Inntöne Jazzfestival 2023

This year the intimate festival on Paul Zauner's Austrian farm included Janice Herrington, Renato Borghetti, Mette Henriette and Kirk Lightsey

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The Renato Borghetti quartet at Inntöne Jazzfestival 2023. Photo by Tim Dickeson

Every summer in Upper Austria, a tiny village by the name of Diersbach gets into the spotlight for its wonderful jazz festival organised by trombonist Paul Zauner since 1985. There you needn’t bother asking the many jazz aficionados why they have travelled that far. Indeed, before you even open your mouth they will all proudly tell you that Inntöne is their favourite festival. The friendly and cosy atmosphere does help a lot, as much as the programme itself, and you can trust Paul Zauner’s ears as he captures every year the most promising actors on the current and upcoming jazz scene for more than 20 concerts spread over the weekend.

Friday kicked off with David Helbock’s brand-new ACT Music project to be released in August. Rather than a homage to Joe Zawinul, from whom he borrows the old tune Money In The Pocket, David Helbock’s Austrian Syndicate tends to be more a playground for the pianist’s quest for electronic sounds mingled with more traditional instruments. Surrounded by various keyboards, Helbock had pianist Peter Madsen on his right and his three fellow countrymen on his left to offset the synthesizer sounds.

While Helbock’s Austrian Syndicate is not 100% Austrian, Marilyn Mazur’s Shamania is definitely a full-female cast, consisting of the best Scandinavia-based instrumentalists in their category. The band was born in 2015 and as the leader explained, a lot of the tunes they played that night were written during the creative pandemic time.

After this shamanic experience in the middle of the cornfields, the crowd gathered in the Zauner’s huge family barn for a very distinct gig led by Vienna-based vocalist Chanda Rule, a festival regular. For once (and it’s only the second time in the history of the festival) we had the pleasure of hearing Paul Zauner in the horn section alongside Hermon Mehari on the trumpet and saxophonist Osian Roberts. Playing in front of an enthusiastic audience, Chanda Rule’s gospel-infused tunes were magnified by the Hammond B3 sounds of organist Jan Korinek, a great musician we would hear again as part of the Janice Herrington band.

Herrington is an American vocalist who has been living in Europe for the past 40 years and now resides in Germany with her husband, trombonist Werner Gürtler. Turning 80 last year, she is still very much alive and kicking with her blues and gospel repertoire. Starting the set with simply the best homage to the late Tina Turner, she went on with a few blues tunes, moving closer to her husband who shared the horn section with saxophonist Osian Roberts. (Paul Zauner would join them for one tune during Sunday’s last set.) After explaining how she survived a kidney failure and two heart attacks a short while ago, Herrington interpreted Billie Holiday’s classic God Bless The Child, to be followed by gospel tunes that just about transformed the barn into a Mississippi church. It’s only once outside I realised we were not in the middle of cornfields, rather than cotton.

With his skilfully selected programme, Paul Zauner allows us to travel in time and space, and leaving the Mississippi we found ourselves in the south of Brazil, which shows some similarities with neighbouring Argentina. Ending the open-air acts on Saturday, accordionist Renato Borghetti’s quartet brought indeed sounds of the pampa rather than of the samba. Under a starry night, we witnessed a firework display of exotic sounds that mingled fandango, milonga, chamamé and vanerão among others. He was greatly assisted in his task by the other three exquisite members of his quartet, namely flutist Pedro Figueiredo, Daniel Sá on guitar and Vitor Peixoto on the piano.

Before this magical Saturday ending, the festival had opened at noon with Helga Plankensteiner South Tyrol band reviving the repertoire of the self-claimed originator of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton (check his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax) who apart from his lucrative illegal activities left us a bible of originals that still get played today. Rooted in tradition but not only, Helga’s low instrumentation (baritone, tuba and bass clarinet) alongside the piano and drums seemed like the perfect fit to bear tribute to the great jazz pioneer.

From one tribute to another: trumpeter Harmon Mehari followed with his Asmara project, a homage to his Eritrean origin. Together with Peter Schlamb on piano and vibraphone, Luca Fattorini on the bass and Zach Morrow on the drums, he delivered a strong set of originals and a few reprises including Shenandoah, the famous traditional song born along the shores of the Missouri river, a clear reference for the trumpeter to Kansas City, the place where he grew up.

Between the open-air sets, you are never left without any music or drinks and this year, two eminent representatives of the Valdobbiadene region treated us well both on Saturday and Sunday; the first being obviously what the region is famous for, namely Prosecco and the latter a young quartet aptly named Valdobbiadene Jazz Ensemble. With Michele Tedesco on the trumpet and Nicola Guidolin on the piano, we had a good taste of northern Italian jazz at its best.

The two trio projects headlining on Saturday afternoon certainly did not have anything else in common besides being 100% female. Indeed, the demonic French trio Nout with their unusual instrumentation (flute and fx, electric harp and drums) contrasted with ECM artist Mette Henriette and her angelic trio. The Norwegian Henriette’s subtle but powerful phrasing set the pace (a very slow one for that matter) for a minimalist interplay with pianist Ayumi Takana and cellist Tanja Orning while the witches of Nout performed a set of heavy-metal infused originals that notably included a piece entitled Black Sabbath.

Luckily, the sun was shining through the entire well-attended festival and the amount of beers served probably exceeded any expectation one could have imagined. It was indeed under a scorching sun that the first Sunday band lighted up the stage. It would have come as no surprise to see a Union Jack hanging above the open-air stage as three UK bands were featured that afternoon, all thanks to British promoter and good friend of the festival, Oliver Weindling. With their latest album released by Oliver on his Babel label, Tom Challenger and his Brass Mask project comprised two saxophones, three trumpets (including the use of a conch shell by Byron Wallen) and a rhythm section. The septet was grooving high the whole time which by no means bears a reference to Dizzy Gillespie as the British musicians explored very different territories. Byron Wallen and saxophonist George Crowley would later join for a couple of tunes with their countryman Xhosa Cole. Twenty-four-year-old tenor saxophonist Cole led his Birmingham quartet for a powerful set of Monk pieces.

The other great composer honoured that day was Charles Mingus and particularly the 1963 Black Saint And The Sinner Lady album. There is no better format than a big band to play Mingus’s music and co-leaders Clemens Salesny and Gregor Aufmesser united an outstanding Austrian cast to do the job. It turned out to be one of the best gigs of an already rich and diverse programme.

What would the Inntöne festival be without its signature St Pig’s Pub, the smallest of the the venues that easily gets jammed at certain times of the day, notably when a regular of the festival pays an unexpected visit at the end. The 86-year-old Kirk Lightsey (nicknamed “Captain Kirk” by the organiser) did just that when he joined the NY Blue Note quintet, thus replacing pianist Oliver Kent who had played on Saturday. The bebop group led by Dmitry Baevsky on the alto saxophone and Joe Magnarelli on the trumpet played standards way past midnight as the crowd kept asking for encores.

By then, totalling close to 13 hours of music for that Sunday only, it was time to bid farewell and secure the 2024 date (July 19 to July 21) in my calendar.