REVIEW: Second Night of the Berlin Jazz Festival: Get The Blessing / Soweto Kinch / Alexander von Schlippenbach & Aki Takase

Soweto Kinch (foreground), Nick Jurd
Berlin Jazz Festival 2014. Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski


REVIEW: / Get The Blessing / Soweto Kinch / Alexander von Schlippenbach & Aki Takase Celebrate Eric Dolphy
(31st October 2014. Second Night of the Berlin Jazz Festival. Review by Nicky Schrire)

The second night of the Berlin Jazz Festival opened with Archie Shepp and a rhythm section comprising Carl Morisset (piano), Darryl Hall (bass) and Steve McCraven (drums). The performance was polarizing opinion. One viewer commented on how out of tune Shepp’s playing was, while another singing his praises, especially at the age of seventy-seven. Jazz seems to be the constant cause of differences in opinion.

Darryl Hall (background), Archie Shepp
Berlin Jazz Festival 2014. Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

This held true for the next two acts too. A British invasion of sorts, Get The Blessing took to the stage followed by Soweto Kinch. I had not previously heard Get The Blessing live, but was hopeful thanks to overwhelmingly positive public opinion and their edgy, cool branding campaign. While the concept is effective (complete with a uniform of suits, no tie, and choreographed battle-like stances from saxophonist Jake McMurchie and trumpeter Pete Judge) the compositions lacked development and variation in harmonic and melodic content and form.

Get the Blessing at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

The result was very often a “one note jam”. Music that grooves without much progression is enjoyable but if every song in an hour-long set is of this formula, then the feel-good grooving starts to wear thin. The highlight by far was “Quiet” which, as it’s name suggests, offered respite from a relentless drum beat (although Clive Dreamer was a capable driving force for the evening) and showcased the lyricism of electric bassist Jim Barr who, up to this point, had been playing mostly ostinato patterns.

I had been lucky enough to hear Soweto Kinch play in South Africa and he managed to exceed expectations at this performance. His group with bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Moses Boyd jumped straight in with Kinch’s signature pliant, bright alto sound shooting through the venue. The opening song was a bebop tune with a typical chromatic, winding theme. It was the perfect showcase for Kinch’s dexterity and confident stage presence, and it also allowed Jurd to make his mark. An impressive player, his tone was warm and forceful and his improvised content was mature. The jazz-sounding song was Kinch’s way of winning over the audience before moving onto his other strength as rapper and wordsmith. While there was slight reluctance from the audience to celebrate his quick-wittedness and to succumb to audience participation (on his tune Invidia), they certainly appreciated his more jazz-influenced compositions and his final free-style (a highlight on his South African concerts too) seemed to leave them as charmed as they were impressed.

Aki Takase at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

For the late night set, the festival goers dashed uptown to the Akademie der Künste to hear the much buzzed about Festival collaboration between pianists Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase in a celebration of abstract stylist and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy’s music. Both von Schlippenbach and Takase’s names were new to me and I’m a Dolphy neophyte at best. The only givens were that the music would be of the free jazz variety and the pianists would be joined by “a hand-picked selection of the finest European improvising musicians.” I didn’t expect to be completely engrossed in this world of clashing, exhilarating, energizing musical antics.

Von Schlippenbach led the way with a jaunty Dolphy tune entitled Out There. It was a technically virtuosic, bop-like, angular composition with drummer Heinrich Köbberling swinging with such fire and intensity that the entire ensemble was enveloped in a uniform bite. It was immediately clear that these were, as the programme stated, “the finest” in free jazz musicians. They were all at once individual players and sounds, and a tight-knit ensemble. They were precise and loose in their approach. The biggest contradiction was that this music is the kind of music people who don’t like jazz think of when one mentions the genre. And yet the filled-to-capacity theatre (people were standing in the aisles) utterly lapped up this music. There’s no real harmonic centre, you can’t necessarily find the downbeat, you’re not sure if the players are collective soloing or playing written notation but it was immensely exciting, edgy and, most of all, fun.

Alexander von Schlippenbach at the 2014 Berlin Jazz Festival
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Takase took the energy up a notch with a “cat and mouse” type duet with clarinetist Rudi Mahall. Her touch was beautifully firm, never banging even when she pounced up and down the keyboard, cluster chords ringing out as Mahall’s clarinet evoked both a sense of modernity and the 1920’s jazz era. A strong feeling of groove ran throughout and while there was plenty of harmonic crunch and chaos, a bluesy undercurrent or unison section were always a moment away. It was a masterclass in tension and release, two fundamentals of jazz performance that if not properly balanced can make or break a concept.

There were several two piano works (arrangements of Something Sweet, Something Tender and Hat and Beard) with full ensemble, where Takase played inside the piano, or the pianists engaged in a kind of dueling counter rhythm game. One reason why this program worked was because of the inclusion of particularly memorable solo duets-between bass clarinettists Mahall and Louis Sclavis, trombonist Christof Thewes and trumpeter Axel Dörner, and unison patterns between bassist Antonio Borghini and Mahall. Henrik Walsdorff’s tenor sound was softer than Gerd Dudek’s bright bell-like tone, but their musical offerings were equally well-formed and informed. This concert left me with one resounding thought. Playing free jazz is much like operating power tools - it’s a task best left to adults and professionals.

LINKS: Review: Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio at the Vortex

Interview with Soweto Kinch

CD Review: Get the Blessing Lope and Antilope

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