Berlin Jazz Fest Offers Abundance of Free-Jazz Riches


Mette Henriette performs at the 2016 Berlin Jazz Festival in Germany.

(Photo: Camille Blake/Berlin Jazz Festival)

The English journalist Richard Williams is now into his second year as programmer for the Berlin Jazzfest, which was established in 1964. This year’s edition ran from Nov. 1–6, with most of the performances centered around the Berliner Festspiele, a formal concert hall, with a smaller side-space used for the late night sets.

Williams deemed it essential to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Globe Unity Orchestra, Germany’s revered free-improvisation masters. Their Nov. 4 appearance was only a day out from the Nov. 3, 1966, premiere of the Berlin Jazzfest commission that birthed the band.

The present lineup included founding fathers Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano), Manfred Schoof (trumpet) and Gerd Dudek (reeds), with many of the subsequent regulars in place, including Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet), Wolter Wierbos (trombone), Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens (drums). The trumpeter Tomasz Stanko was an earlier member, here making a rare return.

During the concert’s improvisational sets, there appeared to be a pre-arranged plan for certain players to stroll over to another musician of their choice, presumably suggesting some soloistic “handing off of the baton.” The horn players formed a semicircle, snaking out from the piano and Lytton’s drumkit, with soloists or small groups stepping forward to the frontal microphones when they felt the call for amplification.

The demarcation between these “solos” and the general group interplay was not always easily defined, other than by volume level. Parker brought his spiraling proclivities forward, to be battered by Lovens, then Stanko followed, moving aside for quartets or quintets of trumpets and trombones.

As the music ascended, its waves took on an almost independent existence, the audience finally succumbing to the gathered intensity and the rush of instinct. Schlippenbach was left completely alone for a spell, and it was he who ultimately sculpted the set’s crescendo, stepping forward as conductor, raising and lowering the horn cries until the final sustained blast.

A different kind of immersion held sway the previous evening, as the Norwegian tenor saxophonist Mette Henriette made her debut appearance with a large ensemble, reflecting some of the contents of her 2015 debut on the ECM label.

String players dominated, with trumpet and trombone to the side, and a strategically placed bandoneon providing the most unexpected tones.

The hall’s massive revolving stage made such turnarounds possible, with only about 15 minutes separating acts during the live radio broadcasts of most sets. This tended to impose strictness to the timetable, which stood in contrast to the more relaxed nature of many other avant-leaning jazz festivals.

Henriette’s surroundings were made as dynamic as the music, with a white light set near her feet that changed to amber as the sonic mood shifted. A gauzy screen descended from the front of the stage, obscuring the players as the lights also dimmed. This dramatic staging marked a significant atmospheric addition.

Henriette was always absolutely central, but also curiously lacking in ego. Her dominance emanated not from her horn as much as her compositional majesty. Some of her tones were so high that they became almost disembodied.

Henriette likes to use her horn as a spittoon, doggedly refusing to release her valve, and letting the burbles and crackles become an integral part of her otherwise breathily soft emissions.

Some audience members clearly became impatient with this glacial state, but there were great rewards for those who drifted along with Henriette’s concentrated flow.

Another striking performance came courtesy of German pianist Achim Kaufmann and his Skein Extended, an octet featuring poet Gabriele Guenther.

The lineup united artists from disparate scenes, bringing in the Welsh electronicist Richard Barrett, Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode and the American drummer Gerry Hemingway, alongside more expected Berlin residents, such as reedist Frank Gratkowski and trumpeter Liz Allbee.

The listener wasn’t encouraged to expend energy demarcating each individual contribution, as this was determinedly group music, played with a hive mind, particularly when reaching the perimeters of an instrument’s possibilities.

Much of the music was only faintly present, which made the several outbreaks of violent intensity all the more effective.

England’s Alexander Hawkins played the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church organ in cahoots with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, interpreting the latter’s “Blue Meditation.” Muted trumpet tendrils wandered over a massive bass thrum, overlaid with tiny plips and blips, as Hawkins initiated a speeding cascade of multiple tones and layers, sparse flute sounds against a thin drone.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau excelled with remarkable empathy, combining masterful chops with sheer, rollicking fun—as they do on their recent duo album, Nearness (Nonesuch), consisting of live recordings. A pair of Charlie Parker tunes sat well with the pair’s various originals, all food for an absolute dialogue of supreme sensitivity.

Mehldau mimicked Redman, almost to humorous effect, the latter choosing to stipple or issue isolated notes, smearing the line between solo and theme. He often pranced up to the microphone, blowing on the way, and followed alongside Mehldau’s concentrated multi-tiered races. They infused nearly every tune with swaggering blues.

There was an abundance of riches during the festival’s six days, with further gripping performances from saxophonists Angelika Niescier and Ravi Coltrane, as well as pianist Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra and saxophonist Steve Lehman’s octet.

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