Diverse Swiss Artists Showcased at Jazzahead! Conference


Saxophonist Christoph Irniger (center) leads his namesake quintet, Christoph Irniger Pilgrim, at the Jazzahead! conference in Bremen, Germany, on April 23.

(Photo: Jens Schlenker)

In its 11 years of operation, the biggest jazz “meeting” in Europe has been extending an invitation to musicians, agents, labels and other jazz-related parties the world over.

At this year’s Jazzahead! gathering in Bremen, Germany—which took place over four days in April—the expo/festival/conference upped its game and hosted visitors from more than 65 countries.

This year’s partner country was the small but musically fortified nation of Switzerland, home of the Hat Hut and Intakt labels and notable festivals such as Montreux, Willisau and Taktlos. German is spoken there, along with French, and the musical vocabulary tends to feel somehow familiar yet foreign as designated by its own artistic devices.

Radiant vocalist Eleni Duni, backed by the Colin Vallon Trio, touched on the Swiss thing, quoting a Russian fan who suggested to her that Swiss musicians possess “an urge and a tradition to be different.” Fair enough. In her case, Duni beguilingly blends cultures, from Swiss folk and jazz considerations to folklore from her native Albanian region and Balkan rootedness.

Post-fusion bands, with some quirks attached, also lit up stages on the conference’s “Swiss Night,” including Pommelhorse, an electro-acoustic outfit that can cook in accessible groove mode or chase down odd-metered, twisty changeups indicating a more mischievous spirit beneath the surface.

The band Weird Beard (despite the name, sporting no beards or particularly “weird” attributes) issued romantic and energetic musical spirits, featuring stylish guitar playing by Rico Baumann, who raced over to play in the following set by the category-busting Christoph Irniger Pilgrim, led by saxophonist-conceptualist Irniger.

In one of the more satisfying showcases from the experimental end, drummer Julian Sartoris (of Vallon Trio fame) braved that challenging format of solo drum performance, and triumphed. His artful set displayed a highly engaging expressive panache and a painterly sense of color and nuance, opting for subtlety over crowd-baiting bombast.

Capping off the “Swiss Night” was Luca Siseda Roofer, who impressed with adventurous variations on the theme of Mingus-like aesthetics.

In the special concert at the historic, 1920s-era theater Die Glocke, the Swiss artist Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin brought its game-changing admix of post-rock atmospherics and jazz elements, but the more ear-challenging material came with vocalist/beatboxer Andreas Schaerer’s Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, which shared the billing.

Another Swiss group, Plaistow, fell in line with a general theme this year focusing on the “new piano trio” tradition. Plaistow’s aesthetic towed an unusual minimalist line, with textures and intersecting lines rather than traditional head-solo-head convention. But this festival/expo’s most memorable set was the rich, suite-like half hour delivered by dynamic young German pianist Pablo Held’s trio, as they wove a bewitching tapestry from pure abstraction to structural grids and back.

Next year’s Jazzahead! partner country will be Finland.

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