JazzFest Berlin Challenges Attendees with Audacious Programming


A festival is supposed to be too much of a good thing. An overabundance, for example, of garlic in Gilroy, California, mud slinging in Boryeong, South Korea, or jazz at locales the world over.

The 55th edition of JazzFest Berlin, which ran Nov. 1-4, involved 100 artists from 15 countries, playing more jazz than even the most robust zealot could absorb. Yet, it was something more, too—a demanding program designed to take listeners outside their comfort zones, forcing them to craft personalized experiences at individual concerts and throughout the festival as a whole.

The festival’s first female artistic director, 41-year-old Nadin Deventer, who in 2018 served the first of a customary three-year term, spoke about her aesthetic in a pre-festival interview with managing director Thomas Oberender.

“Sometimes, the music might sound complicated, but people should stay there and listen to these kinds of conversations and also accept that sometimes you can’t understand everything. It may be confusing, but this is what I love about all this.”

That translated into endless varieties of free-jazz—none of which allowed listeners to sit back and receive music as passive vessels—at the main festival venue, Haus der Berliner Festspiele. But for all the program’s burn-it-to-the-ground audacity, Deventer also carefully curated themes that festivalgoers could elect to follow like songlines, building meaning in the map traced through the festival.

These included a Chicago focus: Trumpeter Jaimie Branch, percussionists Makaya McCraven and Hamid Drake, and many AACM-affiliated artists played over three nights. As the festival’s artist-in-residence, guitarist Mary Halvorson gave four concerts with four distinct groups, drawing her own broad, glowing arc. The richest vein was Afrofuturism, with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble performing its gorgeous, wide-open Octavia Butler-inspired Mandorla Awakening II improvisation that resolved into gospel singing from Avery R. Young. Songlines intersected and sometimes diverged: Notwithstanding poet Moor Mother’s spoken-word militancy on “Black Drop,” it was her duo partner, Roscoe Mitchell, whose original saxophone playing brought cosmology to bear on present-day concerns.

With concerts held simultaneously, there was an imperative to make choices count. After Jason Moran’s stunning audiovisual meditation on proto-jazz pioneer James Reese Europe, it made sense to catch Polish piano-and-drums duo Ragtime, which treated the style with bouncy abstraction. Over at Berlin’s A-Trane jazz club, Greek pianist Tania Giannouli’s trio with oud and trumpet played compelling melodies with rolling momentum, and it felt like Manfred Eicher’s dream of a Mediterranean holiday.

Deventer believes in using spectacle to provoke interest in jazz. At JazzFest, that could mean masked artists leading select concertgoers to a subterranean “happening,” where Berlin’s Kim Collective conducted live remixes of festival performances. Lounging on pillows and rugs among solemn artists in near darkness was such a cartoonish throwback that I half expected the Beatles to swan in and offer LSD.

More fruitful is Deventer’s driving belief that taking jazz beyond concert halls and clubs into unfamiliar spaces is the future of programming. “I thought, if people aren’t coming to us, then we’ll go to them,” she said in the pre-festival interview. “Then we need to get out of our venues and send a signal that we’re here and we want to be part of this society with our art.”

The hope is that disorienting settings and unexpected performances will trick mainstream-minded listeners into appreciating more experimental music.

And so the festival’s “Melancholic Sunday” involved nontraditional venues for morning concerts. A distinctly younger crowd milled around a neighborhood near the Haus der Berliner Festspiele hearing musicians like Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock in a private apartment, art gallery and hairdresser’s. At the salon, Halvorson and pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn performed for an audience that sat close enough to give the musicians dye jobs.

“This is our first concert in a hair salon,” Halvorson deadpanned. “Hopefully, it won’t be our last.”

Sunday’s apotheosis of altered experience was Silence Meal, involving no speaking whatsoever. With excitement and fear, 40 diners sat down at a long table for a two-hour, three-course upscale lunch with host Nina Backman, a Finnish multidisciplinary artist and curator. Silence made diners into performance artists, necessitating other means of interaction; when the woman across from me comically toppled her Tower of Pisa-resembling beet roll appetizer, she inspired the rest of us to dispense with the pretenses of fine dining. Without the hedges of speech, a strange garden of human emotion sprang forth: Clouds of embarrassment and anxiety passed over diner’s faces and boredom bloomed into hilarity. We distracted ourselves with nonverbal toasts, clinking wine glasses just for the joy of the ringing resonance—useful sound, since the silent meal was recorded as “new music.”

Later, I ran into Deventer and offered my impressions of the Silence Meal, which she’d not been able to attend. “So much can happen when we’re awkward and destabilized,” she enthused.

But solo Bill Frisell is neither of those things, and programming him as Sunday’s closing festival act was Deventer’s final stroke of genius.

His rich improvisation comes in a tone that embodies Joni Mitchell’s “comfort in melancholy,” and he eased listeners back down to earth with tunes like Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and Paul Motian’s “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago.” It was a JazzFest Berlin lullaby, an invitation to lean back and begin to recover from the demands and rewards of improvising a festival experience for ourselves. DB

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