Eight Things I Have Learnt From Jazzfest Berlin 2020

I have not managed to attend the JazzFest Berlin in the past, so it was a very welcome opportunity to catch the festival in this year’s exclusively online event. This involved eight hours of listening on the Friday and Saturday and a further six hours on the Sunday; no time for cooking nor bodily functions!

I got a tremendous amount of enjoyment from the festival and I will try to summarise why under various headings.

  1.  It is possible to present live streams across continents 

The Festival presented events live streamed from the Roulette club in Brooklyn New York followed immediately by a concert from Silent Green, Betonhalle in Berlin.  This was the core of the festival and provided a very stimulating snapshot of the two scenes.  The programme from Roulette started with the strongly spiritual tribute to both John and Alice Coltrane from an experienced group led by alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin.  This was followed immediately in Berlin by Lina Allemano’s Ohrenschmausthis fitted well with Benjamin’s Coltranes set as the music moved nicely between spirituality and freeness.  Ohrenschmaus featured the Berlin-based Canadian trumpeter Lina Allemano with Dan Peter Sundland on bass and Michael Griener on drums dissecting and deconstructing tunes by Allemano.  One other pairing that fitted well was that between the Ingrid Laubrock Kris Davis Duo (saxophone and piano) in New York and the Jim Black Trio (piano bass drums) in Berlin.  Both groups moved effortlessly between written material and improvised passages and overall created a very interactive improvisatory mood.   

At other times there was an interesting and no doubt intentional contrast between the two sets.  For me the Anna Webber Septet playing music from her Clockwise album was a particular highlight of the festival for Webber’s intricate writing and for the way in which members of the group negotiated the movement between the written passages and the improvised passages.  The way they did this provided an excellent example of how much contemporary jazz integrates the improvisation into the overall mix, and one often cannot tell when the music moves from one to the other.  Following this set TRAINING featured a group with saxophone/flute, drums, a video artist (Işıl Karataş) and guitarist John Dieterich from the alternative rock group Deerhof.  Dieterich had been filmed in his home New York cooking, playing with his dog and playing the guitar.  Here the music was built around the video and the electronics with saxophonist Johannes Schleiermacher and drummer Max Andrzejewski both using electronic devices to manipulate or magnify the sound.   

There were also nice contrasts between Craig Taborn’s brilliant new trio with Mary Halvorsen on guitar and Ches Smith on drums and the following set with Dan Nicholls and Ludwig Wandiger remixing Otis Sandsjö’s Y-Otis material, and between Joel Ross’ more straightahead set built around the vibraphone and the hilarious MEOW! set with the quartet led by Jim Black with Dan Peter Sundland on bass, Liz Kosack on keys and the amazing cat cries, screams and vocals from Cansu Tanrıkulu.   

The final pairing of the streaming project was between Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double, a name reflecting the structure of the group with two guitars, Mary Halvorsen and Brandon Seabrook, two trumpets, Ralph Alessi and Adam O’Farrell, and two drummers Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver.  This line up made for a very distinctive sound the key to which was the sensitive collaboration between the drummers.  This was followed by Potsa Lotsa, a 10-piece ensemble led by saxophonist Silke Eberhard featuring arrangements by Eberhard of compositions by Henry Threadgill. 

The streaming worked extremely well without any real hitches.  All the groups seemed to keep to time and the short interviews with Nate Chinen or Keanna Fairlough in New York and festival director Nadin Deventer in Berlin worked well. 

  1. The German jazz scene is much more than just the Berlin scene 

Jazzfest Berlin has always had a strong relationship with the German radio stations, and this year the festival was able to present recordings especially made for the festival of German groups from radio stations in seven cities: Munich, Cologne, Saarbrucken, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Freiberg and Berlin itself.  Outstanding was the Embracing Bill Withers project in which arrangements of certain Bill Withers’ tunes by Natalia Mateo were performed by five vocalists plus piano bass and drums.  Also extremely enjoyable was Gabriel Coburger’s Quintet Jean Paul from Hamburg with American singer Ken Norris.  Norris’ use of spoken word and wordless singing in unison with the band in his deep baritone voice were impressive and moving. Strong regional scenes are very much a feature of the German scene and this part of the programme reflected this extremely well. 

  1. The festival provided evidence of the increasing convergence between contemporary jazz and contemporary classical music 

The best example of the growing overlap between these two aspects of creative music was Anne Webber’s Septet and the music they performed from Webber’s Clockwise album.  The intricate writing and the use of short overlapping phrases creating complex textures have much in common with the music of new music ensembles such as those coming under the Bang on a Can banner.  Also, Witch ‘N Monk, the UK duo of Heidi Heidelberg and Mauricio Velasierra now based in Berlin, worked with the contemporary music ensemble LUX:NM in their Fluid Formations set that combined a groove-based approach led by drummer Jim Black and over which LUX:NM played.   

  1. The festival provided evidence of the importance of electronics in contemporary jazz and improvised music 

The best example came in the commission for British pianist and composer Alex Hawkins.  Alex, with the cooperation of Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet and Matt Wright on electronics, created an electronic score, in reality a kind of backing track with many different sounds, such as birdsong, radio distortion and scratchy LP sounds for vocalist and visual artist Siska to rap over supported by bass player Nick Dunston and trumpeter Lina Allemano.  As a result of the Covid-19 virus, the three British players could not travel to perform with the Berliners, hence the solution of creating a recording for the Berliners to play over. 

  1. Berlin hosts many musicians from other countries who have found their niche in the city 

Running alongside the jazz programme on the Sunday was a whole programme curated by the SAVVY Contemporary organisation which focusses on experimental music and art by non-European artists.  The programme had the title Bodi No Be Fayawood, the Nigerian pidgin for ‘The Body Is Not Firewood’ which argues for the need for relaxation in times of crisis.  The programme had artists of different ethnicities from the USA, Africa and Latin America.  I particularly enjoyed the Charles Sammons Collective which performed a very interesting blend of experimental music drawing on aspects of  African music, jazz and blues, including a version of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.  

It was also noticeable how many of the Berlin jazz groups included a non-German player now based in Berlin, e.g Jim Black from the USA, Cansu Tanrıkulu from Turkey, Lina Allemano from Canada 

  1. Jazzfest Berlin achieved a good gender balance in the groups presented 

Virtually every group had at least one female performer and several had many more; there were very few all-male groups  I believe that this emphasis on balance is an aim of the festival, but I would imagine that the diversity of the programme with its broad definition of jazz makes it relatively easy to achieve the balance.   

  1. The Coltrane tradition is still strong in contemporary jazz 

The concert with the quartet led by Lakecia Benjamin which was infused with the spirit of both John and Alice Coltrane’s music is the obvious example here, but the influence of John Coltrane was certainly heard elsewhere, e.g., in the playing of saxophonists Christof Lauer and Tony Lakatos in the quartet they led on the Frankfurt radio recording. 

  1. The Jazzfest Berlin is brilliantly curated 

This conclusion must be evident from the descriptions above!  My congratulations to the Festival Director Nadin Deventer!  

The festival will be available online for the next 12 months, go to here.

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