions. An LED installation surrounded the band and dancers. Ushers also gave the audience 3D glasses for an accompanying live-generated 3D visualization. Somehow this wild spectrum of Brazilian folk song and dance, free improvisation, electronic music, and visualization fit together to powerful effect—an unexpected highlight of the festival.

T(r)opic formed the second of two “Late Night Labs”, a new format for Jazzfest Berlin of concerts starting at 22:30. I viewed both labs while lying down on the futons provided in the front row of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Fortunately, the music was electrifying enough to firmly prevent me from giving in to the exhaustion that had caused me to choose repose. On Friday night, three trios (Kaos Puls, Moskus Trio, and Mopcut) met for a night of exciting improvised music. In particular, Audrey Chen’s expressive and often unpitched vocal explorations were the source of much intrigue. Sadly, attending these later programs meant I was unable to attend some gigs I wanted to see at the Jazzfest’s partner clubs, A-Trane and Quasimodo. I was particularly sad to have to miss were James Brandon Lewis’s Unruly Quintet, pianist Elliot Galvin, and guitarist Miles Okazaki, who played a Thelonious Monk retrospective (I reviewed the album previously). I also couldn’t make it to the Kiezkonzerte, a free set of concerts with “secret” lineups in neighborhood institutions. I was, fortunately, able to catch the performance at A-Trane of Melting Pot, a collaboration between Jazzfest Berlin, Handelbeurs (Ghent), Nasjonal jazzscene (Oslo), and Jazzfestival Saafelden. Each festival picked a young improviser from its respective scene, and the resulting music was beautiful.

Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood. Photo by Cristina Marx
The festival also staged some interesting shows in the Kassenhalle, the smaller hall adjacent to the main one at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood harkened back to their Chicago routes. Channeling the impact of Sun Ra and the AACM on her work, multi-instrumentalist Dawid combined free improvisation, blues, and pointed social critique, urging her audience to say that “the black family is the strongest institution in the world.” Drummer Paul Lovens also played an excellent set of concise improvisations with guitarist Florian Stoffner after being awarded the Albert-Mangelsdorff prize. I greatly enjoyed Melez, a new project featuring vocalist Cansu Tanrıkulu. The music was super punk, heavy on electronics, distortion, and rock drumming. When I joined, it seemed like there was some sort of a spider opera going on (it was a festival of zoological operas, wasn’t it?). Lots of black leather was worn. It’s always good to see a jazz crowd doing some head-banging.

Melez. Photo by Christina Marx
Not all the music, however, fit neatly into the amorphous label “free jazz”. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmuserie’s Origami Harvest featured a killer band of Sam Harris on piano and Justin Brown on drums, replete with the Mivos String Quartet, and Koyaki on vocals/rap. Koyaki (whose work readers of this blog may know from the album Way of the Cipher with Steve Coleman) was inventive rhythmically and addressed political issues, including Black Lives Matter, in his raps. Overall, I relished the moments in which Akinmuserie really let loose and in which the string orchestration heated up, and I wish there could have been more of them. The Australian Art Orchestra blended elements of pop music with free improvisation in compositions by Peter Knight and Julia Reidy. Guitarist Marc Ribot’s set also drew heavily from composed materials and, despite moments of freedom, was more firmly grounded in the jazz/“groove” idiom. I found it difficult to engage with the music, but I likely felt this way because it immediately followed the life-changing experience that was Anthony Braxton’s Zim Music.

Both the Friday and Saturday night programs began with a solo piano sets, first by Brian Marsella and second by Eve Risser. Though both sets contained elements of virtuosity (Marsella in his Art Tatum-reminiscent flourishes and Eve Risser in her timbral approach to prepared piano), neither impressed me compositionally as a whole. Similarly, pianist Joachim Kühn’s performance of Ornette Coleman’s music (“Melodic Ornette”) didn’t quite connect with me, despite my respect for his playing and historic collaboration with Coleman himself. Arranging Coleman’s music such that it can be played in tempo and conducted by a band director was certainly an unusual choice. The exclusively white and male big band seemed to me out of place in such a progressive event. Nonetheless, some excellent solos by Kühn, as well as reeds-player Michel Portal stood out.

One of the unexpected highlights of the festival was the (surprisingly well-attended) panel discussions, talks, and film screenings. Several of the events centered around questions of collective organization and of social change in jazz. These issues raised contentious and important social issues. During one such conversation, Angel Bat Dawid yelled and cried at the audience in a demonstration of the trauma she experiences as an African American woman in America and in jazz/creative music. Earlier in the discussion, which centered on collectives in the arts, author Emma Warren spoke about the history of the Total Refreshment Centre, a now-closed DIY venue in London. She passionately stressed the importance of communities in creating spaces and the importance of spaces to creating art. She, furthermore, emphasized the role of space in protecting marginalized voices. It was an apt accompaniment to a festival in which Braxton’s literal use of the Gropius Bau space and philosophical conception of space had been a focal point for me. Warren asked members of the audience to name a place from our lives where “it felt like things could be made” and then performed a “roll call” of these places. After this year’s Jazzfest Berlin, I can say that this definitely is a place where things can be made.