Jazzahead! Conference Unites Musicians, Industry Insiders

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Dave Gisler (left), Florian Egli and Martina Berther of Weird Beard perform at this year’s Jazzahead! conference in Bremen, Germany.

(Photo: Jens Schlenker)

Jazz forces from around the globe converged in Bremen, Germany, in late April for Jazzahead!, a conference with increasing significance. Now into its 11th year, this conference/festival has seen expanding media attention, thanks to attendance by a dense thicket of musicians, record label executives, festival directors, booking agents, managers, national arts organizations, journalists, and other jazz-concerned professionals.

A lot of networking and business transactions go on here, as evidenced by the crowded, bustling convention floor, where vendors and representatives from more than 65 countries kept things humming by day. At night, live music took over, with a well-organized schedule of some 40 half-hour showcase sets, neatly divided into “modules.”

April 21 featured the annual focus on a specific country (this year, Switzerland), and on April 22, the “German Jazz Showcase” was followed by an “Overseas Night” (this year, featuring five Stateside acts). Programming on April 23 was devoted to the eight-set “European Jazz Meeting” series.

This year, I caught 33 in-house showcases, largely in the HQ of the Messe conference center and the refurbished slaughterhouse-turned-music-venue, the Schlauchthof.

There were many concerts of note, including the wild art-jazz circus act of musical gymnast Andreas Schaerer’s Hildegard Lernt Fliegen at the historic venue Die Glöcke and the disarmingly effective operatic jazz project of double-tenor (horn and voice) Håkon Kornstad, in the pristine setting of Bremen’s refined Sendersaal. (The venue’s director, Peter Schulze, is jazzahead!’s co-founding artistic director, along with musician-organizer Uli Beckerhoff).

Within the dense showcase schedule, the overall level of quality and inventiveness ran high, affirming the notion that Jazzahead!, among other virtues, gives a visitor an overview of many new and emerging jazz artists, most of whom come from Europe. But there were also artists from as far away as South Africa (a supple piano trio led by Bokani Dyer) and Colombia (the confident trombonist/bandleader Maite Hontele).

Even the framing of the showcase festival was strong, opening on “Swiss Night” with the muscular, melodic poetry of the artistically advancing Colin Vallon Trio and closing late on April 23 on a sly, dryly funny note, with the “chordless” Finnish trio MOPO. (Keep an eye on the flexible and captivating young bari sax player Linda Frederiksson.)

In between those impressive shows, a list of personal highlights would have to include a bold yet nuanced, suite-like set from young German pianist Pablo Held’s trio, the trans-cultural folkloric jazz of chanteuse Elina Duni, the Norwegian wiles of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra—in an especially wily, venturesome vein for this project—and the extended vocal gyrations of Trondheim Voices (a last minute substitute for the saxophonist Mette Henriette), and the fascinating post-modern Mingus-y Swiss quintet Luca Sisera Roofer, who wowed with a combination of wit, cerebral creativity and might chops.

Strong entries from the pop and rock-infused spectrum included Swiss groups Weird Beard and Pommelhorse, the chill post-rock/jazz of the Finnish Oddarang, and the fresh takes on the guitar trio form, with Carlos Baca & Azul (featuring ever-impressive drummer Jim Black) and the edgy, surf-infused sounds of the Belgian Dans Dans. Charismatic saxist Nicole Jo, with her band, delivered a seductive, world beat-ish groove.

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