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Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Jazzdor Berlin 2023

By Paul Acquaro

The dimensions of time and space can play a decisive role in the form of a jazz festival. The typical approach is to work with time, like the traditional festival held over a compact set of dates, a long weekend in one place, a series of shows starting sometime in the evening of each date. A variation can be overlapping events at multiple locations - something that adds a bit of tension for the festival goer. The Jazzdor organization, however, has chosen the other variable for their festival, space. The festival, which has been happening since 1986 in Strasbourg, France, and since 2007 in Berlin, has in recent years been slowly expanding further across the continent, first to Dresden and now also to Budapest. At the festival's heart is the collaboration of French and German musicians, but it also casts a wider net as it offers the engaged listener a journey of both discovery and creation.

In past years, when my own schedule and the festival's Berlin edition allowed, I would attend a night or two. Perhaps drop in to see a known (to me) musician or group, but not taking in the entirety of the event. This year was different, I went diligently every night to the Kulturbrauerei located in Berlin's dynamic Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and consciously did not allow any expectations from the names and descriptions in the program to proceed me. This was the perfect approach. There was hardly an act that did not hit some of the right buttons and if the number of CDs one picks up at the merch table is a valid KPI for judging the success of a festival, then for at least one attendee, the festival was a smashing success. Allow me to explain.

Tuesday, June 6th

O.U.R.S. Photo by Ulla C. Binder
Opening night of the festival featured two groups, one the German premier of Clément Janinet's O.U.R.S (short for the enigmatic 'Ornette Under the Repetitive Sky'), a quartet with Janinet on violin, Hugues Mayot on woodwinds, Joachim Florent on double bass and Emmanuel Scarpa on drums and vibraphone, that combines concepts from Ornette Coleman's music with the repetitive minimalist concepts of Steve Reich. The result is a slowly unfolding, churning, legato swell of music that borrows elements from post-rock as well as Coleman's suspended moods (a la 'Lonely Women'), building to dense and tense peaks. Instrument changes added new colors, such as the electric mandolin replacing the violin, or vibraphone instead of drums. On their final extended piece dedicated to Alice Coltrane, the band worked with uneasy grooves and long exploratory passages to come to the journey's end. It was the type of set that leaves you feeling like you've landed elsewhere at the end - in my case, at the merch table.

Christophe Monniot's Six Migrant Pieces. Photo by Ulla C. Binder
The Kesselhaus, a large converted industrial space and main performance hall of the Kulturbrauerei - a converted 19th century brewery complex - is quite canvernous. I had enjoyed the previous set from a balcony in the rear of the rectangular hall but after my visit to the merch table, I had squirmed up to the front row to gain a new perspective.  After a 15-minute or so pause, the premier of saxophonist Christophe Monniot's Six Migrant Pieces began. First as quintet, pianist Jozef Dumoulin started out with a slightly dissonant intro followed by the entru of Bruno Chevillon's bass and Franck Vailant's drums. Over a now forceful and driving pulse, trumpeter Aymeric Avice and saxophonist and composer Christophe Monniot delivered an urgent melody and then got quickly into heated solo exchanges. The music, based on ideas of migrations of people and culture, was captured in a modern jazz rock sound. The second tune welcomed fusion guitarist Nguyên Lê to the stage. His playing began with legato tones from his electric guitar, then to the delight of the guitar lovers out there, Lê brought the energy to a high point with his searing tone and fleet fingerings. Avice, too, was a true stand out during the set, and in a subsequent apperances with his lyrical, biting playing. The ease in which the sextet moved in and out of the songs evolving passages had roots in Weather Reports early style (which was empirically evidenced by a song being dedicated to Wayne Shorter), but one shaped by Minniot's modern melodic sensibilities and the group's strong musical personalities.

Not a bad start to the festival, which would stretch through the week.

Wednesday, June 7

Didier Ithursarry and Elodie Pasquier. Photo by Ulla C. Binder

The three events on the second day of the festival began with a duo with a more folk or classical instrumentation: Didier Ithursarry on accordion and Elodie Pasquier on Bb and bass clarinet. Throughout the set, the duo's warm, reedy timbers flowed and eddied around each other in a constant stream. The accordions gentle chords and harmonic stops provided a sumptuous background for the clarinet's sometimes dissonant melodies. When Pasquir switched to bass clarinet, she introduced a gulping groove and with Ithusarry's turn to deliver the melodic component, generated a close-knit dense energy. The musical pieces conveyed an often romantic, but also sometimes starkly modern classical approach with some blue notes interspersed. The duo had a strong, unique sound and was a expectation setter for the night. 
Olivier Lete's Ostrakind
The second group, led by bassist Olivier Lete's Ostrakind, is a trio that plays traditional instruments with wild creativity. Minimalist grooves emanate from unusual techniques - for example Lete placing small boxes on his electric bass, which he lays flat on his lap, and then plays like small hand drums, creating a thumping pulsation which Aymeric Avice, returning on trumpet(s) and drummer Toma Gouband react to and shape in thier own ways. Like, Gouband using lettuce, bananas and plants picked from the sidewalk as drum sticks (yes, his playing is very organic) and/or Avice using two trumpets at once. The kinetic bass lines and often mournfully lyrical statements from the trumpet kept the experimentalism from stripping away the musical aspects, allowing the audience to get some grip on the music. The set was something completely unexpected, and one of those events that leaves you slightly bewildered but utterly changed at the end. The trio has also just released a recording on Jazzdor's own imprint which is as beguiling as the concert. 
Sylvain Rifflet's Rebellions. Photo by Ulla C. Binder

The set length is generous for a festival, each one stretching at least an hour. Thus, the evening ended late with saxophonist Sylvain Rifflet's quartet featuring the irrepressible Jon Irabagon also on saxophone and Sebastien Boisseau on bass and Christophe Lavergne on drums. Organized around a set of famous speeches expressing rebellion at power structures and status quo, the group translated the intensity of the words into intensity of music, creating a synergy that propelled each other. Pulling on a diverse set of speeches, from the sonorous voice and erudite words of civil rights activist Paul Robeson, to the youthful and incredulous modern day speeches of Greta Thurnberg and Emma Gonzalez speaking out against modern afflictions of climate change and gun control, to the French minister Andre Malraux, who eulogized WWII resistance leader Jean Moulin, among others, provided a source of inspiration. The musicians played along with the speakers' voices, under their projected images, at first tracing the contours and cadences of their voices and then spiraling out in thier own directions. The two saxophonists played off each other, sometimes simultaneously, delivering Rifflet's empathetic melodies and their often fierce solo turns. It was a powerful show and, of course, always a pleasure to hear Irabagon letting loose. Their recording on BMC Records features Jim Black on drums, but otherwise is a faithful representation of what the group brought to the Jazdoor stage.

Thursday, June 7

Dumoulin, Malaby, Ber. Photo by Ulla C. Binder

Adding to the intercultural mix of the festival, American saxophonist Tony Malaby, along with Belgian drummer Samuel Ber and keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin, who first played together at a bar in Brussels in 2015, kicked off the evening with a hushed performance of beautifully modulated analog synthesizers and reserved acoustics. The music grew slowly, bound up in tension of potential. Malaby can be a very powerful musician, pushing his saxophone to extremes, but he reserved that power for choice moments when Ber's precise drumming and Dumoulin vintage, textural tones hit certain inflection points. It was hard to anticipate when, but when they did, the music grabbed you. In between, they floated, the suspense building, ebbing and flowing leaving the audience warmed up and ready for more. 
Bonnet/Raulin/Ladd/Chevillon/Rainey. Photo by Ulla C. Binder
The evening's second set was the world premiere of Bonnet/Raulin/Ladd/Chevillon/Rainey - an unheard  combination, even - almost - to the musicians themselves, who had only a quick rehearsal the day prior. Conceived of by the festival, organizer Phillipe Ochem explained that the core of the group, guitarist Richard Bonnet and pianist Francois Raulin, started with a series of compositions written with the haiku poetry form in mind and then fused it with the lyrical prowess of Paris-based American spoken word artist and rapper Mike Ladd, along with the rhythmic force of American drummer Tom Rainey and French bassist Bruno Chevillon. A daring venture and one resulting in an absolute success. Sure, there were some parts that could probably be tightened up, but the excitement from the stage was palpable and the music flowed generously. Ladd's improvised lyrics contained childhood memories of Boston, mentions of Rikers, bikers, Nazi prison guards and much more, all spilling out rapidly over lurching rhythms and Bonnet's infectious harmolodic guitar work. When Ladd stepped back, the group balanced melodic improvisation with energetic free jazz. Ladd's heart-felt tribute to a dying friend was a touching piece worked with an austere bass line and leading to lovely tone poem like accompaniment. Too new of a band for a recording, but I'm keeping my eye/ear on it.

Musina Ebobissé's 5TET. Photo by Ulla C. Binder
Rounding out the evening was saxophonist Musina Ebobissé's 5TET with Olga Amelchenko on alto  saxophone, Povel Widestrand on piano, Igor Spalatti on double bass and Moritz  Baumgärtner on drums. The concert was also a release show for their newest CD Engrams on the Jazzdor label. With members from France, Russia, Sweden, Italy and Germany, the pan-European collective delivered sophisticated modern jazz with strong compositional elements and hints of free-playing. The interplay between Ebobissé and Amelchenko seems to form the center of the sound, with the alto often shadowing and reinforcing the tenor lines, but then breaking away and both playing impassioned solos. Their highly crafted music had a certain "ECM-vibe" to it, cool, at first, building, inner rhythms and subtle energy shifts helping bring each subsequent song a bit more intensity. An invisible string connected each of the musicians, who all reacted subtly to the others movements. Widestrand's piano playing was often quick, melodies appearing between the comping, while Baumgarten's dynamic tensions and Spalatti's swooping bass work gave the saxophonists plenty of support and space, often helping to push the whole group to reach densely constructed musical peaks.

Friday, June 8th

Takase, Sclavis, Courtois. Photo by Ulla C. Binder

The final night of the festival, before the enterprise got on the road to Dresden for a further weekend of concerts at the venerable Jazz-Tonne club, began with Berlin's own Aki Takase along with clarinetist Louis Sclavis and cellist Vincet Courtois. Starting with a percussive and decisive motif with the piano and cello hitting downbeats in tandem, Sclavis, on Bb clarinet, quickly ran up and down a scale. Then, just a suddenly as it had begun, it began again. Quick hits and then the cello and clarinet leaping into an animated duet. Then pivoting to Takase, Courtois utilising a buzzing effect with his strings, engaged in another feisty exchange with equally energetic pianist. A strong sense of classical music permeated the music, informing the improvisation as sweeping melodic blocks collided and reformed on impact. Their next tune featured a long solo passage from Sclavis that ranged from the romantic to the blues, followed by a stretch from Takase that swung from exuberant to defiant and back. Later, Sclavis, switching to bass clarinet, took the instrument to its expressive extremes as Courtois played the cello as if it were both a bass and guitar simultaneously. Then, the extended techniques kicked in with Takase bouncing ping-pong balls off the piano's inner strings, and as one would, for comic effect, secretly hope for, a ball bounced into the bell Sclavis' horn. A gently humorous, but more so, an extremely engaged, opening set.

Naïssam Jalal's Healing Rituals.Photo by Ulla C. Binder

Next, Naïssam Jalal's Healing Rituals received its German premiere, and Jalal, an avuncular and warm presence on the stage, turned at one point to the audience and explained that the previous night she had played in France to an exuberant and whooping crowd. A bit bewildered by the quiet audience in the Kesselhaus, she asked if they liked what they were hearing - to which exuberant applause and whooping ensued and a cross-cultural barrier had been broken. The music, a unique blend of Arabic folk music and western Jazz, created a beguiling synthesis of the various influences. Jalal switched effortless from flute to a wordless signing approach seamlessly, and the interlocking virtuosic playing of Clément Petit's cello and Claude Tchamitchian's double bass was often mesmerizing. Zaza Desiderio's percussion underscored all of the music, from gentle, supportive hand drumming to pulsating stick work. Gentle introductions led to rhythmic journeys which Jalal navigated with warm persuasiveness. Premiering a new recording and set of music, Healing Ritual, Jalal's new compositions are in reference to rituals around the body, nature, and play. The music from the stage did envelop the audience with its rhythmic flow and hypnotic, and sometimes insistent, melodies. Jalal herself was a centered and calm presence amidst the swirling energy of music, engaging the audience through authentic banter and her addictive multi-cultural musical melange.

Daniel Erdmann 6TET: Couple Therapy. Photo by Ulla C. Binder

The final concert of the night and the festival was the German - but residing in France - saxophonist Daniel Erdmann. A frequent collaborator of Aki Takase, tonight Erdmann led a sextet that was a creation for the festival and featured the impressive line up of Erdmann on tenor saxophone, Hélène Duret on Bb and bass clarinet, Théo Ceccaldi on violin, Vincent Courtois on cello, Robert Lucaciu on double bass and Eva Klesse drums. The name of the group, "Couples Therapy," was conceptually a play on the relationship between France and Germany, the two driving forces of the European Union, which speaks to the Jazzdor festival's central concept. 

The music started with a slow boil, Erdmann delivering short melodic snippets, then connecting and elongating them until they became a groove-based modern jazz melody. Through mounting intensity, the group generated a collective sound, and Klesse, with a formidable expression on her face, gave the music a real push. The next tune featured Duret's clarinet work and also set a bit of underlying pattern to the music, for a lack of better phrase, a "wobbly jazz" in which the locus of control seemed a bit uncertain -- perhaps linked with the therapy concept. Both string instruments had star moments as well, Courtois with classical leaning passages played with a great deal of emotion and longing, with melting voice leadings and deadly precise staccato phrases, and Ceccaldi with an intense, rock-like violin solo that brought the set to its musical climax. Erdmann, while joining in on the heads of the tunes and delivering several strong solos, often stood towards the back, a towering presence, seemingly quite pleased, observing his musical creation.

Taking everything into consideration, all of the styles, the exciting combinations of musicians, debuts of new projects, and of course an evolving assortment of goodies at the merch table, it could be a bit overwhelming. However, the generous set lengths, the breaks between them, and the generally relaxed atmosphere of the event helped it work and more importantly Jazzdor's curatorial concept provided just enough structure to encourage each act to bring a high level of craft and individuality to the stage. The end result is that I left simply as a better listener than when I started. I'm also still unwrapping those CDs and popping them into the player.