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Blindfold Test: Joey Baron
At 68, Joey Baron has been a lifelong connoisseur of the nuances of groove and melody-oriented drumming. Over his…
In curating Jazzfest Berlin, Artistic Director Nadin Deventer always looks for a unifying narrative. For this year’s edition, which ran Nov. 5–8, the fest’s narrative wrote itself—but the plot twists kept Deventer hustling for months.
“To do this festival in the time of COVID was unbelievable,” she said in a Zoom call from Berlin. “We already had a hundred balls in the air, and then the world turned upside down.”
Deventer and her two-person production team had just finalized their programming for the November event when the virus struck in March. JazzFest Berlin, now in its 57th year, typically showcases 30–40 events each edition, leaning toward the avant-garde, the experimental and the outré.
Uncertain of how the pandemic would proceed, the team remained optimistic. But by summer, new social distancing regulations in Germany translated into a loss of almost 90 percent of the festival’s seats at the performance space called silent green—a financial blow and an artistic upset. Deventer was forced to reassess programming.
In June, she reached out to Roulette Intermedium, a like-minded music venue in downtown Brooklyn, with a proposition: a livestreamed concert experience, before limited audiences. “JazzFest Berlin–New York,” as the nucleus of the broader festival, would encompass 12 sets on Nov. 6–7, aired in tandem from the two cultural capitals. Roulette agreed.
“Then we started inventing our transatlantic bridge,” Deventer said.
That bridge was a complex tech hookup between the two stages, designed to deliver TV-quality broadcasts of live performances via the respective websites of Roulette, ARTE Concert and Berliner Festspiele on Demand.
Deventer’s foresight proved fortuitous, given increasing pandemic-related restrictions: By September, foreign musicians were unable to travel to Berlin. And by late October, the German government had canceled all large events throughout the country. But the concerts, deployed via the transatlantic bridge, could happen as planned.
Under the close scrutiny of Roulette’s built-in camera system, the New York performances took on an immediacy rarely felt from an orchestra seat. Through the high-precision video, the remote audience could see how altoist Lakecia Benjamin’s unruffled concentration sustained her breakneck solos on tunes from her March release, Pursuance: The Coltranes (Ropeadope), during the opening set on Nov. 6. How the freewheeling ethos of reedist Anna Webber’s compositions—who played from her album Clockwise (Pi) later that day—actually arises out of her septet’s meticulous attention to written scores. How graciously inclusive vibraphonist Joel Ross, who opened on Nov. 7, interacts with his Good Vibes band, as they interpret his sweepingly romantic compositions from Who Are You? (Blue Note). And how effortlessly drummer Tomas Fujiwara drives the spontaneous passages of his cleverly configured sextet, Triple Double.
Likewise, a tight camera zeroed in on Lina Allemano, the first Berlin headliner on Nov. 6, to reveal how she and her trio, Ohrenschmaus, make the odd sounds (a bow on the electric bass, a stick through a punctured drum head) that characterize the trumpeter’s open-structured compositions. At the end of that day’s program in Berlin, keyboardist Dan Nicholls and drummer Ludwig Wandinger, awash in blue light, used moody electronics and sleek hip-hop techniques to refashion the ambient moods of the experimental group Y-Otis. And the next day, drummer Jim Black’s eponymous trio focused intently on their instruments throughout indefatigable improvising—a visual that underscored the visceral.
In the middle of the festival’s most dramatic performance on Nov. 7—that of the funny, raucous free-jazz quartet MEOW!—Deventer held her cell phone up to the camera in Germany. “Joe Biden beats Donald Trump to win U.S. election,” read the screen.
Deventer later explained the significance of that moment. “The political and social events that happened in the U.S. over the summer encouraged us to focus on New York-based artists,” she said. “It’s an important cultural exchange.”
But back in Brooklyn, sounds of celebration in the streets were leaking onto the Roulette stage as saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis launched into a program of contemplative, minimalist compositions from their album Blood Moon (Intakt). In a post-performance discussion, WBGO’s Keanna Faircloth noted the cheering outside.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it,” she remarked. (In New York, Faircloth shared moderator duties with colleague Nate Chinen.)
Cheers were, however, the main thing missing from the broadcasts. For improvisatory artists like pianist Craig Taborn, a participatory crowd contributes vital energy to a live performance. At Roulette on Nov. 6, his new compositions for trio reeled intoxicatingly from one rousing musical notion to the next, finishing with an expectant outro in an empty hall.
“Where you really notice the [lack of audience] is at the end of the tune,” Taborn later told DownBeat. “There’s a weird feeling of—‘Are we done?’”
Noting the same feeling, saxophonist Silke Eberhard intentionally grouped her 10-player ensemble, Potsa Lotsa XL, in a circle on the Berlin stage for the final set on Nov. 7. Vibrant and refreshing, her program honoring saxophone legend Henry Threadgill, Silver and Gold, Baby, Silver and Gold, emphasized playfulness over bite for an apt denouement of the festival’s eventful storyline.
In an unexpected email sent just after the concert’s close, Threadgill thanked the saxophonist for her tribute. Eberhard explained: “That was the best thing that could have happened.”
Not the only good thing, however. By the end of the weekend, 40,000 viewers—enough to fill an arena—had visited the festival’s site. “That’s of another dimension,” Deventer observed. DB
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