Enjoy Jazz, 13th Edition: Heidelberg/Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 27-November 1, 2011
He wasn't performing the night after his duo show with guitarist Claus Boesser Ferrari, but trumpeter Thomas Siffling was back at Alte Feuerwache, this time as head of the indie Jazz 'n' Arts label. With a surprisingly large discography which, while focusing largely on German musiciansmany of them up-and-comingincludes sessions with everyone from trumpeters Randy Brecker, Alex Sipiagin, Manfred Schoof and Kenny Wheeler to pianists Kenny Werner and Wolfert Brederode, and drummer Jim Black, here at Alte Feuerwache, Jazz 'n Arts was celebrating its 10th anniversary, in collaboration with Enjoy Jazz, by hosting a performance from trumpeter Lorenz Raab and his :XY Band, which has just released its debut, Hyperdrive (2011).
Even before the show began, it was clear this was not going to be a conventional performance, with a lineup featuring two bassists (Matthias Pichler and Oliver Steger, a drummer (Herbert Pirker and, most unusually, Christof Dienz on electric zither. This may be a new venture for Raab, but he's by no means new on the German scene, with a number of releases as leader or guest on Jazz 'n' Arts, and the chops to support such demand. As might be expected from such a bottom-heavy rhythm section, the group Raab has assembled trades heavily on groove, but it relies just as much on texture. With the trumpeter's seemingly endless embouchure variations and Dienz's dizzying array of pedals, there were plenty of timbral possibilities. If the group seemed to be largely weighing in on the free improv part of the jazz equation, there were plenty of indications that this was open-ended exploration revolving around some very defined structural roadmaps.
Pinker was wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, which was ultimately a foreshadowing of things to come, as he blended lighter jazz-centricities with thundering, high-octane kit work on "Unterlandber Zipfeltranz," which moved from ethereal electronics to a pounding, near-metallic ostinato driven by the drummer and bassists Pichler and Steger, who managed, quite remarkably, to work together without ever getting in each other's way. Pichler seemed the more extroverted of the two, and utilized extended techniques such as putting clothespins on his strings and furiously rubbing the handle part of his bow against those same strings. If Steger seemed a tad less outgoing, it wasn't for lack of inventiveness, as he shared groove and freer melodic invention with his bass partner throughout the set.
Raab demonstrated remarkable command of his instrumentwhether soaring into the stratosphere with ease, or delivering gently melodic lines, made tarter on occasion, with the use of a Harmon muteturning into a textural player with rhythmic blasts of air and punctuating motifs. But as much as :XY Band relied on Raab for a variety of purposes, it was Dienz who shone amongst an entire group of fine players, if for no other reason than the absolute unorthodoxy of his instrument. Using both hands on this multi-stringed instrument, Dienz fed it through distortion boxes, pitch shifters, delay and reverb, and many other devices to approximate, at times, the sound of a tapped electric guitar, but often doing things that were simply not possible on its six-string cousin.
Taking place in a smaller venue upstairs from the Alte Feuerwache's main space, it was a close-to-capacity audience for a performance that ran the gamut from atmospheric to swinging, and from near-acoustic delicacy to high-powered, rock-driven grooves. That the quintet appeared to be extemporizing freely, only to suddenly coalesce in a clearly defined arrangement, only made :XY Band's show all the more excitingso much so, that the audience refused to let it leave before delivering not one, but two well-deserved encores. Raab's lip appeared to be bleeding when it was all over, and if the trumpeter's hard playing recalled John Lennon's famous "I've got blisters on my fingers..." line at the end of "Helter Skelter," from The Beatles' The Beatles (Apple, 1968)a.k.a. the White Albumit's a reasonable comparison, because as much as Raab and his :XY Band are indebted to jazz for its language and freer explorations, it's equally in service to the world of rock for its high-octane, high-volume extremes.
A singer who, since emerging in the mid-1990s on left-of-center albums by American artists like bassist Mark Dresser, electronic percussionist Ikue Mori, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer John Hollenbeck, Theo Bleckmann has positioned himself as a singer capable of deep emotional resonance without any of the syrupy sentimental currency on which modern jazz singers so often trade. Instead, the vocalist/composer has gradually, and with unfailing inevitability, built a career predicated on an experimental mindset that's made him as comfortable in the new music arena as he is in the jazz sphere, with the two often intersecting in weird and wonderful ways.
His latest project might, on the surface, seem to pander to an audience currently going through a love of all things 1980s, but ultimately it proved to be far more. Hello Earth! is both the name of Bleckmann's 2011 recording for Winter & Winterpaying tribute to the music of British pop icon Kate Bushand the name of the band he brought to Karlstorbahnhof Heidelberg, arriving so close to show time that there was no time for a full sound check, making its gradual coalescence around one of Bush's bigger hits, "Running Up That Hill," a show-opener that suggested great portent for the set to come. Clearly Bleckmann and Hello Earth! were going to do Kate Bush better than Bush herself.
Tribute projects can be a dicey proposition, striving for the fine line between remaining literal enough to give the audience the touchstones it needs and, at the same time, delivering something new to give the music its own distinct resonance. Bleckmann's homage remained literal when it made sense to do sowhere Bush's music was so key to the essence of the song as to demand greater reverence. Still, with a group capable of combining pop sensibilities with no shortage of jazz chops, Bleckmann took plenty of liberties as well. The quirky, irregular meter gave "Suspended in Gaffa" a significantly altered complexion, while Bleckmann's buoyant delivery of the verses gave it a Broadway vibe. And if "Dream of Sheep" approached near-ambient territorywith Iceland-born/New York-resident bassist Skúli Sverrisson doing a number of distinctly un-bass-like things, including the creation of resonant chords washing gently under the musicthen the encore of "Violin" was delivered with unapologetic punk attitude and energy, with drummer Ben Wittman providing unrelenting support to Bleckmann, who fed his voice through a rack of processing devices to give both the feeling of multi-tracking and edgy overdrive as keyboardist Erik Deutsch upped the ante with dense organ work.
Sverrisonwho, in addition to being Laurie Anderson's musical director in recent times, has played with everyone from Ben Monder to Allan Holdsworth, as well as on his own Sería (12 Tónar, 2007) and its follow-up, Sería II (Sería Music, 2010) in carving a compositional space particularly unusual for an electric bassisthis performance of some of those two discs' material was one of the highlights of the 2010 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norwaymanaged to combine a more conventional role here with the sonic explorations he's used to build a distinct career. In addition to his own recordings, including the forthcoming Demonío Teclado (Hammer and String, 2012), Deutsch is perhaps best known for his time spent with Charlie Hunter earlier in the decade, and if he had to bring his background in extracurricular activities to bear during much of Bleckmann's performance, then his opening solo on "Saxophone Song," with Sverrison and Whittman swinging hard, made clear that his jazz chops remain unshaken.
Hello Earth! from left: Erik Deutsch, Theo Bleckmann
Skuli Sverrisson, Caleb Burhans, Ben Wittman
But it's the multidisciplinary approach of everyone in the band that made Hello Earth!'s performance so strong. Bleckmann's effortless control over his electronicslayering himself in real time to great effect on "Cloudbusting" (with guitarist/violinist Caleb Burhans, of contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound, particularly key)was just one part of a sonic arsenal, but equally, it was his tremendous range, meticulous accuracy and intrinsic sense of what works and what doesn't, from one moment to the next, that made his Enjoy Jazz 2011 performance one of the highlights of the week.