Review: Berlin Jazz Festival 2017

Brian Payne awards 10 marks out of 10 to the Berlin Jazz Festival, directed for the final time by Richard Williams and featuring jazz and hip-hop

With a cold snap in the air and autumn leaves underfoot, Berlin Jazz Festival took place from 31 October to 5 November. After three years at the helm as artistic director it was Richard Williams's last hurrah and I was intrigued to see whether this year's festival would be as successful as his first two.

The bulk of the performances were at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, the city's thousand-seater theatre designed to enable stage performances to be seen and heard from anywhere in the auditorium. In a departure from the norm, the Lido, a former cinema and now alternative music venue in Kreuzberg was chosen to host the festival for the first two nights. In a grittier part of the city known for its itinerant lifestyles and street graffiti, Kreuzberg has over the years been home to Berlin's punk-rock movement and other diverse countercultures.

First up at the Lido were Heroes Are Gang Leaders - the New York based collective formed in 2014 by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis to celebrate the work of Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones. This visually interesting band fused elements of free jazz with hip-hop and black poetry. Its front line of five vocalists delivered a repertoire that was clearly designed to be confrontational, aiming to awaken us to the political concerns of black people in contemporary America. The searching and powerful voice of the magnetic lead singer, Margaret Morris (pictured above right), was outstanding. It's a pity that due to a mixing error some of the poetry was drowned out by overloud bass and drums.

British born Shabaka Hutchings (pictured left) has been travelling to South Africa for the past three years and he brought some of the musicians he met there to the Lido. His band, Shabaka and the Ancestors, delivered a set of what he calls Afro-Futurism with free jazz, some Caribbean calypso and the experimentalism of Sun Ra's spiritual jazz mixed with African rhythms (Hutchings once played with the Arkestra). It went down well with the packed Lido crowd.

The second Lido night found the New York quartet, Amirtha Kisambi & Elder Ones, fusing free jazz with classical South Indian Carnatic music. With influences derived from the experimental music of Alice Coltrane, harmonium player Kisambi sang her mostly wordless compositions in the bhajan tradition. Her versatile band comprised Matt Nelson on soprano sax, Nick Dunstan on double bass and Max Jaffe drums. They were followed by Steve Lehman's septet Sélébéyone with their combination of hip hop, spectral music (using computer analysis of sound waves), progressive jazz and rapping in Wolof, the language of Senegal. Whilst for me exposure to hip-hop over two nights in succession was maybe a hop too far, the audience clearly loved it.

Back at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on the following evening, Tyshawn Sorey opened the sequence of concerts there with his trio of Cory Smythe on piano, Chris Tordini on double bass and himself on drums surrounded by a massive array of orchestral-sized cymbals, bells and gongs. Sorey's composition which comprised the whole of the set was reminiscent of Morton Feldman's work with slowly evolving music and recurring patterns building in intensity. Despite Smythe's protracted opening of a two-chord repetition on the piano trying the patience of many, the net result of the set was intriguing.

Sorey was the festival's first artist in residence, a position which afforded the opportunity for him to exhibit interests and abilities in a wider context than normal. Thus he was seen in a different trio later on with saxophonist Angelica Niescier and bassist Chris Tordini when the former was awarded the Union of Jazz Musicians Albert Mangelsdorff prize. In a late-night set Sorey played piano as well as drums in a free-jazz duo with saxophonist and bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann - they had never played together before. And on the last night he conducted an ensemble of 20 musicians from the Berlin scene with a specially commissioned piece demonstrating his adaptation of Butch Morris's “conduction” method by pointing at individuals and holding up large cards on which he had written real-time instructions as they played. This might have been more instructive as a demonstration of the method if the audience could have also had sight of the commands that were written.

The Norwegian arranger and composer, Geir Lysne conducted Hamburg's NDR Bigband in a world premiere of his new work Abstracts From Norway. This was an absorbing suite of eight pieces, each allowing individual soloists to shine. Central to the whole suite was the excellent and all consuming guitar work of Eivind Aarset. Claus Stötter on trumpet, Christof Lauer on tenor sax and Daniel Buch on baritone sax were exemplary, to name but three. Solveig Slettahjell's passionate singing was superb.

Singer Monika Vasconcelos took one of the festival's late-night slots on the side stage with her band comprising Steve Lodder on piano, Ife Tolentino guitar, Andrés Lafone electric bass, Yaron Stavi double bass, Marius Rodrigue on drums and guest saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. It was the first time in 10 years that Vasconcelos and Laubrock had performed together. Vasconcelos's family lived in Brazil under the military dictatorship which seized power in a coup in 1964 and then lasted for two decades. She sang numbers from her recent album Säo Paulo Tapes, songs which were written by composers such as Buarque and Veloso during the repression. The place was packed and the audience rose in appreciation at the end.

Ambrose Akinmusire's band on the main stage delivered one of the most dramatic performances of the festival with a set inspired by haunting recordings made in 1939 of Mattie Mae Thomas, a female inmate in the infamous Parchman prison farm in Mississippi. During the set we heard, by means of cleverly linked tape recording, two voices singing in unison but 80 years apart. The voice on stage was that of baritone Dean Bowman whose sonorous and baleful tones hit just the right pitch to convey the despair experienced by Mattie Mae. With Akinmusire on trumpet, Gerald Clayton piano, Marvin Sewell guitar, Joe Sanders on double bass and Kendrick Scott on drums this was a unique performance. Judging by the massive ovation at the close I think the audience in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele felt likewise.

At the A-Trane, the atmospheric little jazz club on the corner of Bleibtreustrasse and Pestalozzistrasse, three evening performances titled the Berlin-London Conversations each featured a quartet comprising musicians from both cities. The first night had Orphy Robinson on vibes and Pat Thomas on piano from the UK playing with Berlin-based Jean-Paul Bourelly on guitar and Frank Gratkowski on alto sax and bass clarinet. On the second night, pianist Kit Downes (pictured above right) and cellist Lucy Railton performed with Berliners Philipp Gropper on tenor sax and Oliver Steidle on drums. Railton and Downes were also chosen to play at a pre-festival reception for the president of Germany (a jazz buff) at his official residence. The third Berlin-London conversation at the A-Trane saw pianist Sarah Tandy and bassist Daniel Casimir from London with saxophonist Silke Eberhard and drummer Kay Lübke. These were close-up performances in a really good venue.

Michael Wollny is usually seen in trio format but at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on the Friday night he gave a rare solo piano recital. In jeans, worn-out trainers and tousled hair Wollny looked like someone who had wandered onto the main stage by mistake. But then he sat down at the Steinway and proceeded to amaze us. With mounting crescendos, his delivery of Mock Suns from Schubert's Winter Journey was played at such velocity that his hands were a blur - he sounded like three pianists at once. His interpretation of Rautavaara's Concerto For Birds And Orchestra for the finale was striking bringing tremendous applause. To say that Wollny's playing was remarkable is probably an understatement.

Another pianist, René Urtreger (aged 83), gave a solo recital at Berlin's Institut Français. Urtreger was a member of Miles Davis's quintet which recorded the jazz soundtrack to Louis Malle's 1958 film Lift To The Scaffold starring Jeanne Moreau. The music played by the quintet anticipated Kind Of Blue. After a screening of the film at the Institut, Urtreger played some of the bebop classics and relayed anecdotes about his life in jazz. Over the years he has played with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton, Chet Baker and Dexter Gordon amongst others. It was interesting to hear that Bud Powell, whom Urtreger respected, never praised or gave the young Urtreger encouragement. However, Davis told him that Powell was always carefully watching the up and coming pianist from behind a curtain each time he played in the Paris jazz clubs. We learnt also that Davis was apparently more interested in chatting up Urtreger's sister than in rehearsing for the soundtrack.

The Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz, a tall modernist church constructed in the 1930s, was selected for its acoustic qualities to stage the specially commissioned premier of Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's Maqam/Brass Resonance. With the Berlin-based trio Zinc & Copper extended into a seven-piece ensemble for the occasion, the piece successfully combined contemporary jazz with traditional Maqam music. Every seat in this capacious building was taken and the atmospheric performance was enthusiastically received. I suspect ElSaffar may be asked back in the future.

Empirical played Saturday's early evening set at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with Nathaniel Facey on alto sax, Lewis Wright on vibes, Tom Farmer on double bass and Shaney Forbes on drums. In smart suits they cut dashing figures on stage and delivered a polished mix of post-bop and contemporary jazz. Again, it was a full house. Each of the band members took a share in developing rapport with the audience by introducing the numbers. Judging by the rate of signed CD sales after the set they were very popular.

Nels Cline (pictured left), guitarist with the alternative rock band Wilco, followed with his Lovers project. His original take on orchestral jazz is something Cline had been planning for decades and he has recently recorded it on Blue Note. The performance with an orchestra of classically trained musicians conducted by trumpeter Michael Leonhart combined the mood music of a bygone era, 60s film scores and jazz standards together with Cline originals and the likes of Jimmy Giuffre and Sonic Youth. For instance we heard Cline's versions of Secret Love and Where’s The Cat from Mancini's Breakfast At Tiffany's. Also themes from The Night Porter along with Annette Peacock's So Hard It Hurts and Sonic Youth's Snare Girl from the album A Thousand Leaves. Before the concert I had wondered whether some of the content might be a little schmaltzy but it wasn't at all. The unusual re-arrangements drew you in and held you there right until the last note.

Dr Lonnie Smith's trio closed Saturday night on the main stage with the “Doc” on Hammond organ, Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar and Xavier Breaker on drums. As expected this was bright, rousing stuff. Later, on the side stage, we had the trio Punkt.Vrt.Plastik. This comprised Kaja Draksler, the Slovenian composer who is based in Amsterdam and resident pianist at the Bimhuis, Swedish Petter Eldh on double bass and German precision drummer Christian Lillinger. Lillinger has played with Evan Parker, Joe Lovano and von Slippenbach. This was an exciting and often intense set drawing from the classical and free-jazz backgrounds of the trio. They're well worth looking out for if you get the chance.

I had to miss John Beasley's Monk'estra Big Band set on Sunday night but oddly I bumped into him in the canteen earlier on looking anxious because his laptop had been mislaid. I hope his music scores weren't on it.

The penultimate concert of the festival was a stand out performance by sisters Ingrid and Christine Jensen (pictured right) with Ben Monder and their quintet, Infinitude. This had Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Christine Jensen on alto and soprano sax, Ben Monder on electric and Hammertone guitar, Fraser Hollins on bass and Jon Wikan on drums. Monder played guitar on David Bowie's last album Blackstar. All the numbers played by the quintet were originals composed by the Jensens apart from Monder's Echolia and Kenny Wheeler's Old Time. The set combined haunting melodies with accelerating passages of sheer exuberance - Ingrid Jensen's trumpet runs from high to low and back again were particularly startling.

Richard Williams has stretched the envelope this year to include more provocative musical combinations than usual with the risk that this might alienate the more regular Berlin Jazz Festival goers. Whether some of the new work was “real jazz” or not is unanswered - and perhaps unanswerable. It was a daring balancing act to attempt but I think he succeeded. Marks out of 10 for this year's festival? … Full marks!

Photos by Brian Payne

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