Austria’s Jazz Festival Saalfelden To Return at Full Force


The trio ​Acoustic Unity is among the groups slated to perform at Jazz Festival Saalfelden in Austria.

(Photo: Christophe Charpenel)

Jazz Festival Saalfelden, the revered Austrian event that occurs each summer in the titular locale nestled within the Alps, is that rare institution that has managed to avoid any shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Timing was on its side in 2020, when a warm-weather decrease in infections allowed the organizers to present a scaled-down iteration of the festival, dubbed Jazz Saalfelden Weekender. Its 41st edition occurs Aug. 18–21.

“The enthusiasm of the guests for our festival and their relief to finally experience culture again made up for any extra effort we were confronted with,” says festival producer Daniela Neumayer of that shortened version. A more robust edition followed last year, and this year the event not only returns at full force, but more musicians will be featured in 2022 that any previous iteration, with more than 250 artists descending on the area, about an hour from Salzburg.

Of course, Corona has hardly disappeared, and the festival asks its attendees to adhere to safety measures and to avoid the festival if they are sick. As if to assert its renewed vitality, this year’s line-up has a rare focus on large ensembles, with no less than four international big bands performing: Portugal’s L.U.M.E.–Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble, Austria’s Christoph Cech Jazz Orchestra Project and two ensembles from Norway: the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in a special collaboration with pianist Jason Moran and Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra.

As with previous editions, the organizers deliberately incorporate the stunning vistas and natural wonders of the region as key elements within the program. “We have to use this natural environment and our geographical location to create a unique symbiosis of music and nature for our visitors,” Neumayer explained. Over the last couple of years, they’ve presented intimate concerts within nature, with attendees hiking to catch performances in the mountains or the forest, and this year will feature a new endeavor with a sunrise event performed by trumpeter Lorenz Raab and trombonist Alois Eberl on a boat in the middle of Lake Ritzensee. “With its breathtaking mountain panorama, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful places in Saalfelden, a festival location which had been in our minds for quite some time.”

Obviously, the pandemic isn’t the only crisis the world is facing. This year, Saalfelden has programmed the dissident Russian post-punk band Pussy Riot in an act of solidarity with Ukraine. Saalfelden has long ranked as one Europe’s most progressive jazz festivals, and this year’s curation by artistic director Mario Steidl lives up to such a reputation; in the end, the focus on high-quality music trumps any conceptual or thematic conceits. Jason Moran, who will also play a solo performance during the weekend, is the latest in an impressive array of jazz innovators who’ve worked with the perennially forward-looking ensemble Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, including Chick Corea, Anna Webber, Joshua Redman and Stian Westerhus. For this performance, the group’s venerable bassist Ole-Morten Vågan has created new arrangements for a book of Moran’s indelible compositions to navigate together. There are additional top-notch American ensembles performing, such as the Vijay Iyer Trio and rising Chicago spiritual jazz dynamo Isaiah Collier & the Chosen Few, and the duo of trumpeter Cuong Vu and drummer Ted Poor.

The main thrust of the programming, as usual, offers a glimpse at some of Europe’s most exciting sounds, whether the electro-jazz mash-up of Y-Otis, a Berlin quartet fronted by saxophonist Otis Sandsjö and powered by the sui generis Swedish expat bassist and producer Petter Eldh, who himself will appear in several constellations, including drummer Gard Nilssen’s fantastic trio Acoustic Unity and his raucous big band the Supersonic Orchestra, which consists of a virtual who’s who of current Scandinavian jazz. Nilssen is one of two artists-in-residence this year, along with the genre-agnostic Austrian drummer Katharina Ernst. Each will play in several disparate contexts. There are plenty of ad hoc groupings and jam sessions through the weekend. Neumayer says, “We will again organize spontaneous concerts, so-called flash mobs, which will be initiated by bass clarinetist and saxophonist Siegmar Brecher, which will only be announced via our official festival app, just 15 minutes before the concert starts.”

“This year feels like a huge relief,” she explains. “The considerable loosening of measures this spring has allowed us plan more freely again, to realize ideas with greater ease, and to focus more on creative details.” DB

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December 2023
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