jazzahead! Conference Rebirths in Bremen

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The big band cause was in-house at jazzahead! this year, including impressive work by the Dutch leader/composer/pianist Kathrine Windfeld.

(Photo: Josef Woodard)

When it comes to major, all-purpose jazz conference/festivals across the Atlantic, all roads have led to Bremen for the past several years. The multifaceted convention known as jazzahead! first kicked off in 2001 and, within a few years, had established itself as the primary gathering point for all facets of the jazz world. And “world” is the proper word: In the exhibition area, booths often feature representatives from different countries. Record labels, managers and agents, festival and concert presenters, journalists and outside visitors have annually flocked to Messe Bremen convention center to network and soak up the dozens of short showcase sets, conferences and networking opportunities over its four-day spread in the middle of spring.

Like everything else, jazzahead! was knocked off its groove by the pandemic for two years but made an impressive and inspiring return to action this spring. Held April 28 to May 1, the 11th edition drew a sizable attendance, if down from recent editions, and took over a larger spread of the massive Messe Bremen mega-structure — the better to practice distancing. Canada, the focused partner company country originally slated for 2020, had its delayed day in the spotlight at last, with at least a dozen acts performing on the opening Thursday night and beyond.

Among the many conferences and presentations over the weekend were discussions of gender equality in jazz, including one built around the publication Jazz and Gender, by Indiana University lecturer Dr. Monika Herzog. Speaking about the shortage of female representation in big bands — an especially entrenched and government-supported field in Germany — Herzog noted that “blind auditions in classical music changed the landscape of music starting in the ’70s. Maybe that would help.”

As it happens, the jazzahead! showcase program this year was well-stocked with women leaders, and accounted for some of the stronger shows to be heard. Two of the women from the Canadian contingent are particularly adventurous and fresh-voiced trumpeters, Lina Allemano and Steph Richards (currently based with her musical-marriage partner Andrew Munsey in San Diego, where both teach at UC San Diego).

Richards is fast emerging as a trumpeter bringing a new energy and attitude to her instrument and to the business of jazz from the experimental and free improvisational perspective. A trumpeter with her own sensual voice, Richards artfully deploys extended techniques to musical ends, while her band (featuring potent young pianist Joshua White, with influences from Cecil Taylor and beyond) flexes and surges. She brings a vocabulary of melodic and riff-based ideas, mixed with abstraction and a palpable sense of searching. At this moment, her quartet is expanded by one — the being inside her very pregnant belly, whom she called “the special guest” of the show.

In her own unique way, Allemano is also a trumpeter-leader with some distinctive new ideas about how to navigate the space between tradition and adventurism. Allemano, based both in Toronto and Berlin, performed both at the Thursday afternoon opening event and at the Metropol on Saturday night’s “Club Night” roster, with shows extending out into Bremen, proper.

Other Canadian female artists had a bold impact, including the captivating jazz-R&B creative force Malika Tirolien, roughly working a vein similar to Meshell Ndegeocello. She headlined the special “off-campus” Gala Concert at the historic venue Die Glocke (famed in jazz as the location of Keith Jarrett’s Bremen live recording in the ‘70s), with the polished jazz-pop singer-pianist Laila Biali opening.

In terms of inventive new concepts with historical roots, Montreal’s Silvervest — being the duo of vocalist-poetess Kim Zombik and bassist Nicolas Caloia — cooks up a sound that is savory, witty and flecked with surprising twists, with hints of Abbey Lincoln, Billie Holiday and hip-hopping post-beat poetry. Stir and enjoy.

Later on the Canada showcase night, the free-jazz muse came to roost in the form of the trio with wily saxist François Carrier, drummer Michel Lambert and bassist John Edwards.

Another woman artist-of-note is young German pianist Clara Haberkamp, who has been a vocalist but who offers up a commanding presence in instrumental piano trio mode, as heard on her luminous fine album Reframing The Moon. She brings a fluid touch as a pianist, sometimes reminiscent of Brad Mehldau’s brand of pianism and conscientious use of the left hand, but with a personal sense of using space and improvisation free of formula or empty showboating. In the crowded field of piano trio venturers, hers is a name to keep ears open for.

The big band cause was also in-house at jazzahead! this year, including impressive work by the Dutch leader/composer/pianist Kathrine Windfeld, whose compositions and arrangements lack no energy, but revel in texture and atmosphere, along with tough-love lyricism. From Hungary, the Modern Art Orchestra made a bold, sophisticated impression on material sometimes adapting work by iconic Hungarian classical composers Bartok and Kodaly.

From the left end of the style dial, the Cologne-based Fuchstone Orchestra (founded/led by Christina Fuchs and Caroline Thon) is a dazzling inside-outside outfit combining freewheeling avant-garde facets and the balance of structure and improvisational abandon. The large group mixes traditional big band instruments with strings, Eva Pöpplein’s painterly electronics and dynamic avant-vocalist Filipa Gojo, who, in the climate change-referential piece “Iceland,” hauntingly chanted the phrase “some people say another world is possible.” The Fuchstone group operates out of the famed Cologne venue Stadtgarten Köln, which won the best venue award at the new German Jazz Prize ceremony.

For jazz party modalities, we heard drummer Larnell Lewis’ fluidly funky band late on Thursday night at the retooled slaughterhouse known as Kultuzentrum Schlachthof, and Italian electric guitar wizard Matteo Mancuso’s adrenaline-pumped neo-fusion in the conference’s new circus tent location.

Although a range of influences and a mostly acoustic format is to be found in the overall musical brew of the German band known as JO (re: drummer/leader/composer Jo Beyer), elements of prog-rock sneak in, accented by limber guitarist Andreas Wahl’s lines and engaging soloing. Minimalist skeins of lines, impressionistic moments and bursts of ensemble energy and taut unison lines keep the music in evolutionary motion.

Idioms were also successfully intermarried in Keno Harriehausen Quartet, a new proposition in the often-tricky bridging of chamber jazz. The pianist-leader has written pieces with echoes of contemporary music and sound palettes from the first half of the 20th century, including Ravel and an admitted hero, Shostakovich. Margin for improvisation is an important, and jazz-linked, aspect for a group of excellent musicians — bassist Andris Meinig, cellist Maya Fridman and Latvian saxophonist Karlis Auzins.

In the dense thicket of showcases, made more complicated through this year’s practice of doubling up sets (partly as a measure to keep the crowd sizes down), made it harder to catch as many shows as in years past. Among the ones that got away for this scribe was the Saturday night show at the pristine venue the Sendesaal (run by jazzahead! co-director Peter Schulze), featuring Ukrainian pianist Vadim Neselovskyi delivering his project Odessa — a musical walk through a legendary city.

American jazz players and participants have yet to show up in large numbers in Bremen, although the conference hopes for more transatlantic crossover in the future. This year, though, the conference came to a beautiful close courtesy of the tenor saxophonist (American by way of Chile) Melissa Aldana, riding high on the strength of her Blue Note Records debut. From that album, on such jewels as “The Bluest Eye” and the lyrical “Emilia,” Aldana brandished her signature glowing tone and sensual yet inner-fired musical sensibility.

Aldana’s set made for a graceful exit strategy and a final musical exclamation point for jazzahead! in its year of a heroic return to action.

It’s official: Next year’s “partner country” is Germany herself. DB



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July 2022
Sean Jones
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