REVIEW: Jason Moran, Mostly Other People..., Brass Mask at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival

Mostly Other People Do the Killing at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Jason Moran and the Bandwagon / Jason Moran: Fats Waller Dance Party/ Mostly Other People Do the Killing / Brass Mask
(Haus der Festspiele Berlin. 2nd November 2014. Final night of the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival. Review by Nicky Schrire)

If Friday night had been the “British invasion” at the Berlin Jazz Festival, then Sunday, the final night, could be coined the “American invasion”. It proved something of a mixed bag.

Jason Moran and the Bandwagon contributed a nicely balanced program that typified the modern-day American jazz scene, paying respect to the tradition (which is of great importance in the USA, especially in the school system of which Moran is a part of, teaching at New England Conservatory), while remaining inventive, creative and drawing on other genres, such as R&B, and Hip Hop.

Their first three songs ran the gamut - a rock ballad, then fast-paced virtuosity, then something bluesy and soulful. There was good interaction between Moran, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen. The tendency was to start with a solo piano introduction by Moran (all of them superb), form together to play the “melody” and to build in pace and volume ending with a resounding, short final chord. After a while it ran the risk of coming across as too formulaic.

The audience really appreciated being served up a healthy dose of jazz of this kind. One German journalist remarked, “The first proper jazz this weekend!” I was suddenly aware that while Europeans readily receive and champion European-type jazz (from Italian, French, German, Swiss musicians), there is also an expectation of, and a desire for what the Americans have to offer.

Jason Moran at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski

The second act of the night belonged, again, to Moran. This time he took to the stage with music from his most recent Blue Note release All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller that sees the pianist teaming up with co-producers Don Was and Meshell Ndegeocello (who also sings on the record). The live act, placed in a fairly formal concert hall did not work as convincingly as the album. Among the performers, Charles Haynes on drums was the standout figure, while vocalist Lisa E. Harris (who also sings on the album, and whose voice fluctuated between brassy belt and breathy vibrato, with no happy middle ground), was a disappointment.

Mostly Other People Do The Killing (MOPDTK) brought their zany, often impressive, often bizarre brand of jazz to the stage to celebrate pre-swing varieties of “hot” jazz. The group comprises serious (and seriously good) musicians, and they tend to use the art of exaggeration as a way to magnify jazz’s oddities.

Brandon Seabrook from Mostly Other People Do the Killing at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Banjoist Brandon Seabrook used one of his solos to shred a bow while attacking his instrument with overly aggressive fervour; trumpeter Thomas Heberer frequently blew air through his trumpet to leave us with his version of a soundscape; saxophonist Jon Irabagon favoured a wide vibrato in communicating the style of the period. Ron Stabinsky approached the classic “solo piano intro” by quoting from various tunes, notable Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a segment of a Scott Joplin rag and (a personal favourite) Marvin Hamlisch’s infamous A Chorus Line opening. Drummer Kevin Shea showed us what happens when the drummer is given his moment to shine and “go rogue”-a sudden banging of cymbals, followed by a high pitched squeak, followed by sticks flying, etc. It’s an enjoyable idea, but in an hour-long set, it became tiresome.

Last up on the programme was Brass Mask on the Seitenbühne (side stage). It was difficult to fathom absorbing any more sonic information but the contagious energy and vibrancy of this London collective (led by saxophonist Tom Challenger) managed to give a large group of listeners second wind. With music that was more authentically of the New Orleans ilk than that of MOPDTK (perhaps because Brass Mask didn’t have excessive humour to detract from the nuances), the music was driving, a celebration of polyrhythmic writing and arranging, and a force to be reckoned with.

The risk of being billed for the final night of any jazz festival is that audience members tend to be teetering on the edge of over-saturation. Some of these bands managed to captivate in spite of this deficit, while others failed to excited and re-energise festival goers. What I took away from the fiftieth edition of the Berlin Jazz Festival is that high quality music will triumph over that which kowtows to the clichéd idea that jazz must be commercial in order to be accessible.

LINK:CD Review - All Rise- A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller
CD Review - Brass Mask - Spy Boy
CD REVIEW: MOPDTK - Slippery Rock

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