Report: German Jazz Expo at 2014 Jazzahead

Tingvall Trio.
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski. All Rights Reserved

German Jazz Expo at 2014 Jazzahead
(Halle 2 & Borgward Saal, Messe Bremen. 25th April 2014. Report by Alison Bentley. Photos by Ralf Dombrowski)

There’s a Grimm fairy tale (The Musicians of Bremen) where various creatures keep talking about ‘going to Bremen to become town musicians.’ Now just as in the 19th Century, Bremen offers musicians a place to play- at Jazzahead. Bands from all over the world are chosen by international panels to be part of the showcases. The German Jazz Expo had an amazingly wide variety of German bands, programmed in two alternating venues. Moving between the two meant I had just a tantalising taste of some bands, and more of others.

The Tingvall Trio seemed to improvise even more creatively in this larger space than when I heard them on their first UK gig, at London’s Pizza Express in 2012. Martin Tingvall’s melodic, Classically-influenced piano sounded beautifully Jarrett-like on Goodbye. Cuban bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo brought a Latin feel to the flamenco-edged Hajskraj and a fiery bowed solo high on the bass’ neck. AC/DC are high on the band’s list of influences, and Jürgen Spiegel’s drumming created massive rock crescendos in among the Tony Williams-style subtlety.

Fola Dada at Jazzahead 2014.
Photo Credit Ralf Dombrowski. All Rights Reserved

Meanwhile, back in the smaller, darker Borgward Saal, the funky Bartmes were fronted by Fola Dada’s deep soul vocals, a little like Carleen Anderson. In Light at the End, the two drummers Sebastian Merk and Oli Rubow divided up duties between kit and percussion, with a death-defying groove. In Human, Frank Spaniol played wah wah bass clarinet as anarchically as Hendrix over the Latin club grooves. Jo Bartmes’ excellent Hammond bubbled up through the voice- part rap, part sprechstimme.

6-piece vocal group Slix’ remarkable funky arrangements of Prince’s Sign O the Times and Al Jarreau’s Boogie Down were reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin’s multi-tracked recordings (they’re touring with him later this year). They filled the big hall with energy and verve. Imitation guitar, bass and percussion sounds were brilliantly arranged. One piece even had a ‘horn section’, the singers sounding like- and miming the actions for- trumpets and trombones. Another had a whole rainforest of wild sounds. Slix’ version of Prince’s Sometimes it Snows was beautifully harmonised, recalling some of the Swingle Singers’ more recent arrangements. (Katharina Debus, Michael Eimann, Gregorio Hernández, Karsten Müller, Thomas Piontek, Konrad Zeiner)

A very different kind of singer, Johanna Borchert turned her grand piano into an art installation. Images of tapestries, water, constellations were projected into the piano lid. A red light glowed like fire inside the piano when she reached in to pull ribbons along the strings, creating ghostly violin sounds. Her piano was sometimes minimalist Classical, to a triphop backing track, or echoing the style of Jarrett’s Koln Concert, or free and spiky. Her songs had surreal lyrics (‘has anyone managed to deceive such a witty dressmaker?’), sung like Nico performing Rufus Wainwright songs. At one point she played and sang stridently, bluesily, in the spirit of Nina Simone .

I was so much under her spell, I was late for Double Trouble. They have double double basses (Robert Landfermann, Andreas Lang), recalling an Ornette Coleman Quartet. Sometimes one was arco, one pizzicato, or one walked while the other soloed. Tenor player Peter Ehwald also writes the music. The Drummerhad growly sax riffs, Brecker-ish wildness, even Ascension-era Coltrane. Speed Dating started with exciting thrash drumming from Jonas Burgwinkel, with intriguing written phrases to give trig points in the storm.

Slowfox are usually a trio but pianist Philip Zoubek was in hospital. Bassist Sebastian Gramss and saxophonist Hayden Chisholm dedicated all the tunes to him, and assured us he was going to be fine. It was a attribute to the duo’s rapport that they’d chosen not to find a replacement for Zoubek. Chisholm’s alto playing had a wide, breathy vibrato around the pure core of the sound, and a way with delicate arpeggios that tugged at the heart strings. He played melodic and freely, with perhaps some Phil Woods in the tone. Gramss often double-stopped the bass to imply the chords, with a gilded resonance. His solos bubbled and brooded behind alto backing lines.

So many bands, so little time- just enough to catch extraordinary harpist Kathrin Pechlof’s Trio. Far from the sweet tones of folk harp, or Daphne Hellman’s bebop, Pechlof has created a new sound- sometimes like prepared piano, or an oudh. She draws partly on the Classical repertoire- a Gregorian Chant, a Debussy piece, as well as writing music along with saxophonist Christian Weidner. There were interlocking riffs with lots of wonderfully uncomfortable intervals, and angular improvisation. Harp and bass (Robert Landfermann) in unison sounded particularly fine, along with the plaintive alto.

These short sets all left the enthusiastic audiences- and me- wanting more.

You can see them all on video

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