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Friday, December 29, 2023

Serious Series 2023

By Paul Acquaro (text) and Cristina Marx (photos)

The Uferstudios, in Berlin's Wedding district, sit on the edge of the Panke, a small creek that cuts through the city from north to south. This collection of low red-brick buildings that once housed public transit workshop is now the long-term home of studios and theaters dedicated to dance. However, on a recent mild mid-December weekend, a theater space near the entrance to complex provided a live report on the state of avant-garde jazz and improvised music in the German capital.

The Serious Series, now in it's thirteenth year, is curated by pianist Achim Kaufmann and woodwind player Frank Gratkowski who took over programming from musicians Kathrin Pechlof and Christian Weidner in 2019. The program, a rich three nights of musical acts, draws heavily from the fertile Berlin music scene as well as reaching out to Europe and the USA. 


The event began on Friday evening with a fantastic solo set by woodwindist Tobias Delius whose loose limbered demeanor is a perfect compliment to his exuberant playing style. Delius intersperses sudden squawks and vocalization into his melodic and bouncing lines, switching between Bb clarinet and tenor saxophone, and swinging breathlessly from dark and grumbling motives to buoyant and melodic ideas. Though the stage area was deep and wide, Delius filled the space with an inviting warmth. The pieces he played veered between melodic and atonal, the final one, dedicated to his longtime colleague cellist Tristan Honsinger who passed away this year, was a sweetly melodic theme.

The second set of the festival was by the long standing duo of guitarist Olaf Rupp and cellist Ulrike Brand. Having worked for many years together, the two musicians seem to be more a quantum entanglement than just a duo. Tones from one instrument instantly cause a reaction from the other so finely calibrated that one could imagine that even if the two were not within earshot, they would still be as acutely intertwined.

At some point, Rupp plucked a sequence of notes, Brand produced a gently droning reply, which became the catalyst of the guitarists next tone. What then began as a slowly forming soundscape drew to an understated peak. Brand played a sweeping, arcing melody line that settled into legato notes as Rupp clicked on the distortion. At times, both used bows to sculpt their sound. Through their sympathetic musical interactions, the two engage in a natural ebb and flow of ideas and uncannily calibrated responses.

The first night was rounded out by the duo of pianist Steve Beresford and trombonist Sebi Tramontana. Originally programmed as a trio, Frank Gratkowski was unfortunately sick and unable to perform. Undeterred, the two brought the evening to a successful close with humorous set of short pieces.

They began with a whimsical melody from Beresford and a muted melodic line from Tramontana. Then, an elbow to the the keyboard and the consonant melody splintered, Beresford forcefully expelling tonal shards and Tramontana sliding exuberantly through notes. Between - and during - the pieces, Beresford prepared and re-prepared the inside of the piano. He seemed to pull more and more playthings from the instrument's inside, including a penny whistle, what looked like an exercise weight, a rubber duck and a crackling electronic device that he used to augment the musical atmosphere. At one point, he flogged the strings of the piano with a cloth and in addition to the quivering sound from the strings, visible clouds of dust wafted out from the instrument. Tramontana too joined in with humorous vocalizations through his horn among some other extended techniques. 


Saturday opened with a solo percussion set by French percussionist Toma Gouband featuring the unique use of plants as drumsticks, an array of tiny bells a top the single drum, and a bass pedal that knocked on a piled of bricks. In a sense, the performance could be called hyper-local as Gouband ingeniously incorporated plants sourced from the banks of the Panke as musical devices. Intense and focused, the set began with a curious and engaging energy but whose intense minimalism veered towards monotony after a bit.

The trio of Achim Kaufmann, woodwindist Michael Moore and bassist Nick Dunston picked up the energy again in a set that dazzled with ferocity and calmed with swinging coolness. Though first time performing as a trio, all three had performed with each other in different combinations, especially Kaufmann and Moore who have been playing together since 1998, as a trio they gelled quickly. 

Starting with a quiet but quickly moving improvisation, Kaufmann offered some sparse chords while Moore added a gentle melody with some slight dissonant moments over Dunston's deep, walking groove. The group's music fell somewhere on the "jazzier" side of the spectrum without landing in anything routine or staid. Next, the group engaged in an experimental exchange with Moore getting edgier and Dunston going beyond the strings with his bow. Playing with songs from Herbie Nichols mixed with compositions from Kaufmann and Moore, the music was seamlessly connected by buzzing freely improvised passages.

Drummer Michael Vatcher's project with electronics and dancers provided an exciting ending to the night. Taught interplay between Vatcher at the drum kit and Richard Barrett and his self built electronics provided a percolating soundscape for the two dancers, Liat Waysbort and Balder Hansen, to move fluidly around - and under - the musicians. Perhaps the most unusual moments, aside from some surprisingly agile movements from the dancers, was a dynamic exchange between Barrett's electronics and Vatcher playing a saw.


Sunday's concerts began with Serious Series' previous organizer and harpist Kathrin Pechlof with her newly formed Radical Empathy sextet. Pechlof is this year's winner of the SWR Jazzpreis and the piece, written for the group in particular, will be recorded at the broadcaster's studio in the coming months. In addition to Pechlof is Christian Weidner on alto saxophone, Elias Stemeseder on synthesizer and harpsichord, Robert Landfermann on bass, Leif Berger playing drums and finally Kaufmann on piano. The group's music is fluid, even ocean like, with slowly ebbing and flowing tidal movements, and ever lapping waves of sound bisected by melodic crosscurrents. During the set the occasional wave crested and blasts of free improvisation brought on musical white caps. 
The set began plinkingly with an exchange of the harp and harpsicord's delicate tones. Kaufmann took the first solo, one which slowly formed out the collective playing and ending with stabbing chords. At the same time, Landerferman's bass was a steady but restrained presence, providing a tension-full drone, foreshadowing the turmoil on the horizon. Weidner's sax provided occasional contrasting textures via overblown passages that resolved back into the group full sound. The set-long piece ended in a series of climatic passages, the final an excitingly arrhythmic peak, resolving satisfyingly after the long build-up.

Next, the ACM trio featuring pianist Celine Voccia, saxophonist Anna Kaluza and standing in for bassist Matthias Bauer, Meinrad Kneer (chosen, not just for his improvisational prowess but perhaps also that his first initial required no changes to the band's name), took the stage area to continue the evenings musical journey - though with a more spontaneous approach.
The trio's music exemplified the subtleties that come from listening closely to each other. In their three way conversation, Voccia masterfully crafted rich phrases that ranged from lightly melodic to dynamically urgent, giving the music a push and pull reflected by Kaluza who too swung between blasts of melodic fragments and textural passages. Kneer, whose approach covered the full spectrum of his instrument, fit in perfectly. Throughout the set, Voccia added tension to the music, often with a focus on the lower end of the keyboard, while Kaluza contributed as much tonal shading as she did bright powerful moments and Kneer provided rooted and poignant counter arguments. 

The closing act was an unexpected blast of energy in the form of the art-punk prog-jazz project Brique from pianist Eve Risser with the singer Bianca Iannuzzi, the acoustic bass playing of Luc Ex and the rock oriented drumming of Francesco Pastacaldi. The group was a study in contrasts with Risser's sometimes classically oriented playing mixing with Iannuzzi's no-wave/operatic singing and the commanding punk-like bass and drum work of Ex and Pastacaldi. Just as edgy as the music, with its strong punk attitude, was the lyrical content. While many of the details have melted away, the attitude remains. For example, one song was drawn from letters from patients in a psychiatric hospital in the 1980s. In general, the eclectic rock pulse and classical elements came together in an alluring retro-futuristic way.

The group's energetic set came to an even more energetic encore as Risser ran to the back of the hall to pick up a flute and welcome two guests, namely her Red Desert Orchestra collaborators, trombonist Matthias Mueller and trumpeter Nils Ostendorf. The wildly chaotic brass-band dance party brought the Serious Series to a seriously fun conclusion.


Martin Schray said...

Very nice review, Paul. I wished I could have been there. Luckily, I saw Toma Gouband recently in Pascal Niggenkemper's new trio. I didn't know him before and what he does with the plants as drumsticks was spectacular. Cristina's photos are great, by the way.

Kruse said...

Very nice photos, Christina Marx. by the way: great review, Paul Aquaro.

Cristina said...

Thank you, Martin and Kruse! It´s always really nice to read positive comments about my photos.