Jazzahead 2023, Bremen, Germany

    This year's jazz 'trade fair' as usual mixed business with pleasure, including music from Harold Lopez Nussa, Ingrid Laubrock and others

    Till Brönner at Jazzahead 2023

    After last year’s rather clumsy decision to have simultaneous showcases, Jazzahead (styled commercially as the typographically awkward “jazzahead!”) returned in 2023 to its original format of allowing a large audience to taste a very diverse programme throughout the three days of the festival. Instead of the usual modules normally set on fixed dates (German Expo, European and Overseas showcases), the organisers had a brilliant idea of mixing them all up. This way, we could hear a German project and then move on to check a European or overseas showcase, and so on and so forth. Time is of the essence and, while the trade fair is running every day from 10:00 to 19:00, it’s always a challenge to check out as many showcases as possible, notably in late afternoon when trying to escape the alternative temptations of the various country cocktail receptions.

    One of the highlights of the first day was a major opening ceremony which was very well-attended. There was live music from, among others, two of Germany’ leading jazz musicians, trumpeter Till Brönner and bassist Dieter Ilg.

    Set between two German showcases, Harold Lopez Nussa, the Cuban pianist now a French resident, gave an outstanding performance at the Schlachthof (the attendees’ favourite venue which, as the name translates, used to be a slaughterhouse). His “Timba a la Americana” quartet features his brother on drums, bassist Luques Curtis and last but not least, master of the harmonica, Grégoire Maret. Even though the two Lopez Nussa brothers are happy to live in France, they also get homesick for their native land (and who wouldn’t in this case?). Hence an original tune Mal Du Pays that sent shivers through the crowd. Throughout the 45-minute showcase, Maret’s lyricism was beautifully coupled with the pianist’s Cuban heritage and made me eager to hear his upcoming Morricone tribute album on ACT Music. As Hemingway would say, “Never too early for a daiquiri.” So a mid-afternoon Cuban jazz gig sounds just like the perfect time to throw musical fireworks. It was so great to attend that gig on day one, when some other performances unfortunately did not match even the most basic expectations one could have.

    After two very distinctive German showcases by Berlin based multi-influenced Conic Rose quintet and Jonas Engel’s uncompromising improvisations, Cuba was back in the limelight with cellist Ana Carla Maza. Seated with her cello between her legs, she deliberately invited the audience to what she called an imaginary trip to Latin America. As far as I was concerned, I hadn’t really left the cobblestone streets of Habana Vieja thanks to Harold Lopez Nussa’s outstanding performance earlier. But as much as she tried entertaining the crowd though, I personally never really got hooked as she went into too many directions within a limited time frame.

    Unlike in previous years, the Club Night, featuring musicians spread between 30 different places in the city, took place on Friday night instead of Saturday. Regardless of the day, it’s always a hard task to choose where to go, especially when there’s a strong temptation to stick to the official showcases routine. However, one of those many venues, the Tower Music Club, located opposite the train station, hosted the Quebec club night. 

    Paris-born pianist Jean-Michel Pilc relocated to Montréal years ago. His duo performance with santur master, Amir Amiri, enthralled the packed audience as their intertwined chords resonated in harmony before the stage was handed to the versatile voice of Andrea Superstein. This was soon followed by Benjamin Deschamps’ Augmented Reality, a powerful and inventive fusion quintet led by the Montréal saxophonist.

    To differentiate the German expo acts from this year’s partner country being also Germany, the retiring artistic directors, Uli Beckerhof and Peter Schulze, commissioned works from German expat musicians. The quality of those works was mostly quite exceptional, notably when reedsman Daniel Erdmann premiered his Thérapie De Groupe project on the Schlachthof stage. The idea behind this brilliant project is to have French and German musicians share the performance. A string debate, between cellist Vincent Courtois, violin player Theo Ceccaldi and double bass player Robert Lucaciu, served as a perfect introduction to the Franco-German partnership that went on with Hélène Duret’s clarinet tightly woven to Daniel Erdmann’s saxophone. Having in mind a not-too-distant past in EU politics, the theme “I wanna hold your hand, François” shone as one of the many highlights of that late-night performance.

    Before Erdmann’s crew took the stage, Austrian native bassist Gina Schwarz dug into the rich musical world of Nick Drake. What makes her Multiphonics Octet so beautiful to hear is surely her use of four clarinets and a flute instead of the usual horn section. Together with the rhythm section, the resulting sound encompasses nuances that would not be heard otherwise. As a member of another commissioned work, Gina Schwarz also played on day three in the so-called Alpine Air Project. The co-leaders of this Schlachthof-premiered work are saxophonist Heinrich von Kalnein and trumpeter Jakob Helling. Alpine Air is simply the best example of top-notch German and Austrian musicians getting together as composers and soloists without anyone trying to catch the spotlight, the interests of the group coming first.

    Among the many composers selected for this year’s edition, avant-garde German reedist Ingrid Laubrock brought her Brooklyn team to play her Bible-infused Lilith project. The idea behind the infamous biblical character simply came from the coincidental fact that there were both an Adam (Adam Matlock on accordion) and an Eve (Eva Lawitts on the drums) in her band. If Ingrid Laubrock did not need to look too far for inspiration, Norwegian guitarist Lilja, best known for her participation in Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conceptions of Jazz, visited Morocco’s gnawa community to carve that very distinct sound on her instrument. Assisted by percussionist Bafana Nhlapo among others, she delivered a genuine world-jazz performance. A similar scenario took place in Hall 7.1 (the main hall of Bremen Messe centre) when Finnish guitar player Jussi Reijonen switched to the oud, a common North African instrument you wouldn’t expect in the hands of a Finn, who had united an eclectic international cast on stage. Not so hard, you might say, for a musician who has lived in many countries and continents.

    As the successful 17th edition (with 2,800 registered participants) was drawing to an end, the co-artistic director Peter Schulze took the stage for the very last time and, after a vibrant speech by Claudia Roth, Germany’s Minister of State for Culture, they together announced the name of the next partner country. The 2024 edition under the artistic direction of newly appointed Götz Bühler will feature the Netherlands, a country that has always enjoyed a steady presence in the showcases. Bühler has a vast experience, as journalist, radio presenter and jazz PR, meaning that Jazzahead is in good hands.

    As I am writing these lines experiencing the many dysfunctions of Deutsche Bahn, I can only think of the numerous people departing from Bremen on this sunny Sunday. See you all next year in the European jazz metropolis.

    jazzahead! 2023 at Messe Bremen, Germany, 27 to 30 April