jazzahead! 2024

The 18th edition of the jazz trade fair and festival in Bremen, Germany featured performers from around the world

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jazzahead! 2024. From the top: Dnipro band DZ'OB; Ronald Snijders; Emma Smith. Photos by M3B GmbH / Jan Rathke

The motto of jazzahead! 2024 – “new horizons” – was apt, as it featured African bands for the first time. It has, though, long had international connections geographically further afield. The organisers say that this year’s edition of the annual jazz trade fair and festival, in Bremen, Germany – the 18th – attracted 2,985 professional participants from 66 nations and a total of 14,490 visitors.

The event ran 11-14 April and kicked off with Kika Sprangers’ Large Ensemble. The Dutch saxophonist and composer’s project was the first of seven gigs selected to represent the Netherlands as jazzahead! partner country. Following a two-year artist-in-residence programme in Utrecht, Kika Spangers brought on stage her ensemble of 12 musicians, which, coincidentally or not, displays a perfect parity between men and women.

Speaking of gender parity, among the 12 Thursday showcases (excluding the late-night gig by Linda Fredriksson Juniper actually taking place on Friday at 00:15), six featured female leaders, and notably millennials such as Israeli harmonicist Ariel Bart. Bart likes to venture into unknown territory with her instrument perfectly echoed by her two stage companions, Talia Erdal on cello and Arseny Rykov on piano. With two albums released, Ariel Bart looks all set for a long career.

The same can be said of the Swiss-Polish-Japanese pianist and composer Yumi Ito. Using her powerful and beautiful voice alongside her piano, she weaves into her music serious thoughts on our society, notably regarding environmental issues. The female afternoon would end beautifully with Liv Andrea Hauger’s Scandinavian trio. Together with Kertu Are on double bass and August Glännestrand on drums, the Oslo-based pianist offered a nice set of fresh tracks from her Ville Blomter album, released on the Hubro label.

Among the highlights of the evening, young London piano player Sultan Stevenson is not only known for his musical creativity but also for his self-crafted hats which he wears on every single performance. Hearing him for the first time, I was impressed by his McCoy Tyner touch. It therefore was unsurprising when in the later part of the programme he name-checked the renowned pianist as his main influence.

When speaking of McCoy Tyner, Coltrane is never that far away and the aptly named Afro4band gave a beautiful rendition of Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue in their otherwise original set of tunes. Representing two African countries, namely Nigeria and South Africa where the pianist comes from, this African super group literally fired the Schlachthof stage.

The stage stayed hot when Belgian trombonist Nabou Claerhout came with her five-trombone ensemble. Announcing that her concert was coincidentally happening during International Trombone Week, Nabou thrilled an enthusiastic crowd in the late hours of the evening. The parity between male and female bands disappeared shortly when Poland’s first all-female jazz band O.N.E. took the stage. Representing a country whose government is striving to ease anti-abortion laws, the young quartet captivated the audience with their free jazz vibes.

Beside the 40 showcases spread over the three-day event, jazzahead! also hosted conferences and stands from countries, regions and more, transforming Bremen into what the organisers call a “jazz metropolis”. Regular attendees have witnessed for too many years the absence of the union flag flying above a UK stand but 2024 proved to be different. Thanks to Sebastian Scotney, the editor of London Jazz News, the UK flag floated alongside the Scottish stand. The lack of funding from various governments has deprived jazzahead! of some national stands: Catalunya and the Balearic Islands replaced Spain and this year Quebec stood alone without Canada, sadly just two years after being the partner country.

One of the objectives of Götz Bühler as new artistic advisor of jazzahead! was to bring the focus on jazz from Africa to a city known for its Übersee (overseas) museum, which has a notable African section. Following on from the Afro4band on the first night, the Schlachthof turned out again to be the perfect place for another great African group, led by the Kenyan trumpeter Christine Kamau. Citing Hugh Masekela as her all-time favourite trumpeter, Kamau offered original compositions that were a pure enchantment for the ears.

While the African bands focused on a jazz repertoire, a few other groups displayed a more ethnic approach, notably the Marmoucha Orchestra. Sonic Bridges, a musical collaboration between the Amsterdam-based ensemble and the Moroccan guembri of Mehdi Nassouli, provided a perfect immersion into Gnawa culture.

Two years ago, the exhibition hall hosting the event also provided shelter to Ukrainian refugees. As the war continues in Ukraine, the Dnipro band DZ’OB showed the importance of culture in a world that’s devoting more and more energy to battlefields. As an electro-acoustic quartet, the choice of instrumentation is quite stunning. One would not necessarily think of the bassoon and oboe standing alongside less exotic instruments such as drums and violin. While DZ’OB personified Ukraine’s direct participation in this year’s showcases, the Berlin-based Ganna Gryniva was also a proud Ukrainian representative. Her musical research trips to her homeland resulted in a beautiful album released by Berthold records in 2022 and this is pretty much still the material she presented on stage.

As the musicians’ favourite format, the piano trio was beautifully personified on the first day by Europeans, namely Catalan Xavi Torres or Sultan Stevenson. On the last day however, it was time for the USA to be featured via Andy Milne’s brand-new project, to be released shortly on Sunnyside. A former student of Oscar Peterson, the American pianist is a great fan of Star Trek and he would certainly be keen to know that Kirk Lightsey has long been nicknamed “Captain Kirk” by Paul Zauner, who will again host the veteran American pianist at his Inntoene festival in Austria this summer.

jazzahead!’s organisers say “Jazz stands for innovation and creativity in a way that no other musical art-form can truly match; the global jazz community is always eagerly awaiting the innovations of the future.” The former may be robustly challenged by other genres; the latter may be true in some quarters but not among the conservative factions which have always been part of the jazz scene and gathered ground with the 1980s mainstream revival. However, jazzahead!, true to its name, looks ahead: the 2025 event is already scheduled for 24-27 April.