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Friday, November 11, 2022

Jazzfest Berlin 2022: Choose Your Own (Musical) Adventure [part 1/2]

At the entrance to the Berliner Festspiele. Photo from Jazzfest Berlin Facebook feed. 

By Paul Acquaro

Do you recall the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' series of books? These books were a story with many threads, and you were asked at the end each chapter what you should do next, and then you skipped around the story, seeing where the thread you chose led.

Jazzfest Berlin's 59th edition, a multi-threaded event with concerts held in several locations, often simultaneously, seemed to offer something similar. The opening concert was held on Oct 30th at the classical music center, Pierre Boulez Saal, located in the middle of Berlin and closed a week later, five kilometers away at the Berliner Festspiele in Charlottenberg, the center of former West Berlin.

Before the first concert of the festival, British pianist Alexander Hawkins moderated a kick-off talk with the festival programmers in which the themes of the festival began materializing. Hawkin's did not let the panel, consisting of Deventer, Berliner Festspiele director Matthew Pees, Boulez Hall's curator for improvised music and jazz, Piotr Turkiewicz, and Boulez Hall director Ole Bækhøj, give easy answers. Asking how one makes a festival their own, as well as what type of impact the ongoing war - not far away at all - could have, the panel spoke of the importance of building networks and connections with the local community as well as being willing to expand the vision of what a festival can offer. This year, the festival included threads honoring the influential Berlin based FMP record label, lionizing music from the fertile Chicago scene, and casting a light on the folk music from Eastern Europe, along with some concerts just too good to pass up.

In fact, in her closing remarks before the magnificent improvising Supersonic Orchestra closed the festival a week later, Deventer remarked that over the past week, there had been over 150 musicians from 25 countries representing 43 different projects. Thus, the week's multi-faceted and rich programming presented attendees a chance to choose their own musical adventures.

Back now to the beginning at Boulez Saal. The first half of the evening's concert was performed by Alexander Hawkins with vocalist Sofia Jernberg in a duo they call "Musho," in which they explore traditional folk music ranging from Ethiopia, Sweden, and Armenia. Jernberg deftly navigated the melodies, regardless of the language, while Hawkins provided sophisticated reimagined settings drawing on jazz and classical music for the songs. The second set featured the all-star cast of Hawkins with Jernberg, cellist Tomeka Reid, flutist Nicole Mitchell, drummer Gerry Hemingway, and turntablist Matthew Wright. was a project commissioned by Boulez Saal. Deeply reverent to the classical music hall itself, and to the heritage of new music, Hawkins' three extended pieces were patiently unfolding tonal collages.

The second opening night, On Thursday, November 3rd, found the festivities returning to their traditional home at the Berliner Festspiele, after two years at the Silent Green arts space while renovations were being made to the Berliner Festspiele buildings. The night, like the others that were coming, featured a cross-cutting set of shows by an international array of artists. In the main hall, Chicago-rooted cellist Tomeka Reid presented a premier of a string quartet revisiting the chamber music work of saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. Recently released on the box set Julius Hemphill (1938 - 1995): the Boyé Multi-national Crusade for Harmony, the piece itself used the music of Charles Mingus to weave a beguiling set of string music. The quartet included Reid on cello, Sam Bardfeld on violin, Curtis Stewart also on violin, and Stephanie Griffin viola.

Tomeka Reid. Photo (c) Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

The performance itself was beguiling, an homage to an homage, and a delicate blend of composed classical and jazz genres with plenty of room left for improvisation. The group began with a strong syncopated line from Reid, something of a trope for the various movements, which the others could play with and around. A slightly squeaky violin solo was a quick reminder that this was not a typical classical piece and after a bit, the music began embracing more jazz vocabulary - even a little Appalachia folk found its way in. Reid's first solo was a joyful turn of melody, and in general, the music had a see-sawing effect. The others pieces followed suit, the next one began with an off-kilter, looping feel, and after the introduction of the main theme, the group leaned into dissonances and pulled in different ways. While some moments felt a bit tentative, when the group reached the final theme, Mingus' famous 'Better Git Hit in our Soul' the potential of this musical fusion peaked.

Hamid Drake's 'Turiya'. Photo (c) Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

Chicago percussionist Hamid Drake's 'Turiya' was a heartfelt tribute to the music and the spirituality of Alice Coltrane. Aside from her marriage to John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane's own work as a musician and composer has been gaining attention in recent years and a re-exploration of her music seems to be well underway - in fact, check out this feature from the New York Times from just last month.

Drake's septet featured, in addition to himself, flutist Naïssam Jalal, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, electronics wizard Jan Bang, keyboardist Jamie Saft, percussionist/vibraphonist Pasquale Mirra, and bassist Joshua Abrams -- a group quite capable of plumbing the depths of Coltrane's music. The group began, first the trumpet, followed closely by a gentle trickle of notes from the piano, then slowly, a kaleidoscopic array of sounds poured forth from all. A figure from the bowed bass cut through the musical haze, only to be punctuated with a sudden sputter of electronics. As Drake finally joined in on his drum kit, a more discernible sonic structure began to assemble around him. A pulsing buzz, ringing vibraphone, soon the piano and bass began outlining chord shapes, leading to a polyrhythmic drum solo, which was captured and reflected by the electronics. The song segued into one of Coltrane's classics (possibly 'Ptah The El Daoud'), the trumpet soloed over a sly set of chords and Saft's Hammond organ added even more texture. Words chanted in Sanskrit added to the overall cinematic tonal-picture emanating from the stage.

Next, Drake, coming out from behind the drum set and sitting with a large hand drum, began a recitation honoring Alice Coltrane, which led into telling the audience about what Alice Coltrane had meant to him as a teenager in Chicago. Her encouragement was instrumental in leading Drake to pursue being an artist. Following Drake's homage, the group launched into a rousing rendition of Coltrane's majestic 'Journey In Satchidananda.'

Craig Taborn's Intercept Methods. Photo (c) Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

New York pianist Craig Taborn's premiere of the "Intercept Methods" followed. The quartet, along with Taborn, was Mat Maneri on Viola, Nick Dunston on bass and electronics, and Sofia Borges on percussion and electronics. Starting with a sharp hit, the music quickly trailed off into fluttering notes and percussive patter. Dunston soon left his bass and turned to the electronics, while Maneri and Taborn exchanged lightly interlocking sound snippets. Eventually coalescing into a deep morass of sound, the group then picked up a tempo and Dunston, back on bass, began energetically bowing while Borges leaned into a focused pattern on her drums. Such outbursts however seemed to be followed by long, introverted phases saturated with electronic, sometimes abrasive, drones The group was promising, but perhaps a little lost in the cavernous Festspiele Halle.

As mentioned, one of the threads of this years festival was the nod to spirit of FMP with performances on the various nights and stages from saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (who also received the Ehrenpreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik during the festival), percussionist Sven-Aki Johansson (who conducted a group playing fire extinguishers), as well as current carriers of the flame represented by projects from Berlin based bassists Joel Grip and Antonio Borgini. 

We left the Berliner Festspiele early enough - we thought - to make sure we secured a good space at the legendary Quasimodo club, a few blocks away. The club was the birthplace of FMP's Total Music Meetings, which itself was a reaction organized by Brotzmann and FMP's Jost Gebers to the Berlin Jazz festival in 1968 when it was a much stuffier event. In addition to the venue, the theme ran even deeper with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach (whose own history is deeply intertwined with FMP) appearing with Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and drummer Gerry Hemmingway. The group, The Bridge, was a new project and knowing all of the artists involved, we were anticipating something special.

Rodrigo Amado's 'The Bridge'. Photo (c) Cristina Marx/ Berliner Festspiele 

The group began on a gentle note, a forming of the roar to come. Amado threw out a melodic riff, bold, classic sounding, something that he is quite good at doing. Schlippenbach, behind his piano to Amado's left, kept an attentive eye on the saxophonist, his hands gently pressing out chords in the instruments mid-range. Håker Flaten, bow to the bass strings, was already a force in motion and Hemmingway's drumming offered an askew pulse with laser-cut precision. Soon. Amado dropped back and it was Schlippenbach's solo - or maybe Hemmingway's - it was unclear and it didn't really matter as the two composed in real-time. Amado soon returned, now in the altissimo range, ramping up the energy. The group continued in this ebb-and-flow, with each flow getting more and more intense. Every once in a while, listening closely, one could hear a bit of Schlippenbach's Thelonious Monk voicings or a gentle melody, but as the energy intensified, the pianist began playing ever sharper accompaniment. If there was one complaint of the evening, it would be that there were not enough seats in the club and sitting on the floor was hellish, no, sorry, if there was one complaint it would be that the piano could have been amplified more. The power of Hemmingway and Amado together is hard to resist but also quite loud.

After an intense hour of playing, and a generous encore, a long decrescendo led to a lovely lullaby-like melody from Amado. Then, with a mischievous glint in his eye, Schlippenbach snuck in a sharp, clashing whole-tone chord. Suddenly, the energy came roaring back and the group took us over another peak.

What a night of music. This evening, the choices were easy, but that won't last... on to part two.


jeff said...

Thanks for reviewing these performances.
Look forward to hearing about the multiple Sven-Åke Johansson performances.
Nice that they chose to celebrate the amazing and multifaceted Johansson at this years Berliner Festspiele!

Paul said...

Thanks Jeff, unfortunately, there were a number of concerts I couldn't attend and these were among them. Regardless, I agree that it was nice touch to have a focus Johansson, Brötzmann, Schlippenbach, and the FMP legacy.