JazzFest Bonn Tinged by Air of Classical

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A serious musical lineage long has been part of the civic bone structure of Bonn, Germany.

Most famously, it is the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, and where he cultivated his early musical evolution until the age of 22. One can visit the Beethoven Haus—his birthplace—and patronize spots boasting that the composer ate there at some point. Less famously, but also important, this city also was the final home of composer Robert Schumann, who tragically spent his final years at an asylum in Endenich, a small Bonn neighborhood.

For nine years, JazzFest Bonn, which ran April 26 to May 12, has helped expand the already impressive German jazz scene. In a sense, what founder, director and saxophonist Peter Moderna has accomplished with his event is to celebrate Bonn by dispersing performances throughout the city. The 2018 edition boasted high-profile artists like guitar great John Scofield, crowd-pleasing Swede trombonist Nils Landgren, vocal wonder Andreas Schaefer, as well as several pianists, including Django Bates, Pablo Held, Aaron Goldberg and Michael Wollny.

JazzFest, under Moderna’s discerning care, seems to present jazz in a multiplicity of forms, subgenres and offshoots, without veering too far into the avant-garde. Vocalists—Inga Lühning in a duet with bassist André Nendza, the UK’s Julia Biel and the pleasing jazz-plus dynamics of LYAMBIKO—are employed, in part, to appease audiences that might not be inclined toward instrumental music. Saturday night’s lighter fare, held in the history museum Haus der Geschichte, was healthily represented by the Wolfgang Haffner Quartet. Featuring versatile vibraphonist Christopher Dell in restrained, straight musical garb, the drummer’s ensemble heeded a feel-good agenda and often leaned back into a fusion sound.

Guitarists, of different generations and aesthetic dispositions, had their night out on Friday at a repurposed bakery, Brotfabrik, with mid-career Norwegian Lage Lund and his trio, and Belgian veteran Philip Catherine in a duet with German bassist Martin Wind. Lund, an under-rated guitarist with a certain melancholic seriousness to his work reminiscent of Kurt Rosenwinkel, who, despite the earnestness of his music, seemed always ready with a wry quip. When he returned for a rueful beauty of a solo encore, he joked, “As you’ll understand, I had to fire the other guys,” in reference to bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Justin Faulkner.

The seasoned pianist Richie Beirach—an American who has been living in Germany for many years—appeared in his intriguing duo project with violinist Gregor Huebner, a German-bred player based in the States. Odd as it sounds, the clean, corporate and cavernous ambience of the the Volksbank Haus lobby made for an inviting venue during their intimate, but sturdy dialoguing music. Material-wise, the pair moved seamlessly from the music of Spanish composer Frederic Mompou to freshly respun standards—“My Romance,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a soul-fired take on John Coltrane’s “Transition.” Original turf included Beirach’s chamber-ized “Testament,” Huebner’s haunting, tonally and timbrally clenched 9/11 homage “Ground Zero” and Beirach’s sweet treat of an encore, “Sunday Song,” a perfect grace note to end the Sunday evening set.

The festival’s clear highlight, though, was prominent German pianist Julia Hülsmann in her first duo encounter with vibraphonist Dell. The pair only had a single two-hour rehearsal before launching into what seemed like a perfectly empathetic affiliation, the pair explained during a lunch along the Rhine river two days later. That the performance took place in the pristine chamber-music scaled hall next to the Beethoven Haus—with the pianist literally perched above a valuable collection of Beethoven scores and papers on a lower floor—only added to the mystique of a musically rich encounter.

Switching between originals by each artist, the players showed great listening chops, along with technical bravura and innate lyrical instincts. The set included a piece written by Hülsmann during her role as “improvisor in residence” at the German Moers Festival (held in the same northwestern region as Bonn and Cologne) and a new, sinewy balladic work in which triads are roughed-up and contrasted with dissonant assertions, almost reminiscent of French composer Olivier Messiaen. In Dell’s solo piece, which he said over lunch was one of his “non-representational” pieces, listeners could detect an affinity for the thorny intellectuality of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Or maybe being in the land of Beethoven’s beginning and Schumann’s sad end naturally invites a classical reading by listeners. But due to JazzFest, Bonn’s bonafides have risen dramatically. DB



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