Farm Vision: INNtöne Celebrates 25 Years


Vocalist Anna-Maria Hefele of Supersonus performs at the 25th edition of the INNtöne Jazz Festival in Austria.

(Photo: ©Thomas Radlwimmer)

As many of its longtime attendees say, the INNtöne Jazz Festival, now in its 25th year, takes place in the middle of nowhere—the outskirts of the village of Diersbach (population 1,600) in the rolling-hills Innviertel province of Upper Austria. The fest is named after the nearby Inn River, which separates Austria from Germany and is located some 15 miles from the town of Passau in lower Bavaria. This year’s sold-out, 18-concert edition (held June 7–9) featured a sublime solo piano performance by Abdullah Ibrahim that ended with the maestro singing spirituals as the audience clapped along, as well as a spirited performance by young tuba sparkplug Theon Cross and his trio.

Founded and run by 59-year-old trombonist/organic farmer Paul Zauner, the festival is nicknamed Jazz am Bauernhof, translated from German as “Jazz on the Farm.” His 38 acres have been in the family for close to 1,000 years and today are used to raise free-roaming pigs and grow corn, wheat and greens. “My father had me driving a tractor when I was 5,” said the impresario, who scoffs at having a job title. “But when I was young, I had a dream that there was something more than farming for my entire life. I had to break away.”

Learning music on the family’s piano and then later taking up the trombone, Zauner lived in Vienna and then in the late 1980s moved to New York, where he played with such artists as George Adams, Ron Burton and David Murray. But with a young family, he moved back to Austria, formed a quartet and began producing concerts.

After getting a civic grant for a concert with Lou Donaldson at a castle whose renovation wasn’t completed, Zauner moved back to the farm for the date and launched the festival in his acoustically appealing, two-story barn with 800 seats positioned at stage level and in the balcony. “The music was the same mix as today,” he explained. “So I had a guy playing a solo accordion and a guy playing piano in a blues band. The press started saying, ‘What are they doing at a jazz festival?’ Or I got criticized for being too mainstream. But I was interested in hearing all the different sounds in music. Today, I’m still interested and I find out about artists by hearing, seeing, someone telling me something. I go to New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles. I’m totally open.”

This year’s INNtöne party featured the creative improvisation of Supersonus (aka The European Resonance Ensemble), Sardinia-fueled jazz and vocals led by Italian saxophonist Gavino Murgia, and Austrian pianist David Helbock leading his idiosyncratic, acoustic-electronic trio Random Control. Those three bands included four dozen different instruments—a reflection of the festival’s eclectic mix.

Led by fiddle player Marco Ambrosini (on a traditional nyckelharpa), Supersonus went on a mystical journey with its unusual instrumentation: harp, harpsichord, jaw harp and overtone singing. There were waves of dynamics, poignant fiddling, coarse bendings and haunting, wordless vocals from Anna-Maria Hefele. It was a chamber music of sorts that moved through trance, dream and tone color changes with ample room for improvisation. One long piece with several movements dominated the set, which ended with two shorter uptempo pieces and a country-blues break on the harp. The crowd stood up at the end, seemingly mystified and in awe.

What started as a typical tenor saxophone-led jaunt turned magical as Murgia swung with adventurous post-bop gusto in his Blast Quartet and then ushered in Tenore Goine di Nuoro, a four-piece a cappella group of which he’s a member as a bassu singer. It was a mesmerizing celebration of the traditional language and sacred music in Sardinia, with call-and-response that was meditative and exhilarating at once. It was the “wow” moment of the festival. Playing tenor and soprano saxophone, and alternating between singing and elated lyrical blowing, Murgia dazzled, with Mauro Ottolini (on trombone and shells) as the perfect foil. When introduced, he danced with comic glee.

A comedic element pervaded Helbock’s rambunctious playground of turning jazz standards on their heads with distinctive arrangements executed by his multi-instrumental bandmates: Andreas Broger on multiple woodwinds and Johannes Bär on tuba, French horn, Alpine horn, a pseudo-didgeridoo and two rhythm-making instruments strapped to his knees. Following a South Africa-flavored jaunt through Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Africa Marketplace,” the trio imaginatively and whimsically retooled standards (“Blue In Green” and “Watermelon Man”) and Esbjörn Svensson’s “Seven Days Of Falling,” creating a carnival of textures (lots of blats and scrapes and tonguing) grounded in Helbock’s mischievous pianism. One of the crowd favorites was the hand-whistled, stormy charge into Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” For their second encore and festival finale, Helbock and company played Keith Jarrett’s “My Song” with reverence.

INNtöne has been hidden away from much of the world for a quarter century. (Attendees largely come from Austria, Germany and Switzerland.) It stays afloat via ticket sales, some government funds, catering fees (would you like vegan or vegetarian?) and the occasional sponsor. Zauner, who also owns PAO Records, is fine with not charging fees for parking or camping on his land. Some festivalgoers have suggested that he build an amphitheater on the other side of the farmhouse, where his 83-year-old mother lives. He brushes aside such notions. “I’m doing this just the same way,” he asserted. “Getting bigger would not be good for me, soul-wise.” DB

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