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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Jazzdor 16, June 4-7, 2024


By Paul Acquaro

Tucked into Berlin's Kulturebrauerei, a former brewery turned cultural center with a museum, a university outpost, performance spaces and restaurants, the German branch of the Jazzdor festival displaced the Kesselhaus events space's more typical programming of 90s dance parties and tribute bands with four evenings of contemporary music.

It was the festival's 16th edition in Berlin, which itself is an offshoot from the main festival activities in Strasbourg, France that have been going on since 1986. The festival, under the long-term leadership of Phillipe Ochem, also has a presence in Dresden at the underground Jazzclub Tonne runing concurrently with the Berlin festival and featuring a selection of the groups (see also my 2023 review).

Jazzdor brings together musicians from France, Germany and the US presents music that is just as diverse, with rich improvisation and compositions straddling classical, modern, and even a bit of free jazz. Regardless of the genre or where the needle points on the experimental spectrum, the results are nevertheless ear opening, both introducing heretofore unknown projects and musicians to new audiences as well as supporting already known collaborations. This year, for example, the Steve Lacy / Ornette Coleman inspired Prospectus quartet from France made their German debut; the long-standing collaboration Axiom brought back together top notch musicians from Germany, France, Switzerland and the USA; and the colossal French big band, "Orchestre National De Jazz," presented their ambitious work with American saxophonist Steve Lehman, realizing a critical update to the jazz big band operating system.


Tuba Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The festival began with the somewhat unusual pairing of piano, drums and tuba with French tubist Michel Godard's Tuba Trio. Somewhat unusual because one could imagine the tuba as an ersatz bass, which would make this a rather usual trio, but Godard's tuba playing does not replace a bass, rather he brings a whole rich tapestry of sound and motion to the configuration. 

As the set began, pianist Florian Weber hit a sharp chord, abrupt, clean, precise, another soon followed. Godard responded in kind and soon enough the two, along with the drumming of Anna Paceo, began ramping up the intensity. From Weber, there was an increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that gave the tuba great spaces to fill. From classical inspired passage to evolving melodies to loping grooves, the harmony and melody segued fluently between Godard and Weber. On some tunes, like the one dedicated to the late fluegel hornist Herbert Joos, Godard switched to the Serpent, a mystical looking ancestor to the tuba, whose sound seems to melt between the stark proclamation of a trumpet and the warm blast of a trombone. It was a mournful tune, gently expressive and appropriately hopeful at times. In other places, Paceo's drumming was given more prominence, while other tunes were more playful and rhythmic.

 Sophie Bernado 4tet. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The second set of the night was by bassoonist and world music enthusiast Sophie Bernado and her 4tet. The set's start was beset with a technical problem of some sort, where the buzzing, electronically effected blast of her bassoon was not right. After a few attempts to rectify, the third being the charm, the corrected atonal, electric and buzzing introduction led to an atmospheric, acoustic-electric, trance-like swirl of sound. Underscored by vibraphonist Taiko Saito's ringing figures and drummer Franceso Pastacaldi's steady pulse, the music was flowing. The group's approach generally was to layer long tones and shifting chords, and from these gentle grooves, the musicians took solo turns. Joachim Florent's first bass solo kept close to the band's heartbeat, until it didn't anymore and escaped daringly. Saito's punchy jazz-oriented soloing captured the spotlight at times as did Bernardo's own playing. There were some pop-rocky moments as well, when Bernardo sung lyrics with simple, catchy melodies. After the last tune ended with a prog-rock flourish, a humming of the last melody was audible in the audience.

As it turns out, an original member, Marie-Pascale Dube, a vocalist with a specialization in Inuit throat singing was replaced last minute by drummer Francesco Pastacaldi. The group's sound, however, was quite cohesive, and it is tricky to imagine the musical directions the music could have taken.


Prospectus. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The evening began with Prospectus, a quartet out of France that was formed around the work of Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy. In fact, they took their group name from Lacy's 1983 album Prospectus. It is actually quite possible to form an impression of the group's music just from this fun fact, but it would be unfair to stop there. The group also lists Eric Dolphy, Steve Coleman, Rob Brown and Rob Mazurek as influences, and the music they played on the Jazzdor stage on Wednesday night was an infectious blend of a classic free jazz and refined musicianship. Playing songs from their debut 2020 recording Prospectus I and II, as well as this years METEORIE, the winners of the French 'Jazz Migration' prize (which supports younger musicians), wore all of these influences on their sleeves as they proceeded to make the music their own. 

The first tune started with a jaunty rhythm with a in-tandem melodic blast from Lea Ciechelski's sax and Henri Peyrous' bass clarinet, this led to some delicate harmonization between the horns while bassist Julien Ducoin and drummer Florentin Hay kept the atmosphere swirling. Ciechelski's first neat disassembled solo was a true breath of fresh air, and Peyrous' brought out the aromatic bouquet of tones that inhabit the bass clarinet, invoking the gentle ghost of Dolphy in the process. The next tune saw Ciechelski on flute and Ducoin on soprano sax spinning a melody around the firmly planted bass figure. The tune introduced some middle eastern scales and other subtle flavors and it is fair to say that switching up the wind instruments, as well as the musical ideas, kept things moving engagingly. The band is cohesive, and despite its leaderless quality, it surly seem to know where it is going. 

Orchestre National De Jazz. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder 

After a generous break in which the myriad equipment of the Orchestre National De Jazz (ONJ) was set up, the 18-piece strong big band revealed the sound of our current future. My colleague Troy Dostert reviewed the album Ex Machina when it was released last fall and captures the details especially well but for just a quick backstory, celebrated saxophonist Steve Lehman and ONJ director Frederic Maurin composed the music heard on Ex Machina specifically to use the now popular concept of generative AI to be an integral component of the music. 

On the stage live, from the opening moments, one could feel the power of the group and peering over the band, back in the corner where one may expect to see say Timpani drums or such, were two laptops with Dionysios Papanikolaou at their helm. Listening to the music, however, one was not overwhelmed by electronics. The initially slow moving grooves created a level of tension in the space as the array of acoustic instruments added tones and textures, while fraught solos from Lehman led the music to thrilling peaks. The inclusion of two vibraphonists also had a rather profound impact on the sound - Stephan Caracci and Chris Dingman's percussive and melodic playing, sometimes delivered together, added a certain and urgent sheen. 

The first noticeable interaction with the AI seemed to be with a solo from Lehman, whose circular phrasings and atonal lines were picked up and reimagined (is it right to say that about a computer program?) by the electronics. The sounds were sometimes disarming, with a certain ill-boding imbued in the AI reactions, but nevertheless provided a fascinating glimpse into creative human/computer collaboration. Other solos followed, like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson's multiple attention grabbing spots or flutist Fanny Menegoz's stint in the latter part of the program.

The penultimate tune was interesting as it left the accessible rhythms behind and opted more for exploration of tones - for a bit, as it ended in a rather strident groove. I would have been happy with that neatly ending the night, but a final piece that dug even deeper into the tonal possibilities followed. Obviously, much had gone into the construction of the music, the seamlessness of the sounds, and the mix of accessibility and challenge felt nothing short of a paradigm shift.


As Thursday evening rolled around, I was a bit concerned. The first two nights featured two groups per night and by the end of each, I had felt musically saturated. Now that we were approaching the weekend, there were to be three per night. Would I make it?

Marie Krüttli Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Sure I did. And it was excellent. The night began slowly, with the very ECM-spirited Marie Krüttli Trio. The piano, bass, drum trio started out on an austere note with Krüttli introducing some simple, sustained chords. Gautier Garrigue's drums were spacious and patient, and along with bassist Lukas Traxel, the three generated a gentle, suspended atmosphere. Dreamy excursions on the piano had a distinct tinge of classical music interspersed with jazz-like voicings and flair. Perhaps it stayed a little too long in the dream-state, but when it finally woke up, it did so vigorously, the gentle flow becoming an intense groove of repetitious rhythmic figures. The set-long piece ended satisfyingly with a series of ever greater climatic moments.

Axiom. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The next group, drummer Dejan Terzic's Axiom started out nimble and pointedly. Saxophonist Chris Speed exuded gentle but complex ampersand-like phrases, as bassist Bänz Oester and Terzic engaged in akimbo accompaniment that fit together like lethally sharpened jigsaw puzzle pieces. As the music continued, the pieces began lock together ever more tightly. Adding to the momentum and growing musical tension were tonal colors that keyboardist Bojan Zulfikarpašić brought in through the use of the Fender Rhodes in addition to his expressive piano playing. However, one could also sense that they were still holding back a bit. As they got into their second piece, Speed's lithe melodies hardened, and with the group's dense thicket of sound, they began approaching goosebump-raising territory. For a moment, Speed stepped into the backstage darkness which highlighted the high-speed and fiery interaction between Oester and Zulfikarpašić. During a following ballad, which found Terzic introducing intriguing polyrhythmic shifts, two chat prone people behind me decided at the quietest moment to clink glasses to celebrate just how sophisticated they were. Hmm. I would have supported saying "Prost!" to the quartet on stage for their infectious and tireless energy. 

Bonbon Flamme.  Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the evening was the highly anticipated - at least by me - French, Portuguese and Dutch collaboration of Bonbon Flamme. Guitarist Luis Lopes had told me earlier that they would be playing all new music this time. He was referring to the Bonbon Flamme album released last year under cellist Valentin Ceccaldi's name on Clean Feed records. The group had composed pieces separately over the past year and then spent a few days together somewhere in France to rehearse, and tonight was their first public performance of the repertoire called Calavaras Y Boom Boom Chupitos (which seemed to cause a ripple of giggling each time it was announced from stage). I had caught a wiff of the group at the Quasimodo club during Jazzfest Berlin. It was a wild event, with chanson and noise rock mixing liberally. This new repertoire seemed to build on the last, but perhaps going deeper into song craft. 

The set began with light harmonic overtones from Ceccaldi, which seemed to get amplified by keyboardist Fulco Ottervanger before slowly coming to life. The beginning however was just to build the atmosphere and the slow start did indeed grow brash and exuberant. Just as unexpectedly, the music took on a Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits vibe with guitarist Luis Lopes channeling Marc Ribot's iconic "Jockey Full of Bourbon" riffs. From beautiful skronk to Mexican dance to prog-metal, there was no end to versatility of the musical pastiche, as well as no lack of absurdist humor. For example, Ottervanger's old-time jazz tune that he started with an accordion-like sound slowly transformed into lurching rock with an early 90s downtown NYC scene vibe. The eclectic set however ended with a somewhat serious emotive and atmospheric coda.


The final day of the festival ended with three quite different groups, the affecting Lotus Flower Trio, La Main's angular post-rock jazz of, and the Emile Parisien 4tet's energetic modern jazz

Lotus Flower Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Of the three, the Lotus Flower Trio was the most unexpected. The trio, comprised of pianist Bruno Angelini and saxophonists Sakina Abdou and Angelika Niescier, were making their German premiere. The group's name draws on an idea (and a song) from the composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter who embraced the the lotus flower on his album Emanon, which he explained as "the lotus exists only in the swamp, in our world of turmoil, and the blooming flower purifies the water around it." Indeed, Angelini's compositions for the group effectively connected sounds to the impressions of people who have shone a light of resistance through darkness, embracing figures such as civil rights activist Rosa Parks, environmentalist Berta Cacérès, and anti-apartheid activist and politician Nelson Mandela. 
The opening song, apparently a Wayne Shorter piece, featured flowing piano with a gentle, pendulous lilt. Then the saxophonists came in with a melody that rode the expressive melodic contours. The next song, started by Niescier, was a more energetic piece full of short, explosive phrases. The two woodwinds provided a wonderful contrast, as Abdou's tenor provided a subtler solo to Niescier's edgier approach. Later in the program, Abdou's exuberant solo and near vocalizations were captivating, as was Angelini's own solo spot, which veered into a classical styles while still making reference to jazz. The final piece was the most arresting, starting with an intense furnace-blast of free playing that resolved into a gentle, nurturing melody. The overall impression, aside of course from the impressive musicianship, was the emotional level that the group reached repeatedly through the set.

La Main. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Following the trio was the quintet of La Main, also making their first German appearance. The group, led by guitarist Gilles Coronado, is apparently typically a trio with trumpeter Olivier Laisney and drummer Christophe Lavergne, however this evening they were joined by clarinetist Catherine Delaunay and the synthesizer work of Sarah Murcia, both members of the Orchestre National De Jazz. The music was varied, from tight rhythmic passages that emphasized a single note and built tension through repetition to long musically economic pieces that referenced the sonic landscapes of post-rock. The individual playing was quite good - Lavergne was delightfully wild at times, and Laisney's tone was sharp and incisive. The inclusion of Murcia's synthesizer added a welcome bass element and Delauney's playing provided a strong jazz flavor. Coronado's compositions felt somewhat brittle and uneven, delicately hanging in a balance between motion and disintegration. For example, one composition was rather static and did not seem to really go anywhere at all, while its follow up began with a gripping intensity between the guitarist and the drummer.

Emile Parisien 4ET. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the festival was the now 20-year running Emile Parisien 4ET, who focused on their latest recording for the ACT Label, Let Them Cook. And, much like the title suggests, they did. This final set was a pleasant surprise. I had thought the album was fine but had not really engaged me, however, the concert was completely the opposite. In fact, it has me going back to reassess my original impression. 

The group began with a droning backdrop while Parisien introduced a smokey melody. A splash of percussion from Julien Loutelier and dabs of melody from pianist Julien Touery followed, each adding extra flavor. With the help of bassist Ivan Gelugne, the group began crafting an intensity, slowly drawing in the audience. Parisien often turned to a table of electronics set up to his side to layer effects on to his soprano's lachrymose tone. 

The result of the group's potent and seamless interplay was effective, and the feature spots for the  musicians were engaging in their own right. At one point, a fervid solo melody from Tourey raised the energy level on stage to a point at which Parisien seemingly could not resist moving to. The melodic maelstrom intensified on the next tune that saw the saxophonist playing to the edge of self-control. With the additional assortment of tools like prepared piano as well as electronic accents from Loutelier, the music never settled into formula or routine and the final moments reached nearly ecstatic peaks. Not a bad way to wrap it up at all.


Don Phipps said...

Wow Paul - what a great experience with some new and exciting talent. Thanks for sharing!