Saalfelden Festival Offers Good Vibes

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Elliott Sharp (left) and Lukas König perform at Saalfelden.

(Photo: Matthias Heschl)

When it comes to jazz festivals of an adventurous bent, blessed with an idyllic setting, Austria’s International Jazzfestival Saalfelden has become something of a standard bearer. Nestled in the Austrian alps, but easily accessible via Salzburg, this adventurous event—celebrating its 40th anniversary Aug. 22–25—long has been considered a thriving component of the European festival scene.

A wondrous convergence of site and sound has been key to the festival’s growth. Artistic Director Mario Steidl, in charge for the past 15 years, noted that “most of the stages are inside, but Saalfelden is surrounded by a very beautiful landscape. We are in the middle of the Alps, in the middle of nowhere—but one hour away from the Salzburg airport. But we also have concerts outside and in alpine cabins.”

Primarily, concerts take place on a main stage and in the “Shortcuts” series, at the Kunsthaus Nexus venue. For the 40th edition, Steidl said, “We are trying to create new places and spaces to hang out, new stages to explore new music—and also [attract] new audiences.

“We have two Austrian artists-in-residence who will play concerts in an old empty building, which earlier had been a court. We have concerts in bookstores, in a park and up in the mountains. Musicians will hike with the audience. We connect visual art projects in our exhibition hall with improvising musicians. In general, I want to leave more space for spontaneous meetings of musicians to improvise.”

This year’s program includes Austrian artists-in-residence Lukas König and Maja Osojnik, and performances by Orjazztra Vienna, Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli and saxophone dynamo Mette Rasmussen, and the triple saxophone-led Swedish-Finnish-German confab Koma Saxo. The U.S. contingent features a grouping of Sylvie Courvoisier, Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley and Tom Rainey; the Anna Webber Septet; Joshua Redman’s band; and drummer, bandleader and project-maker Jim Black, who is a Saalfelden veteran.

Black first performed there in 2000, with his band AlasNoAxis. He fondly recalled, “It was like no other jazz fest I had ever been to, with a luxury backstage area for musicians and press in a huge tent, a massive stage, and hundreds of concertgoers and campers. I started going there again in 2007 after many years to perform, and have been back every year, whether performing or not, simply because the hang and vibe are so good. I can see my friends and promoters who have watched me grow up on the scene. The music always [includes] something worth discovering.”

This year, Black—a U.S. native now based in Berlin—brings “MeoW,” a project he described as “an insane collective of free-improv meets messed-up/nice beats.”

In broad terms, Saalfelden belongs in a category of jazz festivals willfully embracing avant-garde or genre-pushing sensibilities, such as Jazz em Agosto, Moers, Molde Jazz Festival and FIMAV. Black said that each of those festivals “has its own particular quirky lineup and agenda, all of them vital to the scene.” But he added that “Saalfelden might be the least commercial—yet it offers the widest possible range of music presented among any of the other festivals.”

Musicians from more than 50 countries are part of this year’s lineup.

“There are many festivals producing events not only to please their audiences, but especially to showcase young, innovative musicians—and our team thinks along the same lines,” said Steidl, an avid collaborator and networker with other jazz fests in Europe and beyond. “Our future lies in an exchange of ideas with other festival organizers for the benefit of musicians. And that’s the reason why we try to be a meeting point for promoters and many people working in the jazz scene.”

Steidl’s path to his role as director is one that he said might “sound like a kind of an American dream.” Drawn to jazz through his uncle’s tutelage, he had early exposure to the Saalfelden festival as an avid audience member, and then as a construction worker, helping to build the large tent where the festival was held until 2004. Around that time, Steidl recalled, “The festival took a huge financial nosedive and then they asked me and my wife to run the festival. So, short version: As a music lover, I have made my way from a construction worker of the festival to the artistic director.” Besides working for the festival, Steidl runs the Kunsthaus Nexus, a year-round, multidisciplinary venue.

“In general, artists in the Austrian jazz scene are very open-minded,” Steidl continued, explaining how the festival is a reliable source for new jazz from Austria, which often is marked by a fresh, inventive spirit. “Rather than looking up to and constantly quoting idols from jazz or classical music, they try to overcome tried-and-true musical styles. But instead of showcasing Austrian musicians, I show them as a part of the program and pay them as I pay all other musicians.”

For Steidl, good hospitality is essential: “It is very important to be a great host for all the people visiting our festival, no matter if it’s guests or musicians. People should feel that we want to give them a beautiful time with nice people. Through music, we are connecting people, and that’s a great and nice task.” DB



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