European Jazz Jamboree 2009
European Jazz Jamboree
September 18-24, 2009
20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the global appreciation of Germany's jazz is arguably finally getting its due, with no small help from the European Jazz Jamboree (EJJ). In its sophomore year, EJJ has quickly garnered attention throughout Europe, and now the States, too, is (and/or should be) taking notice. Founded and run by entrepreneur Ulli Blobel (who a few years ago also started Jazzwerkstatt, a most distinctive jazz record label), this year's festival, sub-titled "Composers & Improvisers" focused overwhelmingly on the music of mostly bygone American jazz legends (11 of 16 booked acts were "tributes," some more successful than others) such as Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Steve Lacy, Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry. With only a pair of American headlinerspianists Uri Caine and Dave Burrell, perhaps the most impressive feat of this European festival is its devotion to homegrown talent, a mix of living legends and a crop of up and comers, as well as musicians from countries in close proximity who share somewhat similar if not necessarily complementary aesthetics.
Unofficially the festival got under way a day early at the Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop, a quaint street level CD shop and cafe cozily fitting 50 people with natural if slightly boomy acoustics. The wall to the side of the stage featured a dedicated display of Jazzwerkstatt's 70+ deep catalogue of titles, a visually stunning mural effect of exquisite award-winning cover art reflecting bold fonts and images of mostly black, red and white binding the music with Blobel's music mission. Alan Skidmore's recent release S.O.H. Live (with Tony Oxley and Ali Haurand, recorded over 25 years ago in London) was one of those titles on view.
Skidmore's trio expertly and intensely covered the terrain of John Coltrane, his primary mentor in, strangely enough, one of the few unadvertised tributes. German bassist and drummer, Johannes Gunckel and Thomas Alkier respectively, both stuck to the legendary English tenor saxophonist's relentless blazing runs like glue, an easier said than done task. And having only rehearsed (let alone met) together earlier that day in the context of a more expansive Don Cherry large ensemble tribute which took place the following week (more on that later), this threesome's empathy and cohesiveness was not only surprising but inspiring from this first time live meeting. Between sets Skidmore could be heard repeating the word, "Fantastic!" as if incredulous how natural the music seemed to collectively flow forth from the threesome"I feel like we've been playing together our entire life!" With Coltrane arguably the saxophonist's greatest influence as both person and musician (Skidmore's daughter Alice is named after Coltrane's recently deceased second wife and his grand daughter, Naima, after the late saxophonist's first wife!), the trio performed renditions of "Good Bait"(which Coltrane recorded with Dizzy in the early '50s though most memorably on his Soultrane), "On Green Dolphin Street" (a Miles staple which Trane recorded on several occasions with the trumpeter), "Some Other Blues" (the last track of Side B on Coltrane Jazz from 1959), and "Impressions" (which undoubtedly placed Skidmore as one of the obvious though sorely neglected great post-Coltrane tenors for those uninitiated). Latching onto a melodic theme and stretching it beyond with awe-inducing and blistering note runs, and utilizing an extended technique of momentous tones and harmonics, Skidmore rarely took the horn from his mouth. Never taking the conservative route, as was the case with his mentorthe sky was quite literally the limit. (Kudos to festival organizer and promoter Blobel for having the foresight to present Skidmore in his festival's first two editions)
The festival's primary venue, the famous East German landmark Babylon Kino (Mitte)a popular movie hall with a capacity near 450was the site for German jazz legend Rolf Kühn's early 80th birthday celebration on the festival's official first day (coincidentally Babylon was opened 80 years ago, consequently celebrating a similar birthday around this time, too). One couldn't miss the historic cinema's stunning marquee upon exiting the U-Bahn subway stop right down the street, and the theater's refined modern Expressionist style inside and out, a fine welcoming for music fans walking towards it and then upon entering the lobby and main space's spacious slightly inclined main orchestra level of seating. Here Kühn was reunited with younger brother, pianist Joachim, and at concert's end was presented with the "Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik" Honorary Diploma Award ("Ehrenurkunde") for Lifetime Achievement (an award bestowed to artists ranging from Pierre Boulez and Martha Argerich to BB King, Neil Young and fellow jazz musicians Charlie Mariano, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lee Konitz). One of the finest modern clarinetists in jazz history, Kuhn's name and music should be ranked alongside Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, and there is arguably not another living clarinetist who can better play in and out of time. With a recently published biography (given in German, but with a hopeful future English translation) as well as a boxed set collection and the above mentioned notorious award, this cross seas under-acknowledgment will more than likely be rectified.
Kühn displayed originality in a spectrum of music, from his working small Tri-O group in the first set (guitarist Ronny Graupe, bassist Johannes Fink and drummer Christian Lillinger, and joined by Joachim as well as trumpeter Matthias Schrieffl) to the second set's dedication (with the NDR Big Band) to one of his original influences, Benny Goodman. Graupe, the quartet's "second voice," was comfortably given prominent space by the leader on each the first set's tune selections, all originals taken exclusively from material found on the group's debut and sophomore releasesRollercoaster and Close Up (both on Jazzwerkstatt). His "Caneveral" opened the set, its airy minute-long rumbling prologue giving way after a brief pause to demanding clarinet-guitar lines. The two hornmen in fleet-fingered unison worked surprisingly well in tandem. A frenetic, busy single-note specialist, the guitarist's style nicely contrasted the almost modern classical approach of the leader whose emphasis was more on complimenting warm but daring elastic tones within the structure of each composition. The next two pieces ("29FF" and "Spacerunner"), both compositions by the leader which open the most recent Close Up, revealed a fine tuned and flexible balancing act of collective themes and individual improvisations.
The remainder of the set had Joachim joining the group on piano. For "Mamarazzi" and "Changing the Umbrella," the now quintet performed actually much of the time as a quartet if not a powerhouse trio (sans guitar), either bass-less or drum-less in sections, with Graupe tending not to play while the pianist was and vice versathus reinforcing the notion that two harmonic instruments don't necessarily make ideal bed fellows. Trumpeter (and also guest artist on the group's latest CD) Schriefl then joined, with the group becoming noticeably more experimental in their improvisations: Graupe took what looked like a long red chopstick, placing it under his guitar strings, then tapped it back and forth for an eerie springing musical effect; Schriefl, first muted then on open horn, avoided notes per se, rather blew through his instrument for sound effect, including sudden outbursts of blurts and growls.
The second set, the Benny Goodman centennial dedication, found Kühn fronting the NDR Big Band conducted by Jörg Achim Keller. Kühn is obviously graced with a Benny Goodman-like proclivity and influence of classical as much as jazz, naturally handling material from each with ease and imagination, as well as a youthful vigor and chops which he's developed and maintained since his first recordings in the late '40s. Perhaps as admirable as his diverse range of sounds was not only the open-eared programming of the Goodman set placed as the evening's last (following the clarinetist's small group and the parameter- stretching The Salmon duomore on that later), but the open ears in attendance who absorbed each end of the spectrum equally and provided perhaps the fullest house of the entire festival. Imagine a meeting of 92nd St. Y's "Jazz in July" program sprinkled into a night of the Vision Festival or vice versa and you have an idea of how unlikely this concept would be in New York.
Kühn shared the frontline with guest clarinetist Fiete Felsch and soprano saxophonist Walter Gauchel, performing almost Rahsaan Roland Kirk-like in their multi-tone configuration, an in essence three-headed horn. The set was tailored to appease to any and all straight-ahead Swing fans in the audience (who may have patiently sat through the more experimental preceding sets), in addition to those with more diverse tastes. Schriefl politely asked to join what in essence became an unplanned jam session on stage, then proceeded to contribute one of the strongest solos, starting muted once again then featuring half-valve Cootie Williams-like embellishments. The birthday boy's interesting selection of "Lover Man" sneaked into the program (even though Goodman evidently only recorded it once, in 1949) and other standards such as "Easy Living," "Falling in Love with Love," "When You Wish Upon A Star" and "Just Friends." The obvious conclusion, "Sing Sing Sing" culminated the concert in a unique, and arguably successful (though a tad loose) rendition. Drummer Lillinger took a single floor tom to the front of the stage and weaved syncopations with NDR drummer Danny Gottlieb who meanwhile maintained the Krupa beat. All in all, probably not what NDR had in mind, but they all seemed good sports about the informal complexion the set suddenly took on, though Lillinger noticeably grew tired of awkwardly bending over his drum and furiously beating out rhythms, which left his contribution more an inconsistent novelty.
Of the two Mingus tributesby Ulrich Gumpert's Workshop Band and another German collective known as Dok Wallachthe latter, at the smaller upstairs Oval Room space at Babylon Kino won out for its raw energy, originality and interplay. Playing material found on their recently released Live in Lisbon (Jazzwerkstatt), the quartet's nominal leader, Michael Thieke, showcased his reed mastery on "Tijuana Moods Montage" (alto), "Self Portrait in Three Colors" (clarinet), to "Hobo Ho" and "Meditations on Integration" (alto clarinet). Joined by tenor man Daniel Erdmann, bassist John Fink and drummer Köbberling Heinrich, Thieke and company brought more a contemporary energy to the music of Mingus. Heinrich's drumming fused Mingus' Dannie Richmond with the likes of Jim Black, Kenny Wollesen and Joey Baron, and spurred on memorable group improvisations. The theme to "Self Portrait" was supported by a Phillip Glass- esque repetitive arco bass line as if adding a lost chapter of heretofore previously lost, novel even though un- Mingus like, bridge before again returning to the theme. This in a nutshell explained why their tribute to Mingus came off so successfully: while being true to the spirit of the music's composer, Dok Wallach was as true to their own take on Mingus' music, adding to the tradition versus regurgitating it. Certainly a candidate for "Best Tribute Release of the Year."
Pianist Ulrich Gumpert's Workshop Band octet offered a young and fresh version of the longtime East German aggregate that once featured the leader with such contemporaries as trombonist Connie Bauer and drummer Gunter "Baby" Sommer. Here with Ben Abarbanel-Wolff (tenor), Martin Klingeberg (trumpet), Christof Thewes (trombone), Christian Weidner (alto sax), Henrik Walsdorff (baritone/tenor sax), Jan Roder (bass) and Michael Griener (drummer), the group's main obstacle was not necessarily the music but the distinct personalities customary to Mingus' own ensembles. Thewes' pronounced interjections on the baritone sax-led set opener ("Moanin'") revealed he was up to the task of providing Mingus' gospel and blues instrumental vocalizations, and certainly showed himself to be one in a very long line of traditionally excellent German trombonistsfrom Albert Mangelssdorf to Nils Wogram, and then of course there's the Mingus trombone tradition (e.g. Jimmy Knepper, Willie Dennis). Weidner's Booker Ervin-like wails on alto (versus Ervin's typical tenor) also drew inspiration from the group's water source. "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" displayed lots of group dynamics following Walsdorff's unaccompanied opening tenor solo, which transformed into a duo with bassist Roder, then into the full octet "choir' in fine Mingus tradition, returning to a tenor solo backed by rhythm, into a bass/drums duo then piano trio. Gumpert, however, seemed pensive, his playing showing a slight restraint, atypical of such Mingus pianists as Jaki Byard. The group's two-tenor attack on "Fables of Faubus" swirled in and out of the handful of busily contributing horns, an ensemble attack perhaps serving as the band's greatest asset, unenviable as the task might be to match such distinct voices that graced Mingus' ensembles. For instance, Weidner was no match for Mingus' alto alums: Dolphy, John Handy, Jackie McLean, et. al. So rather than to place the focus on individual soloing, when the collective improvisations in the European tradition (Globe Unity Orchestra, Willem Breuker Kollektief, etc.) can overshadow isolated soloiststhe music soared to greater heights with simultaneous soloing and collective improvising. Thus the rare moments of free for all were welcomed by listener as much as player, as was ideally heard on the set's closer"MDM," featuring Mingus-like multi-textural cacophony at its finest.
Arguably the festival's most successful tribute was alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard's POTSA LOTSA (the group named after an obscure Dolphy composition titled "Number EightPotsa Lotsa" from the seminal At The Five Spot) at the Oval Room. In a chamber music aesthetic, she showcased a sampling of nearly two dozen Dolphy tunes arranged for a unique quartet of alto (Eberhard), tenor (Patrick Braun), trumpet (Nicolaus Neuber) and trombone (Gerhard Gschlossl). Offering an enlightening listen to the composer's singular works, the double reed/double brass group thrived in this setting, only their fourth- ever live performance. Giving this tribute additional significance as ultimately a tribute to Dolphy the composer versus player, Eberhard didn't make much in the way of any noticeable efforts replicating Dolphy's playing style (rarely did she even reflect a direct Dolphy stamp on her own playing), nor did she try to incorporate two other instruments closely associated with Dolphyone of which she has been known to playflute and bass clarinet. The group successfully melded Dolphy's jazz with an overt classical facet, offering a refreshing listen to such intricate compositions as "Burning Spear," "Out There"(an alto/trombone feature, with Gschlossl ferociously spitting out walking bass lines), "The Prophet" (an excellent if not obvious selection with its inherent compositional beauty lending itself to the classical chamber ensemble interpretation and textural two, three and four part harmonies of various instrument combinations), "Serene"(featuring more demanding Dolphy lines that understandably found Eberhard actually gasping for breath before squeezing out the piece's final note after consecutively demanding and lengthy lines), the obligatory "Out to Lunch" (Gschlossl interweaving short jabs and long tones with Neuber while the two saxophonists provided a line underneath before the reeds took centerstage, frenetically bleeting, blowing, popping, then leading back into the strolling head as an empathetic as-ever foursome) and "Straight Up and Down/Hat & Beard" (given an intriguing bolero undertone). An already highly anticipated 2010 Jazzwerkstatt CD release is on the way, so be on the lookout for this one!
Another unqualified success was Monk's Casino, a project full of seasoned German jazz musicians. Covering in numbing fashion as much of the pianist's canon as could recognizably be squeezed into a single prolonged setan endurance ride as much for listener as musicianwere Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano) arguably at his most creative and certainly most proficient, Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet), graced with super-human projection, Axel Dörner (trumpet), Jan Roder (bass) and Uli Jennessen (drums). Most impressivelygiven the complexities of Monk's diverse catalogue of originalswas not a single sheet of music was present, most pieces being organically presented. And neither was there a single microphone used for the all-acoustic set in the large concert hall.
The well traveled tribute ensemble, with quite the busy touring schedule this past year (appearing in many an international festival from Oslo to Vancouver) organically presented naturally birthed pieces from various recognizable Monk themes sometimes in the form of succinct medleys. Each musician offered awe-inducing contributions. Schlippenbach's selectively spacious note placement selections, with an ever so slightly behind that beat approach, served up the proper quirky ingredient to keep the proceedings, as well as his bandmates, appropriately off-balanced. Mahall, who plays his instrument more confidently and capably than most anyone else on the scene today, is especially a rare bird in that the bass clarinet is his exclusive instrument (rather than a doubling one). Playing it saxophonically and with unmatched volume and clarity, manyincluding myselfquestioned whether there was a microscopic mic somewhere up or down his sleeve! And Dörner, a fellow Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO) alum, opened several of his statements with a forceful notelessness, blowing windy tones before an actual brassy theme formulated from the bell of his horn, a style the trumpeter has mastered over the years. Towards the end of the set, he played with one hand grasping a cymbal for what looked, in side profile, to be an interesting trumpet hybrid instrument (at the very least a nice photo op). He culminated the tune by smashing the cymbal with its match held by Jennessen, who stood to complete the cymbal high-five! Like with Monk, the best advice when listening to Monk's Casino: expect the unexpected.
Pianist Aki Takase was involved in two distinct tributes. Her Fats Waller project consists of Eugene Chadbourne (guitar/banjo/vocals), Nils Wogram (trombone), Mahall (bass clarinet) and Paul Lovens (drums), all masters of working both inside and outside tradition, and a working unit for exactly six and a half years now (Chadbourne distinctly recollected the group's first recording when they heard the news that the US was invading Iraq). With all its original members and instrumentation intact sinceother than the one-time trumpet chair Thomas Hebererthe group at Babylon Kino took familiar Waller material and flipped it on its head while maintaining the music's inherent jovial free spirit (given, Chadbourne's entertaining though offputting vocals and stage side antics can be an acquired taste: he even comically donned a Martha Washington-like wig at one juncture). Opening, as with the group's debut CD (Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller, 2003), the quintet charged into the upbeat "Lookin' Good, But Feelin' Bad," Chadbourne's vocals more Popeye than Fats. The version was as straight-ahead as one would or could expect from this group. Mahall, with his daunting sound on bass clarinet once again, proved that amplification and microphones were superfluous, taking listeners to a bygone era when there wasn't such a sound crutch available. His duo rendition with Takase on Waller's blazing up-tempo "Handful of Keys" was riveting, a dazzling display of technique full of traditional lines, swooping flourishes and stunning yet sensibly executed tangents that veered even if momentarily into the atonal avant-garde. The band also lit into "The Joint is Jumpin'" featuring an extended thick as mud opening Wogram trombone solo, Chadbourne (again on vocals) for the first time switching over from banjo to guitar, for an outrageously original and succinct take on the Waller 1937 ditty. Their encore of "Two Sleepy People" featured Chadbourne's inimitable narrative vocals lightly adding (or subtracting, depending on your tastes) charm.
Takase's two nights in duo with one-time student Eberhard (alto and clarinet) at Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop brought fresh colors to arrangements of Ornette Coleman's music, as heard on their 2007 release Ornette Coleman Anthology (Intakt): from "Peace" (Takase's inside of the piano expertise and modern classical approach stressing heavy, resonating bass notes and un-boppish impressionistic work in the treble register), "Long Time No See" (originally from Ornette's Friends and Neighbors 1970 recording, and fifteen years later featured on his Song X collaboration with Pat Metheny) and "Beauty is a Rare Thing" (its inherent spacious quality ideally suitable for the duo to exploit) to an extended "Una Muy Bonita" (a set highlight with each player at their most uninhibited).
Eberhard's work on the two clarinet family instruments (clarinet and bass clarinet) further removes the potentially overbearing tribute concept element without the common denominator instrument between performer and tributed composer. Saving her bass clarinet for the following set, however, Eberhard focused almost exclusively on Ornette's primary instrument, and his influence as a player admirably rarely crept up. Another unique aspect to this dedication is that Ornette rarely has ever included piano within his music, adding an even more refreshing dimension with Takase's masterful handling of the material while maintaining her own persona at the ivories. And like with Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino, these two performed without sheet music, impressively adding an even more daring element of spontaneity to their interpretation of the familiar themes while striking a trapeze artist balance between tonality and atonality through rather succinct and altogether new approaches to each piece. Not as far removed from the originals as the recording (being that Eberhard's featured on three reed instruments on the CD), it is quite an incredible feat live that the two played Ornette tunes in their own way utilizing his melodies as hooks, reeling in one unique interpretation after another.
Zurich-based soprano saxophonist Jurg Wickihalder performed originals and Steve Lacy works solo at the French Institute (he also performed a tribute to his former teacher Lacy at Babylon Kino). Unconsciously casting a double sometimes triple shadow of himself on the perpendicular walls of the fifth floor chamber music space from the room's lighting, the extraordinary visual and aural effect reflected at least a trio of musical personalities heard through a mix of interestingly titled and performed originals and covers, including "The Last Breath," "The Soprano Goes Shopping," Lacy's "Ducks" and "Art." A real experimentalist, at times found blowing from the opposite end of his horn, the saxophonist incorporated a well established vocabulary of solo performance on his instrument in addition to a full range of extended techniques including an obvious mastery of the instrument's altissimo register. Wickihalder also proved to be quite the melodicist, working within and around themes. The only downsides to the single set were his occasional paced right-foot taps which became more and more an unmusical distraction; and even though it was an exquisite set of music there did seem a certain element not present: stretched notes and portions could have been more raw, less-planned. It came across just a tad too "perfect." These observations aside, it was a perfect match of artist to venue, with sound acoustics carrying every breath and pressed sax pad, an excellent showcase for an up and coming talent.
Of the rare non-tribute events, and another example of a perfect artist to venue match, a standout included The Salmon duo of reedman Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (clarinet and alto sax) and Griener (drums) at the Oval Room. Their project, documented on the superb eponymously titled Intakt release of the same name, showcases the duo's now matured near 5-year musical relationship in this context. Petrowsky a veteran of some of Germany's earliest free jazzfirmly planted his feet and dug deep for unreserved experimentation, while Griener the self-taught and active drummer in Germany (and this year's edition of EJJ) successfully fed his duo partner rhythms to ricochet improvisations off of.
One spontaneously improvised number after the next left appreciative and receptive listeners in awe. Each improvisation's conclusion featured a near-telepathic closure, as if written down or planned beforehand: to say the two worked as one would be an understatement. One such improvisation featured Petrowsky (playing alto then clarinet) ending with a held high-pitched squealing note that stopped on a dime, transitioning seamlessly to a more jazzily characteristic warm clarinet tone in time. This served as a microcosm of the duo's capacity, naturally moving from one extreme to the next with such ease. A following high-energy Petrowsky improvisation on alto was complimented by Griener's focus on bass drum which seemed to encourage the reedman to take slower, more paced breaths on his horn. The reedman accommodated, revealing an empathy not always found in this pared down context whose common ingredient can be the major pitfall of two preoccupied musicians too busy playing to their own content to listen to what their partner is playing (or in some cases not playing).
In midst of a 10-date European tour, the decade-old virtuosic and leaderless trio of Urs Leimgruber (soprano, tenor saxophones), Jacques Demierre (piano) and Barre Phillips (bass) functioned on equal footing at the acoustically magnificent French Institute while stretching any preconceived notions of sonic boundaries with their extended coordinated original improvisations (as is evidenced on each their three recordings to date one for Victo, Leo and most recently psi). As opposed to the younger (and former student) Wickihalder's soprano playing, the fellow Swiss Leimgruber proved he was undoubtedly more from the Evan Parker than Lacy school, with not much in the form of melody but plenty of rhythmic, propulsive and percussive effect in his use of extended techniques.
Starting on soprano, the saxophonist quickly moved over to tenor, though interestingly it wasn't until the trio was about half an hour into their first group improvisation he actually played the deeper horn with all its parts intact. Having removed the neck, which he placed into the bell of his horn, rattling it back and forth while pressing keypads for percussive though not necessarily consistent rhythmic sound effect, he proceeded to blow through his neck-less and mouthpiece-less horn as well as his hornless mouthpiece. He then quickly put his horn back together, began to blow but continued to maintain sounds not customarily associated with the saxophone, perhaps tricking listeners not in the front row to think his sax might even still be disassembled! No matter, thoughthe sonic adventure never lost its momentum.
The omnipresent Phillips, eyes for the most part always open and senses at their fullest, added appropriate plucked pizzicato notes then occasional if quickly stroked arco statements, supplying an organic foundation to whatever his partners played (the room's acoustics reverberated even the friction from the bow's hairs on his bass' strings). One of the standout treats of the entire festival was to hear this distinctive voice and pioneer of solo bass performance play live in this near-naked context. Demierre, too, thrived in this environment. From violently bouncing his right-elbow relentlessly at one juncture up and down on the piano keys like a metronome, to performing more delicate, flowing linesit was his superb work from within the piano that left the most indelible impression. When experimenting on the strings, he gently strummed harplike one moment then plucked in twelve-tone fashion with such ferocity the next. Actually it was a surprise to find out afterwards only one string miraculously broke! There are certain shows after which you just don't feel rushed to immediately stand after it's all over; rather you sit and absorb what sounds might still be resonating off the walls (and in your head), particularly after such an aural onslaught. This was one of those shows.
Of the not-as successful tributes: tenor/soprano saxohonist Wolfgang Schmidtke's quintet played Wayne Shorter's music a tad too politely. "The Earth Is A Drum Suite" dedicated to Don Cherry, the festival's largest scale performance featuring the Independent Jazz Orchestra under conductor/composer/arranger Jürgen Scheele, failed to capture the musical spirit of its honoree (though featured standout soloing by Skidmore). And Dave Burrell's rather tame, though no less musical, solo set of Monk and Ellington with a Scott Joplin- ish sometimes Jelly Roll Morton-like flair failed to truly surprise.
Tenor/soprano saxohonist Schmidtke's quintet played Shorter's music a tad too tried and true. With trumpet/flugelhorn (Schriefl), piano (Bob Degen), bass (Dieter Manderscheid) and drums (Thomas Cremer), the instrumentation also didn't offer much in the form of surprise either this instrumentation is closely associated with Shorter. Opening with Shorter's "Fall," Schriefl (on flugelhorn) as the first soloist offered a patient warm tone and delivery over Cremer's brushes, mixing well harmonically with the leader's tenor (particularly their held coordinated concluding note). Switching over to trumpet for "Speak No Evil," Schriefl took some intriguing liberties on the opening head, playing noticeably behind the beat, an experiment that paid off handsomely. When it came time for his actual solo, it was electric in the vein of primo Freddie Hubbardquick paced, with a searing tone and compositionally exquisite unto itself. However, other than the closing measures, there were few other instances in which the group's interpretations of the Shorter material ventured too far off the beaten path.
Shorter's oft-covered "Pinnochio" featured an unaccompanied Schmidtke on soprano, as opposed to Shorter's tenor on the original (from Miles' Nefertiti). Refreshingly, the solo then led into a hardly recognizable variation of the upbeat theme by horns and rhythm. And finally a total and original departure from the expected while paying proper tribute to the original: trumpeter Schriefl changed gears altogether through the motoring theme, emphasizing breath and hints of notes and tones ala Dörner vs. Miles. While very much still in the tradition of Miles, his performance was far from replication, and served as a welcome venture from the original. The momentum didn't quite carry over, though, for "Ana Maria" (with flugelhorn and soprano) wound up still overtly derivative.
The "Earth is a Drum Suite," dedicated to Don Cherry, featured the Independent Jazz Orchestra under the baton of Jürgen Scheele. Featuring frontline primary soloists Jens Winther (the Danish trumpeter recently turned Berlin resident) and Skidmore, the jazz orchestra consisted of three trumpets, three trombones, a four-person reed section, a string section of four violins and cello, plus rhythm section and percussion.
The opening extended piece frankly could have been the concert itself. Skidmore's ecstatic solos, each the set's highpoints, reached such passionate heights, arguably as intense and succinct as he's ever played in his five decade-plus career. The tribute concept here, however as novel and grandiose in its multi- movements, turned out to be quite misleading or at least misdirected. Cherry's music has never naturally lent itself to such a big band setting for starters (as opposed to the surprising ease Dolphy's music lent itself to the previously mentioned Eberhard reeds and brass quartet). His music is much more organic, regardless of setting. That said percussionist Dudu Tucci did an admirable job, at times, trying to maintain some level of earthiness utilizing congas, shekere, talking drum and a kit of small instrument effects. Another awkward element to this "tribute," it should be noted, was the selection of trumpeter. Given Winther's a proven technician and now a Berlin "local," he has, however, been more often than not associated with Miles not Cherry and for good reason. Winther simply doesn't represent the style that is/was Cherry's, one of the forerunners and pioneers of what later would be labeled "World Music." Cherry was beyond technique, something less tangible and something Skidmore certainly offered in solos that either preceded or followed Winther's (another advantage the tenor man had over the trumpeter was the established rapport developed the previous week with the band's bassist and drummer in trio contextsee above review).
The second piece, lengthy but not as long, sounded as if condensed it could have been tacked on as yet another movement to the first composition. Both Winther and Skidmore soloed, as did conga player Tucci, whose monstrous and time-consuming feature, interspersed and complimented by ensemble fanfare, was the piece's centerpiece. However, it was Skidmore again who made much of the preamble almost worth the wait as he shook notes furiously from his horn in Coltrane fashion with a type of virtuosity and soulfulness the rest of the performances sorely missed. For a change of pace, the almost three-minute coda, a balladic statement, the adagio movement if you will, may have been more effective had it capped the first piece as the night's closer. Not to deny the unquestionably strong big band arrangements and execution but there unarguably was something missing since Cherry's name but not spirit in music was attached to this performance.
Burrell's set was as straight up and respectful as one will ever hear the pianist and this material unfortunately it lacked the punch and unpredictability customarily associated with most any of his live performances. Performing solo, he weaved and fused two obvious influences, and whether he was performing one or the other, both shone through in his playing. As he said between pieces"I like to put the Ellington in the Monk and Monk in the Ellington," revealing the very common connection between them. What ensued leaned a bit much on the tasteful sidenot present were those unexpected, sometimes shocking out of time flourishes Burrell usually drums forth out of thin air. Almost over-respectful in his performance (which was especially unusual being the EJJ offers the perfect stage for a more typical Burrell set where the piano's ivories take a pounding and its strings get more than a workout at the drop of a hat), his rendition of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" was played as a piano-roll, with an ever- dancing left hand exclusively dedicated to rhythmic chords and thrown in Monk-isms. Belated notes snuck in just in the nick of time, perhaps a perceived "afterthought just before the time was blown" as Burrell described what is commonly acknowledged as one of Monk's greatest attributes. "In A Sentimental Mood" was given a soft lyrical rendition, rather than Burrell's more forceful rhythmic approach, showing he can cover both bases with equal authority. And his performances of Monk's "Blue Monk" and "Straight No Chaser" each lacked the gusto and verve one would hope a player like Burrell would have exploited and used as a foundation to blast through. All that said, it was certainly a pleasurable set, as it always is to hear one of the masters of this music.
A final non-tribute and the second of two Americans headliners was pianist/keyboardist Uri Caine and his Bedrock Trio. Featuring Timne Lefebvre (electric bass), Zach Danzinger (drums) and guestvocalist Barbara Walker, a new sonic and admittedly discomforting sensation rang through this group's set that hadn't at any other. The plugged in aspect (electric bass and keyboards), in addition to the blues/gospel belting vocals of Walker, were simply too off-putting and out of place, especially in the context of the EJJ programming. The local crowd seemed to have been hipped to this expected inconsistency, and consequently a perhaps not so surprising noticeably low turnout was in attendance to hear this set at Babylon Kino.
Laurence Donohue-Greene (other than Rolf Kuhn by Mehmet Dedeoglu)