ACT Devises Tribute to Pannonica de Koenigswarter


Charenée Wade lends her vocals to three tracks on Pannonica, a tribute to Pannonica de Koenigswarter recorded live at the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic series.

(Photo: Katja Weber)

Organized by the ACT label’s Artistic director and founder Siggi Loch, the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic series celebrates the late baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter and the legendary artists she helped support on the recently issued live set Pannonica.

“When she heard ‘’Round Midnight,’ she said she had to go to New York. But I think that was [only one] side of the coin,” said pianist Iiro Rantala, who served as musical director for the project.

From the outset, Pannonica included collective input. Loch brought together six artists representing five countries, inviting their perspectives on the repertoire, arrangements and overall messaging. American singer-composer Charenée Wade greeted the invitation with enthusiasm: “It’s always a bit of a collaboration, working with other jazz musicians. I can come with an arrangement idea, and then we can tweak it here and there.”

But for Wade, who delivered performances on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” “Little Butterfly (Pannonica)” and “Get It Straight,” the kind of impromptu arranging that only happens on the bandstand gives Pannonica its arc. “What attracts me to jazz music is the sense of spontaneity,” she said, “the sense of improvisation—of creating something that hasn’t been done before—or at least trying to constantly take risks and to reach for something new.”

That freshness bubbled up in a number of places throughout the project, which also includes music by Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins and Bud Powell. The Feb. 6 performance captured on Pannonica also reflected a milestone for Wade, who graced the Berlin stage for the first time. “It was a beautiful space,” she said, “and the acoustics are great.”

Across her work, Wade remains inspired by the possibility of “expressing a deeper meaning to a lyric or a story that may not have been explored before.” Because she’s spent years getting inside the music handed down from those who came before her, Wade’s connection to Pannonica was immediate and profound. “That’s the place that I come from, in general, when I’m performing,” she said. “Thelonious Monk and Betty Carter are the greatest examples of that playfulness and risk-taking.”

Along with Wade, Rantala found the story of de Koenigswarter’s connection to the music—and the musicians—teeming with truths waiting to be uncovered. He posits her friendships emerged from parallel experiences of isolation. “I think [Nica] wanted to get out from the Rothschild family,” he said. “And black musicians in America, they felt they were not accepted. I think that was the foundation of the connection between [them].”

Loch enlisted Rantala to help uncover every composition dedicated to the jazz patron, “but there wasn’t enough,” said the pianist, who pushed to add “Celia” to the repertoire as a trio tune. “I wanted to play ‘Celia,’ which has no direct connection to Nica—but it’s great bebop tune.”

Another of the project’s features is the artist-to-artist connection. Of the personnel—which also includes saxophonists Ernie Watts and Angelika Niescier, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Anton Eger—“everybody was new to everybody,” said Rantala. “And I think that was an advantage—everyone was listening very carefully. That was part of the magic.”

Wade, who always seems to find new ways of expressing her unique voice by interpreting existing language, echoes Rantala’s sentiment. “That’s that jazz thing,” she said. “You meet the musicians for the first time, y’all have a quick rehearsal then y’all do the gig. They were all amazing to work with. I had a great time with them, collaborating and creating music together.”

While the project’s repertoire and narrative inspired Rantala and his fellow European artists, Pannonica resonates with Wade as a representation of the music’s legacy—her legacy.

“It’s really important to me to honor those that came before me,” said Wade, who has participated in Betty Carter tributes at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “It’s a part of me now. And I don’t know another way to say that.” DB

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