Berlin Jazz Fest Returns to Live


Nate Wooley

(Photo: Roland Owsnitzki/Berliner Festspiele)

Jazzfest Berlin returned to in-person concerts Nov. 4–7 with the 58th edition of the acclaimed arts organization’s annual jazz festival. Building on last year’s innovative digital hook-up — what Artistic Director Nadin Deventer calls the “transatlantic bridge” — this year’s festival aired concert broadcasts from four global cultural centers, featuring well over a hundred musicians in 40 improvisatory performances under the overarching theme Scenes of Now.

“We wanted a different environment, for presenting live and mixed-media concerts,” Deventer explained in a mid-festival interview. “We wanted this to be an immersive experience, with the audience at the center.”

The different environment worked: Almost every single show this year sold out, with 5,000 audience members on site, in person, across the four days and another 15,000 watching online via the festival’s website.

This hybrid concert format was born of necessity in November 2020, when the pandemic forced the cancellation of all live shows throughout Germany. Responding to the crisis, Deventer and her team quickly devised a broadcast-quality delivery channel to bring the festival to the fans, toggling between remote concerts streamed from both the Roulette performance space in Brooklyn and the silent green arts center in Berlin.

With the clear success of this venture — it earned Deventer the European Jazz Network’s 2021 Award for Innovative Programming — the organizers decided to prepare for a digital presentation of this year’s festival, with or without live seating. Not only would the festival’s performances thus be guaranteed regardless of how the pandemic progressed, but Deventer could implement a diverse, decentralized program in collaboration with local artists in far-flung metropolises.

The format was simple, if ambitious: At silent green, the cavernous, industrial-design venue that served as the festival’s primary site in Berlin, one seating for the main stage (Betonhalle) would include a multi-angle screening of a concert or film from Cairo, Johannesburg or São Paulo alongside live shows featuring jazz musicians who, constrained by location and perhaps subgenre, wouldn’t typically appear on the same billing with the streamed artists. There would be one-off concerts at other Berlin sites, too, for both in-person attendance and later online viewing.

On day one, this format gave ticketholders back-to-back sets by Amsterdam’s whimsical IPC Orchestra; New York guitarist Mary Halvorson, with her giftedly experimental group, Code Girl; and Berlin’s The Killing Popes, in a crush of electronica, free-jazz and ambient sound. In between these last two was Schwarzfahren (Fare Jumping), a shape-shifting arthouse music video by São Paulo songwriter Negro Leo and one of several festival commissions.

Meanwhile, across town at the elegant Pierre Boulez Saal, composer/pianist Vijay Iyer presented his trio with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in selections from Uneasy, their new album on ECM. Playing in the round, the three creative musicians followed an internally referential imperative toward sweeping dynamics and oceanic grooves; the audience responded with a voluble standing ovation.

Just a snippet of the day two schedule reveals the festival’s vision in all of its elasticity: On stage at silent green, the Cairo-based nonet Elephantine fashioned post-bop constructions from seemingly unrelated folk and jazz idioms; São Paulo Underground, composer Rob Mazurek’s avant garde Brazilian trio, offered the expressionistic, electronics-driven film Ping Pong (a second commission); and, in a live stream from Johannesburg, three South African bow players — Madosini, Cara Stacey and Lungiswa Plaatjies — improvised on traditional string instruments, percussion and voice (a third commission).

Later, at the historic Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in the center of Berlin, Brooklyn trumpeter Nate Wooley led a 10-piece orchestra and six-voice chorus on “Seven Storey Mountain VI,” the latest installment of his broader work based on author Thomas Merton’s autobiography about religious conversion. Wooley’s adaptation speaks more to modernism than orthodoxy, however: The ensemble moved out of a contemplation in traditional harmony into a welter of electronic dissonance, hurtling toward a pointed denouement — a still, straight-toned choral section built on folk singer Peggy Seeger’s protest song “Reclaim The Night.”

Wooley continued with such compositional intensity on the third day, this time fronting his keenly focused quartet on “Columbia Icefield,” an eerie, minimalist tune that conjures both the magnificence and desolation of the vast geography of the Pacific Northwest. New York-based pedal steel guitarist and jazz composer Susan Alcorn joined on this piece; like Wooley, in her writing she draws inspiration from raw nature and favors stark, clear sounds. She’d presented her own group on day one with select tunes from her strikingly uncommon album, Pedernal (Relative Pitch).

Alorn and her quintet had performed these pared-down selections in silent green’s Kuppelhalle, a small chapel on the art center grounds that served as a fourth performance space, one that encourages close listening. There, on the final day, multi-instrumentalist Nancy Mounir screened her commissioned film, Those Who Were Not Invited, a documentary that recalls the intriguing world of 1920s Arabic singers in Egypt and highlights their extraordinary abilities as inventive, microtonal musicians.

That final evening pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and her trio also played the Kuppelhalle, claiming one of the last spots of the festival’s schedule. A decisive and visceral player, Courvoisier pulled much of her set from her 2020 release Free Hoops (Intakt), recreating some of the album’s most excitingly imaginative moments. Experiencing such incandescence in real time is best, of course, but at-a-distance runs a very close second.

View the festival’s nearly 25 hours of programming for free on the Berliner Festspiele On Demand website through November 2022. DB

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