REPORT: The 2015 WDR Jazz Prize Concert in Dortmund

WDR Big Band directed by Ansgar Striepens, WDR Jazz Prize Concert 2015
Photo credit: WDR / lutz voigtlaender

Sebastian reports from the eleventh annual WDR Jazz Prize Concert:

The WDR Jazz Prize Concert, the annual celebration by WDR3, the radio station which is Europe's most extensive producer of jazz, is a big night. There are four prizes which draw attention towards things which are necessary to make the music happen and to flourish: improvisation, composition, the next generation and a “special prize” for ensuring that it is heard. The winners are always known in advance.

While the number of prizes, and what they are for, is fixed, other things do change from year to year. This was the 11th Prize Concert, but for the past three years it has been part of a festival. And this is the second year that the festival has been taken out of out on the road into the region into which WDR broadcasts. It is also the first year of live video-streaming.

The town which hosts this concert, and the festival around it makes a huge difference. Last year in Gütersloh it was all about the modern architecture of the theatre. This year it was about celebrating Dortmund's jazz heritage which goes back to the 1920s, and a club, Domicil, which has been important for presenting the music in Germany for more than half a century. There is a highly informative programme essay on this topic.

The Mayor of Dortmund set a genial tone for the evening's proceedings by unashamedly declaring his allegiance to jazz. In his speech, Mayor Sierau recounted fond memories of dancing - on tables - to the Chris Barber band. It was a good speech, given with affecting passion, vehemence and pride.

The tone was also set by TV host Götz Alsmann, whose energetic and gently ironic commentary on the proceedings was well-judged, and caught that mood of celebration of a passion shared: “What is jazz? It is music lived by, and experienced by people who will happily reply to that question with the answer that their lives are warmed and enriched by it.”

The first prize of the evening went to Curuba, a youth band from the music school KUMS in the town of Brühl, between Cologne and Bonn. The band director clearly capable of inspiring the teenagers, and encouraging them to produce bold effects. In one, he cut off a blazing full band chord, to leave nothing louder than the lingering resonance of a held piano chord from the impressive Theresa Krapp. It was a highly effective moment.

Michael Ruesenberg (left) receiving the Special Award
from the Head Programming at WDR3, Karl Karst.
Photo Credit: Lutz Voigtlaender/ WDR

The Special Prize (Sonderpreis) gives an opportunity to salute work in support of keeping the message alive and this year went to the four decades of work by broadcaster Michael Rüsenberg, who remembered having his very first job in Dortmund... in another century, He also thanked a number of people within WDR who at various stages had given him the freedom to pursue his distinguished career.

Nicolas Simion, WDR Jazz Prize Concert 2015
Photo credit: WDR / lutz voigtlaender

The Improvisation Prize went to the Romanian-born saxophonist Nicolas Simion . The citation praised the joy with which he plays and the echoes of his homeland. One observer simply described him as “ein toller Typ” ( a great guy). He is a musician who has made a lot happen in Cologne since he arrived there in the late 1990s. He was in a trio with characterful accordionist Fausto Beccalossi and the hugely adaptable pianist Sebastian Sternal. Their happy interaction was a delight. They were given the role of bringing the first half of the concert to a rousing conclusion. It happened with one of those accelerating recruiting dances, and Simion playing a blazing solo with an unforgettable sound on tárogató.

Götz Alsmann opened the second half with the nudge-wink irony he does well, joking that the band performing the second half was to be the B-team from the Brühl secondary school, whereas in fact the band due to play was no less than one of the top big bands in Europe, the WDR Big Band, directed by Ansgar Striepens - he is a former prize-winner. They played compositions by the compositions of prize-winner Tobias Wember.

The first serious appplause of the second half came for a solo from Australian-born trombonist Shannon Barnett. The scale, strength and individual character of her sound, purposefulness of her soloing had the audience completely won over.

The ballad Pine was the highlight of Tobias Wember' s set, and showed his strengths as a writer of the backdrops and supporting textures, first for bassist John Goldsby and later for pianist Frank Chastenier. Nicolas Simion was brought back to close the second half, which he did highly effectively with the Balkan tune One for Kisser in a clever arrangement by Bill Dobbins.

The Prize Concert is a formal occasion which follows a pattern, but the cumulative result, amplified by the context of the festival, is that local champions emerge from the pool of prize winners. Perhaps the best representation of this in action was the astonishingly good set on the previous night by Pablo Held's trio with John Scofield. As an expression of how a small region of Europe through nurturing jazz of world-class quality to enter into civilised musical dialogue with the very best in the world, it couldn't be done better.

LINKS:  Preview of 2015 Festival

Report of 2014 WDR Jazz Prize

Report on 2013 Jazz Prize

Report of 2011 WDR Jazz Prize

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