REPORTS: Swiss Night and German Expo at jazzhead! in Bremen

Hildegard lernt fliegen at the Gala Concert
Photo credit: Ingo Wagner

A significant feature of jazzahead! 2016 was a total of forty showcase gigs, grouped into four sessions: the Swiss Night on Thursday, the German Jazz Expo and the Overseas Night on Friday and the European Jazz Meeting on Saturday. The concerts attracted 15,000 visitors in total, of whom 6,500 attended the Club Night shows at various venues in the city on Saturday night. In this round-up, Henning Bolte reports on the programme from Switzerland, the official partner country for 2016 jazzahead!, and on the German Jazz Expo. He also reflects on the selection processes. He writes:

The Swiss Presence at Jazzahead - Background

The four days of the jazzahead! fair are precedeed by a 14-day multi-arts and culture festival, organized in a cooperation between the city of Bremen and the partner country. Therefore the opening ceremony of jazzahead! is a double celebration, both of the end of that festival and the start of the jazz. It featured performances by a trio of vocalist Erika Stucky, drummer Lucas Niggli and tubaist Marc Unternährer.

The confederation of the Swiss cantons functions as a crossroads in the middle of Europe and the country has been affected by migration from -and in - all directions. With one third of its population having a migration background, Switzerland has one of the highest ratios for non-indigenous inhabitants in Europe. Eight Swiss groups were showcasing in the Swiss Night of the opening day. Also there was a gala concert on Saturday night at Bremen’s famous old concert hall Die Glocke with the renowned Zen Funk group Ronin of pianist Nik Bärtsch and Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, a group of acclaimed vocalist Andreas Schaerer.

Who is showcased? 

Almost half of the groups of the Swiss Night and the concerts had already been selected during the preceding 10 years of jazzahead! for previous showcases of the European Jazz Meeting before, or had played the Club Night.

The piano trio of Colin Vallon, the quartet of vocalist Elina Duni and the foursome of Weird Beard belong to this circuit of usual Jazzahead! suspects.

- Colin Vallon lets the music grow from subtle manoeuvres and close connectedness of his fellow musicians.

- Elina Duni is a strong and mature vocalist with Albanian heritage – she has lived in Switzerland since the age of ten. The group of instrumentalists, which operates with extreme subtlety, is a great context for her to soul to burn free. A stand-out feature is the beautiful percussion work of drummer Robert Pfammater. Within the time limit of a 30 minutes showcase she took the audience on a captivating pilgrimage along touching songs of life amongst others from her recent album Dallëndyshe (ECM).

- Weird Beard is a real band (with a rock bottom and a frontline of alto saxophone (of the David Sanborn type) of Florian Egli and the electric guitar of Dave Gisler. Its edgy but melodic music was full of contrasts that sparked its strong dynamics, led into captivating transitions and opened up wider horizons or surprising exits according to the apt title of its latest album Everything Moves (Intakt). The only thing the band’s highly agile music might need extra is a more extrovert stage presentation.

Julius Sartorius

The marvellous stand-alone performance of drummer Julius Sartorius was the highlight in a series of other outstanding groups performing at the Swiss Night. Sartorius performed earlier that night with the trio of pianist Colin Vallon and presently shares the drum chair with Kenny Wollesen in the trio of Swiss-American pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.

Sartorius operated off the beaten track realizing an amazingly high musical level in his a wonderful and fascinating performance. He accomplished it by consistently musicalizing everyday tools plus the skin, metal and wood of his drum set. His performance was not a drum solo in the conventional sense. Rather a dedicated and passionate musician made the drum (and a lot of assorted utensil) sing instead. Of crucial importance was his way of manipulating the material. It was easily observable, very tangible and it had its celestial traits too – even under the circumstances of a showcase. It would still be more intensified when the audience would be seated close(r)by. In astonishing ways Sartorius developed the flow, wove textures and evoked poetical lines and rondeaus. The total performance was exhilarating reinvention on the heel of great momentum. There was no attempt to impress but only pure dedication to make all beautiful strange sounds climb up, merge and resonate widely into place and space. The process and the sounding result, both of it enhanced each other. That is what made it utterly fascinating and satisfying to watch and to listen to it closely. With his format transcending performance Sartorius succeeded in establishing a close complicity with the audience. He created a new thing by a beguiling recombination of old as well as new means. It is highly autonomous work as is also documented on his album Zatter (Intakt, 2015).

Christoph Irniger's Pilgrim

Saxophonist Christoph Irniger has made a name over the last ten years and has participated in the Take Five Program. His Pilgrim quintet with electric guitar (Dave Gisler) and piano (Stefan Aebi) is one of the younger generation groups you cannot pinpoint from the established prevailing styles. Pilgrim is operating strongly from melody and motivic development in different temperatures, temperaments and tempos. It can be hectic and rough but also hovering in (Peter Green’s) Albatross-mode. In Bremen the group played a beautiful chant-like peace in that vein. Pianist Aebi also applied extended live electronics in one piece. It fitted well into Irniger’s way of gradually developing and extending pieces. The group’s versatility, its clever approach of dealing with contrasts and its full sound make it a group to take into account internationally. As a successor of its 2014-album Italian Circus Story the group will release a live-album, Big Wheel, later this year on its Zürich home label Intakt.


Expectations were high after bassist Luca Sisera’s recent album Prospect (Leo Records - REVIEWED) of his group Roofer. Prospect has impressive dynamics of squirrel quick turns, is full of witty playfulness and has a knack. Sisera is a busy man and involved in more than 20 groups so the essence of his playing should be fully contained in Roofer. The group did not perform on the same level of quick turns, fast runs, simulated break downs, rampage and quick resurrection as manifested on the album. Frequent performing will hopefully catapult the group’s music into that direction.


Up- and-coming piano trio Plaistow from Geneva has adapted elements from minimal music and techno for its music making. The minimalism of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass etc. has been influential the last decennia in different genres, mainly in contemporary composed music and in pop- and dance music, especially techno. Jazz is a late bloomer mainly. The Necks developed its very own approach and version independently from the 1980s and the new century saw the creation of the Zen Funk concept of Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch who took up the baton.

Currently there is a new movement of young musicians and bands who embrace minimalistic elements in order to transfer and adapt them to the piano-trio format. Evidently minimalism in combination with extended techniques and electronics offer a lot of strong and surprising effects. It remains to be seen if these new adaptations get strong and deep enough to really develop into something original – like in the work of pianist Craig Taborn – and catch on or will remain marginal.

The Gala Concert

The gala-concert at Bremen’s tradition-saturated concert hall Die Glocke presented the renowned Zen Funk group Ronin of pianist Nik Bärtsch and Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, the well-known group of acclaimed vocalist Andreas Schaerer (he won a German grammy in 2015) was a good example of contrast and diversity of the kind of music labelled ‘jazz’ and a good example for the richness of the jazz scene(s) in Switzerland. Both, Bärtsch and Schaerer, performed in Bremen earlier. Bärtsch performed there in 2008, two years after Ronin’s debut on German label Edition Contemporary Music when his career took flight. Schaerer was still more go getting. He showcased at Jazzahead! in Bremen three times. In 2012 he performed with Hildegard Lernt Fliegen and in 2014 he performed in duo with Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli and in trio with trumpeter Peter Rom and guitarist Martin Eberle. So in a way the choice for these two musicians/units seemed almost inevitable.

The best part of Ronin’s concert was the encore when the group finally matched the expectations fuelled by the group’s reputation, its quality and power from the past. In the main part the group did not really take off, the turns did not work out as usual, volume took over too much and as a consequence the groove remained quite static. The sound quality was dubious, less than mediocre. This raises the question of whether the hall's acoustics are suitable for this kind of compact electric music. A concert with Bärtsch’s acoustic group Mobile might have been more in place especially since it has just released an album with a string quintet entitled Continuum (ECM). Mobile has no bass guitarist but two percussionists instead. Knowing that Baertsch is also currently touring with Mobile, the priority to be given to the electric group Ronin did baffle me on this occasion.

The music of Schaerer’s six-piece-ensemble Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard learns to fly) formed a stark contrast with stringent Ronin. HLF is a cheerful entertaining slapstick troupe. As such it operates quite successfully on an international scale. Besides that Schaerer has a couple of other groups that play artistically more advanced and sophisticated music. The troupe immediately got started dynamically, pulled out all stops and went to fly wildly zigzagging. At high tempo a plethora of virtuosic stunts and interventions came along, pushed it up and intensified everything. It works in a way that is refreshing and hilarious...but which can became a bit routine in the long run. The songs with their high Fiddler On The Roof content become too predictable. That said, in the context of the gala, it was perhaps the right choice.

Swiss bands - Summary

The clearest and strongest voices of its own (coming from a deeper ground) were Elena Duni and Julius Sartorius. Then there were two quite different piano trios, the trio of pianist Colin Vallon and Plaistow. One of it, Plaistow, still has to consolidate and develop through. Weird Beard, Irniger’s Pilgrim and Roofer are groups tapping from heterogeneous sources and navigating through (sometimes heavy) contrasts with different approaches and focuses. There are also – like in other scenes – the multiple musicians like the two drummers Julius Sartorius (Colin Vallon Trio, Solo) and Michi Stulz (Pilgrim, Roofer), pianist Colin Vallon (Elena Duni, Colin Vallon Trio) and guitarist Dave Gisler (Weird Beard, Pilgrim).

It became evident again that the jazz-scene(s) in Switzerland have a good jazzahead! record and that they had to offer a lot on a high level this year. The choices made are based however on applications of fair participants and a selection from it made by an international jury of programmers. That is a strong (double) commercial filter functional for the fair to pursue its own targets. Strong groups and musicians might fall by the wayside in case they did not apply or fail to be selected. If lists of applicants or long-lists were made available, that might provide some insight.

The filter of the jazzahead!-procedure is no artistic filter. It can be expected that programmers select musicians and groups they think might be appreciated by their/the audience. The choice presented will indicate SOME of the things going on in particular scene. It must however not be mistaken as a representative reflection of things going on the jazz scene(s) in Switzerland. The special edition of the Swiss Jazz Magazine JAZZ’N’MORE edited by Christian Rentsch and spread during Jazzahead! offers a solution to those who want (or are in need of) a more thorough view on things going on. It is an essential and necessary part of journalistic work to be taken care of.

o - o - o - o - o

Nicole Johänntgen's band at the German Jazz Expo
Phot: (c) Jan Rathke / Messe Bremen

German Jazz Expo

The German Jazz Exposition gathered and presented eight groups, two with a female bandleaders (Rebecca Trescher, Nicole Johänntgen), five from the (wider) Cologne region, two from the south of Germany and one from Berlin. Two of the groups had musicians with a strong international and connection. Pianist Pablo Held toured and recorded with North American guitarist John Scofield and is a member of the Chris Potter Quartet, sharing the piano chair with David Virelles. Trumpeter Frederik Köster is frequently collaborating with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma and bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel, both from Cologne, are two of the most in demand German musicians nationally and also internationally. All groups operated at a high standard, and yet only a few of them were able to single themselves out in a distinctive way.

Rebecca Trescher

Most notable and innovative of all was the outstanding 11tet of clarinettist Rebecca Trescher from southern Germany. It had the wealth and elegance of Maria Schneider’s work but with a very own knack and an extraordinary melange of layered sound colours due to the uncommon instrumentation with amongst others harp, vibraphone, flute, bass clarinet, violoncello, voice. There is a clear German solidity in Trescher’s work with moods nourished by German traces and tradition recognizable from titles as “Düsteres Dunkel” or “Malachit” contrasted with the exotic Hawaiian “Ohia Lehna” from the ensembles last album Fields (Label 11). Her skilful arrangements yielded an undulating performance of excellent dynamics – music of non-agitated excitement and tranquillity.

Pablo Held Trio

The performance of Pablo Held in his long-standing collaboration with Landfermann and Burgwinkel, the strongest German bass and drum unit, was a neat and edgy ride that even in the impersonal surrounding vibrated. With great unfolding and listening to each other, high degree of momentum the threesome nailed it. The music, pointed and striking, came from a deeper place and had a much higher intensity than on their last trio album Recondita Armonia (Pirouet).

Die Verwandlung

The quartet Die Verwandlung (metamorphosis) of award-winning Cologne trumpeter Frederik Köster went into wider electronic sound fields/Klangfelde without getting lost. The group played with a higher degree of urgency and produced a lot of heat at the next step of its cosmic excursion. It was music along the edge of conventional virtues nudged into new territory. Köster set sails in that direction on the newest album of Die Verwandlung, Tension/Release (Traumton).

Thoughts on the selection process

The method adopted for the selection of the German Jazz Exposition is quite unusual and not at all what one would expect. It is not made by the German organization set up to support groups from Germany. As is the case for the other showcase programs, an international jury of programmers made the selection, in this case programmers from the United States, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany and a delegate of the Goethe-Institute. That might be one reason why there were no discernible patterns or directions in the way musical acts and musicians from Germany or the German jazz scene(s) were chosen. It rather seems it has been substituted by an external Darwinian approach. In that sense the German musicians and groups come across as somewhat rootless. The selection presented is not a realistic reflection of (the) scene(s) in Germany. The approach is not very suitable to render a clear profile such that outsiders can gain some good insight into directions, trends and approaches. Whereas the French Collision collective of collectives was present at Jazzahead! for the second year and the Norwegians of the Norwegian label Jazzland presented their New Conception Of Jazz 20 Year Anniversary Edition, there is nothing compared to that related to and from the German scene.

- Finland will be the partner country of Jazzahead! in 2017 which will take place from 27 - 30 April 2017.

- The Swiss Partner Coutry Programme in 2016 was supported in the Pro Helvetia, Foundation SUISA and Schweizer Musik Syndikat (Syndicat Musical Suisse/Sindacato Musica Svizzera).

- German Jazz Expo received support from the Initiative Musik, as part of the German Federal Government's commitment to Culture/ Media.

1 comment:

  1. The jazzahead! team (Sybille Kornitschky, Ulli Beckerhoff and Peter Schulze) have responded to Henning Bolte's comments in this piece as follows:

    Henning Bolte’s thoughts on the selection process of the jazzahead showcases are pretty crude and by no means right or clarifying for the readers of your site. Maybe he did not understand it. That is why we will try to shed some light on the process.

    Henning says: "The filter of the jazzahead!-procedure is no artistic filter. It can be expected that programmers select musicians and groups they think might be appreciated by their/the audience."

    What else does a programmer of a festival do than to carefully select musicians for artistic reasons that he wants to present to his or her audience. That is their task within the jazzahead jury as well. No artistic filter? Oh yes, first and foremost, unless you want to insult all artistic directors involved to be uninterested in artistic quality, just flattering their audiences with no artistic intention.

    Let us tell you how the selection process works:

    - The jazzahead showcase program consists of four different modules, i.e. a European, an Overseas, a German module and one directed to the respective partner country, in this case Switzerland.

    - For each module we select a special jury (special in their curiosity not in their preoccupations) that changes every year. What does not change is their structure: all juries are made up of programmers of international festivals, ideally their artistic directors.

    - And by the way: they listen to all the applying bands in their module and of course are free to hire bands for their festival that do not make it to the final selection.

    - The composition of the juries is strictly independent of any ties with record companies, agencies etc. We ask them to judge first and foremost on the artistic quality of the entries. All other considerations are secondary. It is not about representation.

    - There is not such thing as a "representative program" or a "realistic reflection of the scenes" anyway that can be put into a box of 8 showcases from Germany (or 32 showcases from the rest of the world). We neither claim nor intend that. All modules reflect a current view on bands who by their application show an interest and ambition to tour internationally. They ultimately have to prove that to international professionals.

    - This year we had a total of 587 applications, more than 100 among them just for the German Jazz Expo with a wide range of styles, genres, personnel etc.

    - That is why we deliberately chose to not have a national committee but an international jury for the German Jazz Expo program as well. If the bands want to tour they have to internationally find festivals or clubs who want to book them. And how else than showing their music to them can interest be created or fostered? The feedback we get is that festival directors from abroad often through the jury process get an awareness of the enormous variety of the German jazz scene. „external Darwinism“? By no means. German bands are treated just like bands from any other country. We just consider this to be fair. There is no protective fence around them other than the fact that there is a special German module. There is no claim for German superiority or anything like that. There is no space for that either.