Enjoy Jazz Marks a Milestone with By-Invitation ‘Takeovers’

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EFG London Jazz Festival brought three acts of its popular “Moment’s Notice” performance series to Enjoy Jazz on Oct. 9.

(Photo: Manfred Rinderspacher)

In the second week of its 25th anniversary edition, Enjoy Jazz fortified its position among international music festivals.

Germany’s largest jazz festival — held each October and November across the southwestern three-city triangle of Mannheim, Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen — marked its milestone year in style. Each of its five scheduled weeks in 2023 featured a different theme in its programming. In its second week, Oct. 8–14, each night saw a “takeover” by a different world music festival. Most of these were jazz festivals, although in keeping with Enjoy Jazz’s motto (“A festival for jazz and more”), a little bit of “and more” snuck onto the program as well.

“I wanted to celebrate these 25 years with some of the colleagues I’ve met and festivals I’ve checked out over that time,” Rainer Kern, Enjoy Jazz’s founder and artistic and managing director, explained. “So we gave them a day on the program, a budget and the chance to book whoever they wanted and play in whichever of our venues they wanted. They curated those days themselves: If they asked me for my opinion, I would give it to them, but I didn’t make any decisions. The festivals had the final say.”

It was a bold, risky move, even with top-tier music festivals doing the curating. And it didn’t always work. (One night even got shut down entirely: The contingent from the Tel Aviv JazzFest, scheduled for Oct. 10, found their flights out of Israel canceled after the horrific events of Oct. 7.)

When the gambit did work, however, the results were thrilling, even magnificent, offering provocative new horizons for jazz fans in Germany and anywhere else.

In no case was this truer than that of EFG London Jazz Festival, who brought three acts of its popular “Moment’s Notice” performance series to Mannheim’s Old Firehouse (its first time outside of England) on Oct. 9. The series, as curator George Nelson described it, “invite[s] five musicians, who have no history of playing and improvising together, to improvise in front of a live audience. … Mark my words, they haven’t worked on a thing, even at sound check.”

Another risky venture, and thus a perfect fit for Enjoy Jazz’s Festival Takeover week. It began with a duo set by flutist/saxophonist/clarinetist Tamar Osborn and percussionist Dudù Kouate, whose conversation was spacious and meditative, but found surprising pockets of groove; next came a trio with alto saxophonist/spoken-word artist Soweto Kinch, keyboardist Kit Downes and drummer Metta Shiba, who conversely played long stretches of groove with pockets of meditation (and a concluding recitation about our dependence on technology); finally, all five players came together in a dramatic, dynamic piece that shifted tempos and textures without warning but was tied together with an eerie wordless vocal from drummer Shiba. Taken together, it was a night of inspired creation that may have been ephemeral but won’t be easily forgotten.

Equally inspired, and with a much more physical effect, was the music of Malian guitarist Kader Tarhanine, the star of the Festival of the Desert (In Exile)’s showcase. Founded in Mali, the festival now only presents concerts outside the country thanks to its unstable political climate. Thus it was that Heidelberg’s Karlstorbahnhof auditorium was soaked in dense, vibrant African rhythms on Oct. 12. Fronting a band with two guitars, bass, drums and two singer-percussionists, Taharnine had by the halfway point of his set pulled half the audience out of its seats to dance in the aisles. The rhythms didn’t stop, and neither did the dancers, resulting in a joyful sweat-factory.

Fantastic music came from the western and eastern ends of Asia as well. The opening night of Festival Takeover week belonged to the Istanbul Jazz Festival, which presented a double bill. First came a trio — pianist Yigit Ozatalay, saxophonist Bans Erturk and drummer Mustafa Kamal Emirel — adding a haunting, atmospheric soundtrack to the haunting, atmospheric imagery of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Provinces trilogy.” That was followed by trumpeter/vocalist Dilan Balkay leading a quartet that straddled the line between jazz and contemporary pop. Yet she had the chops and the charisma to pull it off without a hitch — and, I’m told, poetry in her Turkish-language lyrics.

The closing night, meanwhile, was in the hands of South Korea’s Jarasum Jazz Festival. The Gee Hye Lee Trio, led by pianist Lee and featuring vocalist Song Yi Jeon, was otherwise staffed with German players (bassist Joel Locher and drummer Mareike Wiening), a bilateral coalition that swung Heidelberg’s Tankturm to the ground. Joining them on the bill was the Soojin Suh Quartet, a youthful band led by drummer Suh, but featuring what is surely one of the most exciting young discoveries in the jazz world with saxophonist Soojung Lee, whose Steve Coleman-influenced approach absolutely burned.

Yet all these winners were offset by a couple of duds. One was a rare misfire by New York’s Winter Jazzfest, which took over Enjoy Jazz on Oct. 11. WJF hypes bassist and bandleader MonoNeon (who was in Prince’s last band) as an experimenter on the level of John Cage; for all his flamboyance, though, the music he played at Mannheim’s Old Firehouse was bland, run-of-the-mill funk. Nyege Nyege, an electronic music collective that promised “The Sound of Uganda” for its takeover at dasHaus in Ludwigshafen, turned out to offer four hours of DJ sets. This writer has no knowledge of what he was hearing from those mixmasters, but they did inspire a heated debate about whether this counted as seeing “live music.”

But a festival that takes those kinds of chances is bound to whiff once or twice. And considering the high quality of the other four nights, it’s hard to issue too many demerits. It was taken over by six festivals from around the world, yet it’s Enjoy Jazz itself that was remarkable for it. DB



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