REVIEW: Daniel Humair Quartet / WDR Big Band & Kurt Elling at the Berlin Festival

L-R: Emile Parisien, Daniel Humair, Jerome Regard, Vincent Peirani
Berlin Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Daniel Humair Quartet- Sweet & Sour” / WDR Big Band & Kurt Elling Freedom Songs
(Haus der Festpiele Berlin. November 1st. Third Night of the Berlin Jazz Festival. Review by Nicky Schrire)

Swiss-born drummer Daniel Humair, who has played seventeen times before at the Berlin Jazz Festival, was greeted with generous and warm applause when he took to the stage. There was the sense of welcoming back an old, beloved friend. However, there was nothing staid nor stale about his performance. His quartet performed a supremely elegant set of music, exuding French restraint and class, and imbued with mysticism and a captivating moodiness.

As well as being a musician, Humair is an acclaimed painter and his approach to drumming mirrors this skill. His sound was consistently vibrant and bright, yet warm and melodic. His touch was light but purposeful. His ability to create an ongoing groove while utilizing a different part of his kit each time the rhythms cycled round was a thing of magical playfulness. Watching and hearing him play is like admiring a piece of art.

The quartet's repertoire was original, and yet with a sense of traditionalism and restraint. In this context, the virtuosity of accordionist Vincent Peirani was dazzling and stood out. Playing barefoot, he was lyrical but also a technical marvel. His versatility on the instrument was striking, taking the instrument from the conventional, French chanson milieu in the jazz tunes to a sound reminiscent of traditional Zulu concertina on a song from Tunisia.

Emile Parisien, Berlin Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien was also highly impressive. A wonderfully round soprano  sax sound, he played without a neck strap, which meant that his arms were lifted up and out to the side (largely to support the horn and leave his fingers free to move) and his stance was side-on, knees bent, as if about to leap. He didn’t become airborne but was seen to rise up on his toes, offer up a can-can kick, and frequently gyrate. What might appear an affectation was amusing, genuine: his listening and performing prowess are what captures the attention. Bassist Jérôme Regard deserves a mention for his mellifluous tone and ability to be both creative and supportive without any shimmying or shuffling.

Cologne’s WDR Big Band, under the baton of American conductor and arranger Richard DeRosa, launched into a programme of music celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance One could instantly sense both surprise and concern in the hall. From their very first sound, this band, whose reputation goes before it, sounded not just loose but even under-rehearsed.

Kurt Elling, Berlin Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Would the arrival of special guest Kurt Elling (above), joining the band for their second number, dispel those doubts? Not really. A bubblegum version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World shuffled along without much gravitas and while Elling’s signature acerbic yet captivating voice is so magnificent, he seemed to be shouting in competition with the exhaustingly forte ensemble. Klaus Meine’s power ballad (which says it all, really) Wind of Change included one of the members of a top European sax section subjecting an audience to the doubtful charms of a solo penny whistle.

As talented players like alto saxophonists Johan Hörlen and Karolina Strassmayer, trumpeter John Marshall and trombonist Shannon Barnett were highlighted with minute-long allotments in which to solo, the oppression of pre-1989 Germany seemed to be mirrored in the tightly wound arrangements of this programme. It brought to mind the large ensemble music of composer/arranger Maria Schneider, which boasts solo sections that give the musicians room to build a musical narrative organically and with ample time. It must be noted her performances are also roughly an hour in duration and often include vocalists. It can be done.

The Freedom Suite had Elling performing spoken excerpts of freedom speeches by John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, over meandering big band sounds. Several audience members booed, stood up and left the venue. It was a large enough number of people that Elling had to attempt to make light of the situation with some banter, which was not appreciated and met further disapproval.

The rest of the evening (including a curiously chosen Fair Weather by Benny Golson, a song that contained the South African National Anthem segueing into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin', and Ellington’s Come Sunday) was equally odd and didn't do much to please the remaining listeners.

What was fascinating was to see a German audiences refusing point-blank to celebrate something substandard. They simply will not sit by and watch one of their country’s favourite big bands be reduced to a cliché without a boo or two. Witnessing them in action was unsettling, but also fascinating, and perhaps even empowering.

LINKS: Review: Daniel Humair Quartet at Jazzdor Berlin 2012
Interview with Vincent Peirani
Sweet and Sour in our top albums of 2012
CD Review: Kurt Elling 1619 Broadway
Livestream of Marshall Gilkes' Farewell Concert with the WDR Big Band


1 comment:

  1. Some debate broke out on Kurt Elling's Facebook fan page and he was classy enough to respond with that I think is a very genuine, well deliberated answer-read below and you can visit the actual page here (

    "To Coco Balou, Jürgen Werner, Andrew Perkis, Martin Hoffmann, Susanne Schulz, Berliner Festspiele: Please accept my apologies for anything that seemed out of place, out of time, or out of focus at the Berlin Concert. It is a very difficult thing to step into a stream of history that rightfully belongs to another culture and offer something specifically appropriate. I am obviously more complete and strong when coming from my own history and heart. I spoke about misgivings I had about taking on this concert to the producers from the very start of our discussions - "Wouldn't it be better to have a German singer?" "What can I bring to people who will surely have very well-defined views of their own history?" But I was persuaded that both the band and the festival wanted me, specifically. The overall theme of the night was set in advance, as was the "Freedom Suite" - the text of which was chosen and set to music entirely in Koln and without my input. It was a set piece, and I apologize to anyone in the audience who felt that I had shown up to lecture them based upon it. Moreover, my own words attempting to frame the piece were clearly too short, and inadequate to the task. Other than that specific piece, there was frankly little or no guidance from the production side regarding material choices. That left me to my own naive devices. Again, my apologies to anyone who attended the concert and felt any of the material lacking or politically tone-deaf. My intention in this, and in every case of every concert, is to offer the most thrilling, compelling, emotionally charged performance I can. I am sorry if circumstances and my own ignorance kept me from offering it in this case."