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Thursday, November 23, 2023

Jazzfest Berlin 2023 (2/2)

By Paul Acquaro

See part 1 here.

SATURDAY, November 4
The main event of Saturday evening was a concert by AACM founding member and ever creative composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, who had written a piece specifically for the festival that melded his New York based Zooid quintet with Berlin's own ever creative composer and saxophonist Silke Eberhardt and her 10-piece Potsa Lotsa XL group. The impetus for the composition came from the 2020 Covid-impacted edition of Jazzfest in which curator Nadin Deventer and her crew pivoted to an online format, and Threadgill, who was supposed to be a part of the festival that year, instead watched a livestream of Eberhardt and Potsa-Lotsa playing arrangements of his music. Thrilled by what he saw and heard, a new collaboration was sparked.

Henry Threadgill_Zooid_Silke Eberhard_Potsa Lotsa XL (© Berliner Festspiele, Photo Camille Blake)

There was a lot of anticipation for the piece and the hall was completely teeming with an eager audience. An interview with the composer the day before with music journalist Peter Margasak revealed a restlessly energetic 79-year-old who indicated no flagging of creative energy. On stage, the group, fifteen strong, were arrayed in a semi-circle facing conductor Silke Lange, were multiple saxophones, tubas, guitar, bass, cellos, vibraphones and more, promising - if nothing else - a rich pallet of tonality.  As the piece began, Libetry Ellman's acoustic guitar work cast a spell through the auditorium. It was both exacting and atmospheric and set the tone for the series of solos that made up the bulk of the hour long piece. Eberhardt's contribution was as scintillating as one would image, and the solo from tubist José Davila  was also a delight. Shifting tonal colors and composed sections connected each solo and Threadgill's own feature spot provided a bridge between contrasting sections of lush orchestration. However, it was Potsa Lotsa clarinetist Jürgen Kupke who, wielding his Bb clarinet like a deadly weapon, left the biggest mark.

Kaja Draksler's "matter 100" © Berliner Festspiele, Photo Camille Blake)

The late night sets that followed presented a hard choice: would it be the sure thing searing free-jazz and burning poetics of Irreversible Entanglements or the wildcard of pianist Kaja Draksler's new "matter 100" project? A completely unspecific and unknowable algorithm chose Draksler's  project, which featured herself and Marta Warelis on keyboards and piano along with sound-sculpting guitarist Andy Moor, prepared hurdy gurdy player Samo Kutin, drummer Macio Moretti and vocalist Lena Hessels. I was a tiny bit skeptical but something about prepared Hurdy Gury suggested that something unusual was going to happen ... a hunch that proved to be 100% accurate.

The group began with a gurgle of electronics and some classic chord changes from Moore. Hessels began warming up on the vocals, her part-spoken, intervalically akimbo melodies invoking a real art-rock vibe. The hurdy gurdy, a fascinating hand-cranked violin-like instrument, was somehow also connected to two frame drums that add extra churning growl to the mix. The hum of sound soon broke and a gentle parlor melody emerged and decayed. There were moments of noisiness but much of the set was spent building atmosphere, especially on the last tune, an epic formed around an exchange between Hessels and Moore regarding "true or false" statements. Hessels states "one, true or false" to which Moore has a statement ... "we are shadows cast on a cave wall" ..."two, true or false" ... "I sometimes hear voices" ... this repeated a 100 times over a slow, hypnotic groove that always seemed just about ready to explode ... but never does. 
Amba, Takara and Cajado (© Photo by Cristina Marx/Photomusix)
Closing out the night in this side hall, American saxophonist Zoh Amba performed an exuberant set with the support of two new collaborators, Berlin-based Brazilians, bassist Vinicius Cajado and drummer Mauricio Takara. After a brutal opening salvo with Amba leading the way, which was as intense as any acoustic group could be, the trio began exploring other harmonic textures, heading in some unexpected directions. Cajado's bass work was a revelation, his playing was both resistant and reactive, reflecting back the saxophonist's primal blasts, as well as supporting her more reflective moments. Takara, also drummer in Rob Mazurek's Sao Paolo Underground, is a subtle crafter of groove and intensity. His compatibility with Cajado was obvious from the set's opening moments, and their rapport helped pull the trio back from the brink during a mid-set breakdown in which Amba migrated to the piano perched on the stage and the bassist engaged in a feedback solo.

SUNDAY, November 5

So, here we are, back to where the review began, leaving the Dephi theater after listening to Alexander von Schlippenbach in a podium discussion with film director Tilman Urbach about Tastenarbeiter. The sun was now out, warming up the early afternoon, and a lot of music still lay ahead.

McHenry & Cyrille (© Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

Later that evening, back at the Festspielhalle, pioneering avant-garde drummer Andrew Cyrille took the stage with saxophonist Bill McHenry and proceeded to dig into a series of duets from their 2016 project Proximity. The music, accessible and polished - McHenry has a rich, well-rounded tone and Cyrille's drumming is encompassing - has a charming intimacy and the duo's compatibility and musical warmth was palpable. Their musical dialog contained some ear-worm worthy melodies and engaging rhythmic exchanges, Cyrille's playing was tuneful, often employing a dampened approach that gave his drumming a warm tone, while McHenry played short and elliptical phrases to engage his partner. In general, the tight tunes struck the right tone.

Eve Risser Red Desert Orchestra (© Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

Percussion also played a large part in French pianist Eve Risser Red Desert Orchestra's set. The large group is a mix of European and African musicians, blending traditional African percussion with traditional jazz instrumentation, like piano, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and bass, and the music they create together is a rich blend of traditions without ever succumbing to world music cliches. Red Desert Orchestra's debut recording on Clean Feed Records, Eurythmia, made several best of the 2022 lists and the evening's set was a little reminder as to why. The group began with hand drumming leading to a fuller rhythmic passage that simply invited Susana Santos Silva's bright trumpet to sail over the intensifying groove. The music shifted and segued from one arresting melodic and rhythmic idea to the next. Stand out work from all the soloists ensued, with a spotlight on the balafon (an African marimba) and djembe players Ophélia Hié  and Mélissa Hié. After an excitedly chaotic  announcement with a short thank you speech included, Risser, like Takase on Thursday, dedicated a piece to Carla Bley. The later pieces from the group also highlighted the trombone work of Matthias Mueller and baritone saxophone of Grégoire Tirtiaux, all played with a delicate balance between exuberance and deliberateness. Quite an upbeat, enjoyable set.

Bauer receiving prize (Noglik, right) (© Photo by Cristina Marx/Photomusix)

Over the years, the prestigious Albert-Mangelsdorff-Preis from the Deutschen Jazzunion has been given to musicians during the festival, and this year, trombonist Conny Bauer received the honor. Certainly deserved, Bauer has been a force in German jazz since his emergence as a singer and guitarist and then later as a trombonist in the early 1970s, and was a driving force in groups that shaped free and improvised music in the German Democratic Republic, like Synopsis (later Zentralquartet), FEZ and Doppelmoppel. This evening, German jazz critic Bert Noglik gracefully introduced Bauer and bestowed the prize. Then, with hardly a pause, Bauer, along with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker proceeded to deliver a masterful headlining set. Parker and Drake are simply one of the best rhythm sections in the creative music world, and with Bauer providing the melodic lead, there is little this trio cannot accomplish - check out their  2013 Jazzwerkstatt recording Tender Exploration.

Drake, Parker, and Bauer (© Photo by Cristina Marx/Photomusix)

The set began with Parker drawing his bow across the strings, generating elongated tones, and then, with Drake at the drum kit, a final flourish and quick solidifying of the rhythmic foundation. The two operate on a subconscious level, pushing, pulling, generating, neither one 'soloing' but both standing out. Over, under, through and around this harmonic and rhythmic mesh, Bauer ebbs and surges with tonal texture and melodic intentions: Parker is now working with high harmonics as Bauer squeezes out some slippery notes and Drake slips into a deep, laid back groove. A later improvisation slinks along like an upbeat crime-noire with a spy-movie melody, however, it's the last improvisation that sets a new standard for ... well ... everything. It could be a composed song, as the parts are so coherent interlocking. No matter how complex and poly-rhythmic Drake gets, no matter how far out Bauer or Parker go, the music rolls and flows, a peerless masterclass in collective improvisation. It's worth the prize alone.

There were a couple other shows later that night, sort of a winding down and/or a celebration but after this set, it felt rather complete. The 60th edition of Jazzfest Berlin had been a rich serving of old and new delights pulling from both the festivals own legacy as well as it looking ahead. 
Read: Part 1 | Part 2