Jazzahead! Showcases Eclectic Fluidity


Ingrid Laubrock, left, premieres “Lilith” at jazzahead! 2023 with band member David Adewumi on trumpet.

(Photo: Jens Schlenker)

Jazzahead!, a refreshingly hybrid trade fair and artistic showcase held annually at the exhibition center in Bremen, Germany, held its 17th edition in April with some spectacular commissioned works as well as a healthy turnout of 2,800 that nudged pre-COVID attendance numbers.

The festivities began with some dazzling duets by German jazz giants Till Brönner (flugelhorn) and Dieter Ilg (bass). In keeping with the 2023 theme “Building Bridges,” four German artists living abroad presented commissioned works played by new ensembles formed for the occasion in their adopted homes: the Netherlands, France, Austria and the U.S. The new works were presented to turn-away crowds in a much-loved venue called the Schlachthof, a slaughterhouse repurposed as a steeply raked theater.

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s premiere of “Lilith,” a dark, raucous and smartly developed piece for sextet that included standout solos from the leader on soprano and tenor, as well as sly accordion player Adam Matlock and conversational trumpeter David Adewumi, featured chanted phrases that added to the piece’s edgy sense of urgency. Tenor saxophonist Daniel Erdmanns’ “Couples Therapy” flirted with sentimentality but erupted with startlingly earnest passion when cellist Vincent Courtois ripped into a rapturous solo that was easily the musical highlight of the weekend. Reedman Heinrich von Kalnein and trumpeter Jakob Helling assembled a brassy Austrian-German octet called Alpine Air that bristled with energy and sparkling solos, but Blood Sweat & Tears-like energy felt out of keeping with forward-looking spirit of the fair. By contrast, drummer Felix Schlarmann’s Dutch-German collaboration “Tree House,” with a front line of wordless vocalist, two saxophones and guitar, brimmed with shimmering insight as it sometimes nodded to the jaunty township feel of Abdullah Ibrahim’s classic ensemble Ekaya.

Many of jazzahead!’s 32 juried showcases also rose to the occasion. Certainly on a par with the commissioned pieces was a performance of the gloriously moving World War I requiem “Ruins And Remains,” by Dutch pianist Wolfert Brederode with the Matangi string quartet and drummer Joost Lijbaart. Cuban pianist Harold Lopez Nussa, who now lives in Spain, and French harmonica master Grégoire Maret at one point engaged in fierce and friendly combat, then sighed nostalgically on Nussa’s ballad “Homesick.” Riveting solo Brazilian pianist and one-man band Amaro Freitas transformed his instrument into a prepared, plugged-in sound generator, creating an ancient-future mix of electronics, vocals, thumb piano and flashy pianistics that ranged from a lickety-split “Giant Steps” to avant-garde smash chords. Also in a neo-primitive vein, the Netherlands’ Ava Trio took a slinky Mediterranean tour, using bagpipes in a creative, unclichéd manner. And the German stop-on-a-dime punk jazz power trio Malstrom, with guitarist Axel Zajac evoking the zany energy of Eugene Chadbourne, shook the stands of the Schlachthof.

Jazzahead! commissions and showcases reflected the eclecticism and genre fluidity of contemporary European jazz, often mixing folk, world and classical traditions with cheeky improvisation in a way that suggested the early days of the 20th century, when almost any jagged new music that wasn’t classical was called “jazz.”

“I am not the jazz police,” explained the fair’s project manager, Sybille Kornitschky. “I cannot say what is jazz and what is not. But what I can say is that jazz has always been developing. There is no end.”

Kornitschky is one-third of a trio that has managed the €1million-plus budget and organization of jazzahead! since its inception. Next year, her colleagues Peter Shulze and Ulrich Beckerhoff pass the baton to the ebullient Hamburg music journalist Götz Bühler, who said in his program note that some of his fondest memories of jazzahead! are the “serious conversations and occasional laugh” he’s had with members of “our extended international family.” Indeed, jazzahead! has a uniquely personal atmosphere unlike other trade fairs or conventions. The booths are set up more like little coffee houses or parlors that foster hour upon hour of one-on-one meetings between artists, publicists, agents, presenters and the like. The cooperative, community atmosphere at the trade fair and the concerts is palpable.

Each year, jazzahead! chooses a “partner country.” In 2023, it was Germany itself; next year, it’s The Netherlands. With COVID in the rear-view mirror and the fair back in full swing, Kornitschky said she was “optimistic about the future.” DB

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December 2023
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