Jazzahead 2019, Bremen

Pascal Dorban relishes three intense days at the popular German jazz trade fair

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Many superlatives come to mind when attending this event. Jazzahead hasn’t stopped growing since it started in 2006, and if one thing’s for sure, three days is definitely not enough time to attend the many showcases and still manage to network your way across the various booths at Bremen’s jazz trade fair.

It is certainly a wonderful opportunity for jazz professionals from across the globe to meet and mingle in a relaxed atmosphere and enjoy the carefully selected showcases.

Day one of the event traditionally opens with acts from a partner country, followed by the European Jazz Meeting on day two. On day three, the German Jazz Expo takes place in the daytime while the Overseas Night event takes us through to the early hours of the next day.

Across three venues professionals and jazz aficionados alike can experience the variety of today’s jazz scene, this year starting with Norway. After Denmark featured as partner country in 2014 and Finland in 2017, it was only fair that Norway would one day follow.

Not many saxophone players blow into a goat horn but Karl Seglem produced another jazz angle by doing just that, alongside his tenor saxophone. With his five compatriots, notably Espen Berg, who would be featured with his own trio in the later part of the evening, Karl Seglem invites us on a Nordic voyage in which Helga Myhr’s hardanger fiddle plays an essential role.

The lines between Norwegian folk and jazz were blurred on several occasions that evening, notably thanks to accordion player Frode Haltli and his aptly named Avant Folk ensemble, a cast of Norwegian musicians spanning all ages, generations and genres.

On the Schachthof stage, Skadedyr, another large ensemble formed in 2011, brought together 12 young creative musicians whose music, based on collective arranging, provides much improvisational freedom.

‘We had the privilege of witnessing an excellent example of jazz-mugham, a unique fusion of traditional styles of Persian improvisation with jazz dating back to the time of Azerbaijani master piano player, Vagif Mustafazedeh’

The 50-year-old ECM label has long been known for producing many exceptional Norwegian artists, and drummer Thomas Stronen’s project Time Is A Blind Guide managed to ignite the stage with a true chamber music ensemble, demonstrating that Nordic tone epitomised by Jan Garbarek.

Another sought-after drummer, Gard Nilssen, illuminated the evening with his energetic Acoustic Unity trio. With André Roligheten on saxophone and Ole Morten Vagan on double bass, the trio’s performance was certainly one of the best showcases of the entire festival and their unplugged music struck a chord with the crowd.

Last but not least, vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen and her West African project featuring Suntou Susso on kora was a perfect example of fine jazz without boundaries.

It is certainly not easy to get selected for a Jazzahead showcase, as the international jury is swamped with hundreds of applications. This year for the very first time though, Luxembourg was awarded the privilege of having one of its finest bands, the Reis-Demuth-Wiltgen trio, feature among the 16 European jazz projects selected to perform on day two.

The trio presented their second Cam Jazz recording on stage, a wonderful album of original compositions produced by Ermanno Basso, who continues his successful collaboration with Luxembourg jazz musicians. Many other great bands were featured that day, and if you think that the larger the country, the more chances of being selected, you’re wrong – Iceland, Belgium and Portugal each had no less than two projects on stage.

As for the larger countries, Italy’s ECM artist Giovanni Guidi’s brand new band and French flautist Naïssam Jalal were unquestionably the top performers of the day. It was no surprise that Giovanni Guidi yet again exceeded the audience’s expectations (taking us back to his outstanding 2014 appearance at the Sendesaal as part of the Jazzahead clubnight), but very few people knew what to expect from Naïssam Jalal’s latest project, the Quest of the Invisible, a subtle encounter between traditional mystic music and modal jazz. It is fair to say though that she captivated the entire audience.

The German Jazz Expo on day three undeniably exemplified the rich diversity of European jazz, notably through the transgression of time and language by vocalist Simin Tander, the daughter of an Afghan father and German mother, and cellist Jörg Brinkmann. Having started with medieval French music, this extraordinary duo ended the showcase with a song in her father’s language.

Another German vocalist, Maria Küster, shone throughout the entire performance of her quintet, known as Der Weisse Panda. The evening went on with the sold-out Overseas Night, while the whole city of Bremen was buzzing, with jazz gigs taking place across 34 different venues.

As the youngest artist ever to be endorsed by Hammond at age 13, and the youngest ever Yamaha Artist at age 15, Matthew Whitaker, a blind 18-year-old US musician, started his showcase with a powerful Hammond rendition of a Beatles tune and kept the audience on their feet almost throughout the whole performance, ending with a very danceable cover of one by the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire.

This year, we also had the privilege of witnessing an excellent example of jazz-mugham, a unique fusion of traditional styles of Persian improvisation with jazz dating back to the time of Azerbaijani master piano player, Vagif Mustafazedeh. As one of Mustafazadeh’s most prominent followers, Isfar Sarabaski brought on stage a fascinating quartet made up of two Russian musicians and fellow country man, tar player Behruz Zeynal. 

After these three intense days, you might feel tempted to rest a bit before the May festival season kicks off, with events in Trondheim, Dudelange and Coutances. Next year will mark a double anniversary for the Jazzahead, celebrating 15 years since its creation and 10 years since the first partner country took the stage.

Jazzahead 2019, Messe Bremen, 25-28 April 2019