Jazzahead trade fair returns after the pandemic

The international jazz trade fair in Bremen was held for the first time since 2019, this time with the spotlight on Canada

Canadian trombonist Audrey Ochoa at Jazzahead in April 2022. Photo by Jens Schlenker

“It’s been a long time coming” was a phrase repeated frequently, either on stage or among the audience of the much awaited 2022 edition of Jazzahead in Bremen. Who could have guessed, when the 2019 edition was closing with Canada officially announced as the next partner country, that, thanks to the pandemic, three long years would be needed to eventually get there again?

As the first ever non-European partner country, Canada showcased eight projects on the evening of the first day. Unfortunately, due to Covid regulations still in place before the fair kicked off, the organisers chose to programme some showcases simultaneously. As cloning technology is still not available for human beings, this made it relatively difficult to attend all the gigs.

Among the Canadian highlights, Montréal pianist François Bourassa, whose remarkable solo album came out last year on Effendi records, brought his award-winning quartet that has been a pillar of Montréal’s musical landscape for more than 25 years. While Bourassa was enchanting the audience in Hall 2, another quartet illuminated Hall 4. Itamar Erez, strongly showing his Middle Eastern roots, was brilliantly joined on stage by clarinet player, François Houle. The Quebec-born reedist is better known for his avant-garde works on the Songlines label, notably through his long-time collaboration with Benoît Delbecq.

Dédé Java Espiritu, the project that came next that night, is not a Caribbean spiced rum but rather the name chosen by Montréal pianist Marianne Trudel to feature her duo with drummer John Hollenbeck. There was no need for a double-bass player as the two partners in crime relentlessly merged into a single percussive yet melodic instrument. Two other women bandleaders, trombonist Audrey Ochoa and trumpet player Steph Richards, had me running from one venue to another to catch glimpses of their very distinctive talents. While pregnant Steph Richards excelled as an adventurous innovator, Audrey Ochoa’s more mainstream approach was nevertheless a treat for the audience.

The Canadian day had started in the middle of Thursday afternoon with a official speech musically introduced by eclectic and Arabic infused Vancouver band Haram, one of the many projects led by Gordon Grdina and a fine example of Canada’s musical and cultural diversity, and it would end with a leading free-jazz trio from Québec. The appearance of Juno-winning Montréal saxophonist François Carrier led one to wonder whether there was a shortage of male first names in Québec. He has a long history with Québec City percussionist Michel Lambert, a good buddy of Alain Bédard, not just owner and producer of Effendi Records, but a pivotal figure on the Montréal jazz scene. Carrier and Lambert both relied in their trio setting on British jazz bass phenomenon, John Edwards.

As Canada successfully graduated as Jazzahead partner , another country distinguished itself during the European Jazz Meeting held on the second day of the 16th Jazzahead edition. With four showcases each out of a total of 16 selected by an international panel, France and Spain were the lucky “winners” but it is the latter that clearly exceeded all expectations.

With already two albums as a leader on ACT Music, Salamanca-born pianist Daniel García certainly needs no introduction. His deep knowledge of Spanish music seems to flow naturally through the chords of his piano, turning it into what one would be tempted to call a flamenco instrument. No wonder his acclaimed mastery meant he shared the Schlachthof stage later that day with saxophonist and flamenco vocalist Antonio Lizada. Rather than having the worlds of flamenco and jazz collide, Lizada successfully blended the two improvisation-based musical arts, notably with the help of flamenco dancer El Mawi. If one thought that was all, then came Claudio Constantini, the Peruvian bandoneonist and pianist now based in Spain. Both a melodist and lyricist of the highest order, Constantini, who sometimes played both instruments at the same time, is already an internationally acclaimed instrumentalist.

Constantini’s talent was unparalleled that day with the notable exception of the powerful Jazz Forum talents. This ensemble, brought together in 2019 by the famous Polish jazz magazine, is a fine example of Polish jazz scene luminaries, with each of the septet members a bandleader and a sought-after sideman.

Between cocktails, receptions, meetings and networking activities, the Jazzahead participants see time running much faster than in the outside world and three days never seems to be enough to fully enjoy the whole thing. With fewer participants than in previous years, yet still a nice total of 2,700 individuals, the 2022 edition closed on Saturday, first with the German jazz expo traditionally held in the afternoon to be followed by the overseas night. The German jazz expo notably highlighted two outstanding trios led by young and promising individuals. With his exciting debut album on ACT Music last year, pianist Vincent Meissner displayed his talent on stage while singer, pianist and lyricist Clara Haberkamp chose for her latest project a pure instrumental approach, beautifully captured on the Schlachthof stage.

The Ukraine war is never far from anyone these days and while the exhibition centre was hosting Jazzahead, it served also as a home for hundreds of Ukrainian refugees. The beautiful voice of Ukrainian-born Viktoria Leleka resonated vividly in our ears in the circus tent, a newly-added venue set in front of the Schachthof.

Many travelled from distant places to make it to the beautiful Hanseatic city of Bremen, some participants having to unfortunately endure the trouble caused by a KLM strike at Amsterdam airport. Australians are definitely marathon travellers, needing some 35 hours to get to Germany. Sydney-based Brekky Boy trio is certainly not as well known as Go Go Penguin but is nevertheless a bright example of a powerhouse trio made in Australia. While the US and the Sunnyside record label were cleverly represented by German-born saxophone player Tobias Meinhart, with his colourful impressionistic project aptly named “the painter”, the South American continent sent two wonderful instrumentalists. Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro, who started playing at the age of six, has been hailed by his peers, notably Pat Metheny. While now a fixture on the US jazz scene, Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, the first female instrumentalist to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute prize, presented her new Blue Note debut album.

All good things must come to an end but at least this time we shouldn’t have to wait three years to attend the 2023 edition. Germany will be acting both as host and partner country.