Review/Roundup: ELBJAZZ Festival in Hamburg

ELBJAZZ 2013. Photo credit: Christian Spahrbier


Oliver Weindling writes about the fourth ELBJAZZ Festival in Hamburg...

ELBJAZZ, a huge, packed two-day festival in Hamburg, in one of the most prosperous cities in Germany, is based around the city's traditional core, the docks. There are twelve stages, attracting 10000 people a day. But there are surprising things in common with Inntoene, which I had been to (AND WRITTEN ABOUT) on the same trip. While totally different in magnitude, both intriguingly have one strong similarity: they use venues which are not supposed to be for music. Inntoene converts a barn; the larger venues for ELBJAZZ are in a shipyard on one bank of the river Elbe. Closer to the Reeperbahn, the Fish Market Hall is a working fish market and music venue. On Saturday night, after the final music (of Jan Bang’s Punkt remix with Arve Henriksen and Stian Westerhus), the hall had to be emptied fast to make way for the fish market on Sunday morning. You go from one side of the river to the other either by boat or by using the 100 year old foot tunnel.

The inspiration for the festival comes from café owner Tina Heine who felt four years ago that the city lacked a focus for jazz. But while we have a hugely successful festival creatively and audience wise, there is still a gap between what happens in terms of gigs day in, day out in the city. Indeed the closure of the club Birdland after 25 years has just been announced. And Hamburg is, surely, more than a “2 day a year” jazz city? The radio station NDR broadcasts around 7 hours of jazz a week and has one of the best big bands going. We heard this most obviously when we heard the band playing the arrangements by local musician Wolf Kerschek who has just been awarded the Hamburg Jazz Prize, worth €10000. The concert even included a lively cameo by Trilok Gurtu.

Awarded biennially by the Dr. E. A. Langner Foundation, it's such a great opportunity to give to a young musician. And that’s just a prize for one city among the many throughout Germany. If only sponsors over here were to recognise its value. Awards, rather than just grants, help self-esteem and also give a guide to us novices on the German scene as to what might be worth checking out more.

To the credit of Tina and her team, they have managed to create a festival with many less well known and innovative acts. There are of course the big stars. Here the biggest was Jamie Cullum playing the music from his latest album Momentum. Even in the cold of the Friday evening, Jamie was able to communicate with his audience. I am particularly impressed how he manages to add extras which are all basically musical, such as playing inside the piano. And he has a great responsive band, using Rory Simmons, Tom Richards, Chris Hill and Bradley Webb.

Before him, we had heard Joshua Redman’s band, with Aaron Goldberg, for me a master of polyrhythms, Reuben Rogers and Gregory Hutchinson. Having been on the European road for the past couple of weeks, their performances of their new material were mesmerising and so energetic that they were sweating in their T shirts, despite the coldness.

The festival has a very strong European side and focuses on the unexpected. So, for example, this year they have begun an exchange with the jazz festival in Copenhagen, in anticipation of the building of a new bridge over the short strip of water between Denmark and Germany. The journey between the two cities will be less than 3 hours (instead of around 5 as at present.)

The Danes brought over seven bands and there will be an ELBJAZZ stage at this year’s Copenhagen festival. Cleverly one part of their participation was a series of children’s concerts on a stage by the Elbe. The idea of bringing jazz to children seems to be particularly strong in Denmark and I recall once hearing a lively show led by Marilyn Mazur in a witch’s hat. Unfortunately these concerts suffered from the bad weather that struck on Saturday afternoon. I managed to catch pianist Johanna Borchert (whom some will have seen here as a member of Schneeweiss und Rosenrot earlier this year) and Jacob Munck, who used his armory of brass instruments to create sounds and music inspired by seagulls, pigs and other sundry animals suggested by his audience.

A few other countries’ scenes were well represented, especially the Dutch, Norwegian and British. It also respects the history of European jazz innovation. So, it was possible to see the European Jazz Ensemble, created by Ali Haurand in 1976, including Clark Tracey, Steve Melling and Stan Sulzmann. Though its arrangements were a bit caught in a time warp, it had some great soloing. Alan Skidmore sent me back to some of the old recordings of SOS (with Surman and Osborne). Saturday's programme included the peerless Schlippenbach Trio who have been playing together for over 40 years at the pinnacle of the free improvised scene.


Tin Man and the Telephone

Two Dutch bands caught my ear, both of whom played the Machine Hall. Tin Men and The Telephone had played the Match & Fuse Festival at the Vortex last year and they certainly didn’t disappoint holding a rapt audience of nearly 1000. They achieved this through a performance which matched the music to subtle humour and a strong visual awareness, unusually for a piano trio, the drummer and pianist actually face away from each other. Their videos interactively respond to their playing. They also manage to use the Steve Reichian concept of creating melodic lines from spoken phrases (such as the answer machines when put on hold by the Dutch phone company).

Boi Akih, based around the singer Monica Akihary, does an alternative take on a number of bluesier numbers, including Hendrix and David Crosby. Her guitarist Niels Brouwer has a fascinating guitar including sympathetically-resonant strings. Yado Gibson, a saxophonist who was for some time part of the London Improvisers Orchestra circle, provided some striking interplay on saxophones. In attitude, rather than in particular sound, I was reminded of Christine Tobin’s work - arrangements that they make you reassess and give you a version which matches and even, at times, exceeds the originals.

Both these concerts were in the Machine Hall of the shipyard. Despite its full size of 100 metres, the way that the space was cut to make it work for a smaller capacity and the excellent p.a. made it, for me, the best of the venues there. It also has something which should be on the wish list for any self-respecting jazz venue: a crane.

Marius Neset’s problems on one of the outdoor stages - that he more than overcame - were not just weather-created. The band started their set as a trio, since Ivo Neame had been delayed at Heathrow. But by the end of the first tune pianist Ivo Neame had arrived and it lifted the show by many notches. Marius was able to launch into his trademark performance of spellbinding virtuosity. Ivo acts as as a great foil in being able to give a harmonic and sonic depth to the show. Unfortunately, because he had not properly sound checked the full band, the balance was at times painful on the ears.

Much of my second day was spent around the St Pauli Fish Market. Among the performers there were a project of Trilok Gurtu with a number of trumpeters. His collaboration with Ibrahim Maalouf was particularly effective.

My forays away from there were particularly to a nearby church to hear Mary Halvorson Trio. A breathtaking performance because the way in which she, John Hébert and Ches Smith interact sucks us in and we join them happily meandering through every circuitous byway. She'll be back at the Vortex with Tom Rainey in June - not to be missed.

The other performance I really enjoyed in there was by Simon Nabatov with Nils Wogram. Simon Nabatov is the jazz Rachmaninov. A virtuoso technique formidably deployed to jazz like very few others. Trombonist Wogram is able to let us relax from time to time, but can match him note for note when required. Fortunately a good piano allowed the duo to show their skills to the full. Note to classical venues, such as King’s Place and The Forge: book this duo as soon as you can. Nabatov hasn’t played London for too long!

Troyka was on in Golem, a much smaller venue over the road from the Fish Market. They followed a trio where Christian Lillinger, one of the best young drummers out of Berlin and usually part of Hyperactive Kid, shone. Troyka itself had been on quite a mini-tour over the past three days. Bergen and Chemnitz before they got to Hamburg. In a small club which took no more than perhaps 70, and I know that for Kit it had meant an early morning dash after a gig at the Vortex immediately before with Ben van Gelder. And they had that perfect balance of tightness and freedom as they ran through much of their new material ahead of a new release next year. Pleasing that they’ll be showing off this material soon at the upcoming Match & Fuse Festival. (Other British bands at ELBJAZZ included Roller Trio and Get The Blessing, but times were such that I couldn't get to them.)

So a spectacular weekend where the music and atmosphere were so strong that the numbers seemed undiminished by neither the wet and windy weather (Sorry, Tina, but I had to mention it) nor the Champions League final with two German teams. Thank goodness that we have such a great weekend of music. Let's hope it can be translated to give a new impetus to the ravaged club scene Perhaps a small part of the budget for the new Elbphilharmonie, budgeted to cost €800 million, could be diverted to our 'cause'?

You can catch a bit of Jamie’s performance on HERE

There will be an all night special devoted to the festival on NDR in September and a special report on WDR. 

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