Working Toward Global Unity at jazzahead!


On a train traveling from Hamburg to Bremen, Germany, a Scott Joplin rag tumbles out of a passenger’s mobile phone, announcing an incoming call. Between April 25 and 28, the music almost was inescapable in Bremen during the 14th annual edition of jazzahead!, a music festival and trade fair.

That kind of connection to the music meshed with the unknown as thousands of people poured into the northwestern German city.

On Thursday, the Norwegian Night showcase featured a batch of performers, ranging from The Espen Berg Trio’s still-maturing take on the format to avant-garde experimentation and investigations of the Scandinavian nation’s folk tradition. But at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof—a music venue adjacent to where the trade fair and two other performance stages were located—the Hedvig Mollestad Trio dispensed sludgy jams that sounded a bit like Blue Cheer and Cream stuffed into a room with some mid-’70s Miles.

Molstead hopped off stage for guitar solos, climbed back up and continued shredding without pause. Bassist Ellen Brekken, who switched between acoustic and electric and plucked out notes with a pick at points, provided a roiling low end to the proceedings that might have made the uninitiated figure she was the band’s focal point. The 30-minute set segued flawlessly from composition to composition as heshers nodded in time, some standing to applaud at the set’s conclusion.

Traffic picked up considerably Friday at the trade fair as attendees visited scores of booths dedicated to individual scenes from nations across Europe (and North America). Musicians, talent bookers, managers, agents and label heads milled about—some with a plan and some improvising their way through the day—all angling to forge new connections.

“There gets to be a point where it’s all about who you know. And if you don’t know anyone, how do you get things happening for your band?” asked Lisa Marie Simmons, a U.S. vocalist now based in Italy who has a new project. She was spreading the word on NoteSpeak and prior to the event she’d conducted considerable research about the industry insiders she hoped to meet. “An artist who really wants to grow needs to take a lot of responsibility for the business end. It’s unfortunate, but if you’re going to sit in your studio and write, no one’s going to hear you. You have to go out and find those contacts.”

That afternoon—an odd time to absorb music typically confined to late-night clubs—The Makiko Hirabayashi Trio, propelled by drummer Marilyn Mazur and a coterie of tiny chimes and cymbals, performed in one of the halls next to the trade fair. The set streamed live and is now available on YouTube.

“We’re working on attracting new people year-round. We go to other conventions … but [word-of-mouth] is our best friend,” said Sybille Kornitschky, the jazzahead! project manager. “Our live recordings do a huge amount of this. They help us promote jazzahead! worldwide; we can’t do traditional marketing in the frame of each country. To be honest, our aim is not to attract more people, but to increase the quality of people attending.”

Rob Young, former editor of UK’s The Wire and currently working at Norway’s Jazznytt magazine, eyed the artistic and commercial dichotomy. But the music journalist—author of a 2018 book on German band Can and editor of a compilation of pieces on Norway’s jazz scene—saw jazzahead! as a place to forge some sort of cohesive identity.

“These kinds of gatherings are always great to have,” Young said. “In the kind of trade fair context, it can be a little soulless sometimes. But looking around, people seem to manage to have good personal connections, even so, despite the clinical atmosphere. I think communication and face-to-face contact is really important, especially in culture. ... It’s about building networks, especially in Europe, literally on the level of making infrastructure. Europe itself is about trying to find ways to disregard borders. That’s what the European project has had to be since the war. So, culture and the arts has had a massive role in helping with that.”

While jazzahead! largely is focused on the European market, the States and its history still play a significant role in the music, as well as people’s expectations.

According to Michael Gottfried, communications manager for Germany’s ACT label, with the exception of major-label groups and artists, he said, “we don’t hear much” from the U.S. scene.

He snowballed a bit: “I think we’re much more flexible about what jazz is. Between John Coltrane and Jan Garbarek, there’s a connection, but the music’s totally different. That’s the beautiful thing: It doesn’t need a definition. What connects our recordings is jazz as a spirit.”

Trombinist, bandleader and label honcho Janning Trumann assuredly led a sextet through left-field acoustic groove during Saturday’s German Jazz Expo. Later that evening at the Schlachthof, as bassist Linda May Han Oh’s New York-based quartet showcased a swinging freedom sometimes absent from other sets at jazzahead!, drummer Rudy Royston ably displayed a flowing facility for percussion and humor. Trumann and Oh’s bands might not have shared many sonic similarities, but distinctive personalities gathering at a single location every year ideally enables the music—and the organizations that support it—to be smeared and smudged into new and surprising colors and shapes.

“I was working at the Women in Jazz Organization table, and there were a lot of women coming up saying, ‘We’re doing this isolated thing in our country. How can we all connect with each other?’” New York saxophonist Jessica Jones recounted during a visit to the DownBeat booth late on Saturday. “That’s an ongoing thing that I’m seeing.”

Jones said she’d made some potentially useful connections, but had been counseled to arrive without any preconceived notions of what she’d experience. The event wound up being less sterile than she’d expected for an event that touts itself as a trade fair. But after attending her first jazzahead!, would the bandleader make the trek back to Germany again?

“Definitely,” Jones said. “I feel like I just lifted the corner of the rug.” DB

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