Review: The WDR Jazzpreis in Cologne

WDR Jazzpreis, part of WDR3jazz.cologne2010
(WDR Funkhaus, October 29th, all photos WDR/ Lutz Voigtlaender)

Jazz had a very powerful presence at the WDR Funkhaus in the last four days of October, at a festival organized by the broadcaster, where I was fortunate to be a guest. Indeed I was finding it irresistible to want to translate the name of the place loosely, and deliberately wrongly, in various exclamations on Twitter as the "House of Funk." Somebody told me they thought the name might catch on. I doubt it.

The Funkhaus building is right in the heart of the town of Cologne. The North German skies were a menacing grey all through the three days when I was there. The twin spires of the cathedral loom ominously overhead. But with the level commitment which the WDR has, you don't need sunshine to keep this music very much alive. The WDR takes its duty to promote and further the cause of jazz very seriously indeed. According to the programme book, there is an "especially fertile ground" for jazz in Germany's most populous region of North Rhine -Westphalia. The WDR supports jazz with broadcasts, words, deeds. And money.

First the broadcasts: WDR3, which is available streamed online HERE is a radio station which proudly broadcasts more jazz than any other station in Germany.

Then the words. English ears are not used to hearing quite so many speeches to mark an occasion like last Friday's WDR Jazz Prize evening,but there was no doubting the unanimity, the sincerity of the sentiments expressed by speaker after speaker, and the cumulative effect is to remind the listener that such re-affirmation of people's values does strengthen the common will to make things happen.

But in the end it is the deeds - and the money - which count. The deeds by which the WDR chose to demonstrate its commitment to the regional music scene were substantial by any standard. Three prizes of EUR 30,000 each were given out at the concert on Friday night. There was a Composition Prize, awarded to Stefan Schulze. His charts were performed by the extremely classy WDR Big Band (picture above) directed by Austrian Marco Lackner. The band has - just - a majority of foreign players. It is a world-class ensemble. I was taken by Schulze's chart "Kara-Wahn" a re-interpretation of Caravan. A reassuring presence in this band is the characterful playing and bass sound of John Goldsby (below)



The Improvisation Prize was won by Frederik Koester, a trumpeter with a fine timbre and sense of phrase, and real urgency and engagement in his playing, with his regular band, a guitar/bass/drums trio in strong support.


The third prize, of equal value, was for "Nachwuchs." This German word literally means "what grows afterwards" and normally refers to children and grandchildren. In this case it was given posthumously to arranger/ composer/ educator Peter Herbolzheimer, an absolutely key figure in the development of German jazz, and accepted, with great emotion, by his widow Gisela (above). Herbolzheimer was also awarded an honorary prize for jazz education.

Another initiative was also announced: WDR Big Band is going into a mentoring partnership with the BundesJazzOrchester, normally called BuJazzO for short- and pronounced Boo-Yats-Oh. They performed in the first half. They had fine young players, but - and this is significant for the debate which has just briefly re-emerged here in the UK - there is a world of a difference between a seasoned professional band at the top of its game like the WDR band and a hatchery for young talent like, say NYJO1 orBuJazzO.

A substantial amount of new music was also being showcased. The Florian Weber Quintet, consisting of musicans from three countries, played a new work "Connecting Worlds." Weber's attempts to recreate the spatial language of Piet Mondriaan proved tricky to understand at first hearing. Playing new music on live radio is hardly for wimps, but I was left wondering how effectively and unanimously the players were really communicating with each other.

The last evening of the festival, which I had to miss, sounded like it was on a higher plane. It had sets by John Taylor and Diana Torto, and from Dave Holland's Quintet. I liked Holland's Twitter comment:

Enjoyed visit to Cologne, especially a chance to see and hear long time friend/pianist John Taylor play. John Taylor and I lived together in London in '65. He was trying to play like Oscar Peterson and me like Ray Brown. Great memories! John & I realized that we couldn't ever sound like anyone else but ourselves so we tried to build on what we learned from the masters.

The WDR's support for jazz is an exemplar. Bernd Hoffmann and his team support risk-taking. But from what I saw and heard, their touch is secure. The espousal of art with substance which takes risks runs deep in this region (tenuous link coming). I spent some quiet time in the Wallraff-Richartz Museum and came across this painting.



No, its not from the cubist period. The artist is Cornelius Gijsbrechts and the picture "Quodlibet," with astonishing trompe l'oeil was painted in 1675. Cologne is now only four hours from St. Pancras by train.....

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