Noncommercial Sounds Draw Crowds to Berlin’s A l’arme! Festival


From its very beginnings jazz has functioned like a stylistic blob, driven by its practitioners to absorb, assimilate and reconfigure ideas outside of its orthodoxy—whether its repertoire or hybrids.

Sidney Bechet quoted from Italian opera in his solos, Sonny Rollins put his spin on calypso, Miles Davis incorporated ideas from both Stockhausen and Sly Stone in his ’70s electric bands, and Steve Lehman has artfully refashioned cutting-edge hip-hop in Sélébéyone, to name just a few of countless examples. Berlin’s A l’arme! Festival is unequivocally devoted to experimental music, but the seventh edition of the event—held at the multi-stage Radialsystem and Säälchen during four muggy evenings along the Spree River—put improvisers from a jazz background front-and-center, engaging with noise, rap, hard rock, theater, pop, spoken word and abstract electronic music in a panoply of approaches.

Such collisions aren’t a fluke. Indeed, this activity happens more and more, and if jazz is going to stay relevant, this is one of the crucial pathways for its survival.

The festival admirably rejects any kind of hierarchy in its multifarious programming, and artistic director Louis Rastig pointedly asserted during one of his concert introductions that there are no headliners at A l’arme! Some of the most powerful and assured performances came early in the evening. On Friday, Aug. 2, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts—who’s currently living in Berlin, where she’s a research fellow at the DAAD—engaged the audience with a mixture of rumination and improvisation, toggling between open-ended meditations on Sandra Bland, the U.S. border crisis and the benefits of everyday personal encouragement, and sweet-toned motific variations steeped in the blues language. She assigned a hummed pitch to the attentive audience, signaling them to voice the drone with her hands, while she unspooled melodically tender, yet probing, lines that danced around the crowd’s contribution. While Roberts has employed this performance format for years, every display comes off as new, fresh and uniquely engaged in the current moment. Her verbal musings are an improvisation just as potent and probing as her saxophone lines, and they reveal a consistent sense of discovery—she thinks aloud and forges ideas and solutions that pull listeners in, while providing a strong demonstration of how the act of improvisation works.

Poetic language fueled by righteous anger and a messianic quest for change distinguished the best performance during the festival. And when Irreversible Entanglements delivered a seamless opening set on Saturday night, it ripped through material composed subsequent to the quintet’s eponymous 2017 debut album. The subjects tackled by poet Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) embraced a much broader scope than the charged critique of institutional racism on the band’s debut; the new material grapples with a world marked by cruelty, selfishness and destruction, with Ayewa holding on to a glimmer of hope. Her fiercely rhythmic, hectoring elocution fit masterfully within the simmering-then-scalding interactive grooves meted out by her excellent bandmates—bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, drummer Tcheser Holmes and alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer—who brought a soulful intensity to its arcing post-bop. The interplay between the horns was especially wonderful, and while each player served up potent solo passages, the ensemble as a whole shaped the most profound moments.

Numerous sets were premieres, and performances by Anguish—a collaboration among the noisey American rap duo dälek, Faust’s Hans-Joachim Irmler, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Andreas Werliin of Fire!—on Wednesday night and a collaborative set led by Belgian vibist/marimba player Els Vandeweyer with drummer Hamid Drake, DJ Illvibe and two German rappers (Real Geizt and Splidttercrist) on Thursday fumbled, seemingly unsure of what they were trying to accomplish. Among the most bizarre and ambitious performances were by veteran cellist Tristan Honsinger’s Hopscotch, which played a sprawling music-theater piece on Thursday night. As a long-time member of the ICP Orchestra, Honsinger regularly has practiced Dadaist theatricality, deftly blending the absurd with art-songs derived from pre-war European popular music, and here he pushed that aesthetic into overdrive. The performance mixed the leader’s charts for chamber music, blending free-jazz, contemporary classical and art-song with butoh, tap dance and darkly comic drama. While it was difficult to hear the lines delivered by actors and musicians—further muddying an already convoluted narrative—the sheer spectacle and precision of the set more than compensated for its shortcomings.

In contrast, the Norwegian trio Gurls kept things simple and direct, with saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg and bassist Ellen Andrea Wang translating jazz language into buoyant, pop-driven lines of impressive concision to support the playful, charismatic singing of Rohey Taalah, who employed the cadences of hip-hop, yodels and r&b with disarming ease. What the set lacked in exploration it countered with a clear-eyed vision and deft execution.

By its curatorial nature the festival yielded a mixed bag. But it was hard not to admire how such an event, marked by high-end production, provided a platform for risk-taking. Even more impressive was that each night drew capacity crowds for decidedly noncommercial sounds. DB

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