Once again, the compass needle for important jazz happenings pointed to Berlin recently, with the daring and impressive 54th annual Berlin Jazz Festival, held Oct. 31–Nov. 5. Going back to a genesis in the early days of divided Berlin and with a legendary program essay by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in its inaugural year, the festival has come to represent a special niche in the European jazz fest scene.
Off the touring grid of the summer festivals and their frequent focus on the seasonally roving big-name, marquee jazz acts, Berlin’s affair has tended to be more resourceful, thoughtful and inventive in terms of programming.
This year, the bigger names included the cerebral-visceral drummer and all-around musical dynamo Tyshawn Sorey, appearing in several sets as the festival’s artist-in-residence, and popular German pianist Michael Wollny, making a rare appearance in solo-piano concert mode. Overall the tapestry of music was rich and rewarding, and some thematic threads emerged over the course of the fest.
Part of what keeps this festival fresh has to do with its policy of hiring a new artistic director every three years, and 2017’s event was the last of three years programmed by veteran British journalist/critic Richard Williams, who did a smashing job of it. (I caught this year and the 2015 edition, and I read good things about last year’s model.)
One of Williams’ innovations this year was to stretch the program from four to six nights, opening with two nights in the funky yet lovable venue Lido, in the Kreuzberg part of the city. Part of the gesture had to do with branching out from venues we have known, and also trying to appeal to newer, younger audiences in a city where new festivals are surfacing.
At Lido, we heard the rap/spoken-word/jazz opener Heroes Are Gang Leaders, the much-discussed South African/British outfit Shabaka & The Ancestors, plus Amirtha Kidambi & Elder Ones and one of the festival’s stronger sets—Steve Lehmann & Sélébéyone, in which the incisive and technically dazzling alto saxophonist Lehmann finds an artistically successful idiomatic handshake by teaming up with two rappers in two languages—Hprizm (in English) and Gaston Bandimic (in Wolof, from Senegal). This may be the best jazz-rap project since such similar interactions by Lehmann’s old boss/ally Steve Coleman.
This was also the first year the festival made use of the Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz, a modernist church constructed in the early 1930s (though rebuilt after the World War II bombing, like many Berlin structures). In this tall, reverberant space, Amir ElSaffar + Zinc Copper deftly blended jazz with traditional Arabic music, in a manner more seamless than might be expected.
Williams was keenly attentive to the delicate balancing act required in programming Berlin, not known as an avant-garde fest, but which pays respects to many corners of the diverse jazz universe. Too much experimental spice tests the old, faithful crowd’s patience, but too little loses the essentially liberated and open-minded spirit critical to this festival’s essence.
This year, for instance, Saturday night’s three-act main stage program in the large Haus der Berliner Festspiele moved from the polished, well-dressed young British band Empirical to Nels Cline’s “Lovers” project to Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio’s hearty set. The high point of that set was a rethinking of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” done in an mostly non-straight manner.
This being the centennial year for Monk, his work was explored the following night by John Beasley’s big band project MONK’estra, juicing up the Monk book in some fluidly eccentric ways.
Beasley’s bumptious and fulfilling Monk project closed the night (and the festival), on the heels of Ingrid and Christine Jensen’s band (with the trumpeter and saxophonist joined by guitarist Ben Monder) and a righteously fine example of Sorey’s refined skill in the “conduction” style, guiding a 20-piece ensemble through one of the greatest musical hours of the fest, cooked up fresh before our ears.
Under Williams’ directorial watch, many female artists have been invited to perform, especially with last year’s female artist-oriented program. This year, some of the strongest acts and musicians happened to be women. The list includes the bold and clean-burning Jensen sisters, the intriguing Slovenian-in-Paris pianist Kaja Draksler, and the Brazilian-in-London singer Monica Vasconcelos (and her special guest, the luminous saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock).
The list also includes the mostly improvised vocal group Trondheim Voices, which delivered a fascinating church concert along with maverick pipe organist Kit Downes. (Of the three concerts I’ve heard in this space, Downes’ command of the intricacies and expressive potential of that grand instrument, the pipe organ, was the most impressive.)
Another memorable artist in this episode of the festival was saxophonist Angelika Niescier, recipient of the annual Albert-Mangelsdorff-Preisverleihung (Deutscher Jazzpreis), named after the famed trombonist and important early festival director Mangelsdorff.
After a series of spoken tributes by German jazz dignitaries (and a wise-cracking saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann), she accepted the prize but opted not to speak, preferring to let the music, by her “NYC trio” with Sorey and bassist Chris Tordoni, do the talking. And it spoke loudly, persuasively and with the right degrees of commanding confidence and introspective probity. She’s one to watch and listen for.
Draksler—one of the more interesting young pianists in Europe drawing from classical and free-jazz impulses—was one-third of a captivating variation on the piano trio format with a quirky name: Punk.Vrt.Plastik. In this fertile jazz-meets-chamber-music setting, Draksler refrained from stepping out beyond the strictures of the exotic song structures or taking excessive spotlight space with her accomplished allies, exacting German drummer Christian Lillinger and bassist Petter Eldh.
One of the most moving, and also surprising, sets of the week came from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and a special band that included pianist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Marvin Sewell and guest vocalist Dean Bowman alongside the rhythm section of bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Kendrick Scott.
Reflecting Akinmusire’s interest in allowing conceptual, social and racial issues to shape his work, this evening’s project brilliantly, and hauntingly, channeled the rough-hewn field recordings of Mattie Mae Thomas, a woman prisoner at the infamous Parchman Farm in Mississippi, recorded in 1939 but released in the 1980s.
Entitled “Mae Mae,” and written especially for the festival, Akinmusire’s powerful piece pays tribute to the historical figure’s specific case and makes an empathetic cross-reference to the trumpeter’s own mother, also named Mae, who grew up near Parchman Farm before heading west to California, where she raised one of the finest jazz musicians going.
“Mae Mae” included haunting fragments of Thomas’ voice on scratchy recordings to establish historical and human context for the music’s back-story. In the beginning, she sings out clearly; at the end, things get disjointed, like a ghostly, slightly disconnected echo from a distant past with links to present realities. This quietly dramatic work represents a bluesier, more reflective musical vocabulary than we’ve been used to from Akinmusire, attesting to his willingness to ambitiously expand his artistic vision.
In sum, things were hopping and stretching in Berlin this year. Next up in the long line of Berlin festival artistic directors is Nadin Deventer, the first woman to hold the post. She has worked in various capacities of this festival and many others, and promises to inject some new energy into the fest’s decades-old machinery. DB