REVIEW: First night of Jazzdor Berlin 2016 :Axiom (Terzic/ Bojan Z/ Speed/ Penman) plus Bernard Struber Jazztett

The Kesselhaus in East Berlin

Jazzdor Berlin 2016 1st night,
(Kesselhaus, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. May 31st 2016. Review by Alison Bentley)

Jazzdor is about French and German musicians working together. In Berlin's Kesselhaus, an atmospheric concert venue in a converted brewery, the festival's first two bands (musicians from France, Germany and the US) were linked by their intense, restless grooves and modern classical influences.

Axiom, a quartet led by Berlin-based drummer Derjan Terzic was playing music from their new project. Prometheus opened with an insistent single piano note as the band exploded into an urgent, driving groove, all instruments playing rhythmic riffs like a drum kit writ large. Terzic has a Serbian background, and there were often Balkan influences in the lopsided time signatures. Sometimes, as in Cobblestones, unexpected beats were accented, playing a daring game with the groove - it wasn't clear where the ball would land next. Bojan Z (born in Belgrade, living in France) had a fierce piano technique, tense but at times as spacious as Messaien.

The funky beats seemed to blur deliciously into each other in Addition and Subtraction, Terzic setting up a groove and then subverting it, like dancing on hot coals. Matt Penman's strong bass pedal tightened the tension as everyone descended into a dark, brooding scale. In Red US tenor-player Chris Speed 's wide vibrato and breathy tone almost recalled Ben Webster, countering the eerie, unexpected intervals he played. Bojan Z's solo increased the numinous mood, virtuosic but not just for the sake of it.

Sundance, in contrast had a rocky, bright feel (were those really just simple major chords?) Penman bent low over his bass to coax the notes out while Speed improvised wildly, playing the notes between the cracks of the chords. Bojan Z doubled the texture by playing piano and Fender Rhodes simultaneously; Terzic's drum solo had a burning intensity and the audience roared its approval. New Parasomnia pushed rhythmic tension to its limits until it began to feel like the new norm, as thundery as the Berlin skies - but still with space for all the instruments to improvise delicately and freely into a sudden conclusion.

Axiom: Matt Penman, Derjan Teric, Chris Speed (top)
Bojan Z (below)
Photo credit: Mathieu Schoenahl/ Jazzdor

Strasbourg composer and multi-instrumentalist Bernard Struber conducted his ten-piece Jazztett from his electric guitar. His La Symphony Déjouée ('foiled', or even ironically 'unplayed') was being performed in Germany for the first time- it was premiered last year at Jazzdor's sister festival in Strasbourg. Struber's influences are breathtakingly broad; from Bach to Daft Punk via Messaien with a large dose of Zappa. This Symphony had clearly defined movements, but there his humorous comparison with Haydn ended. Struber's guitar blended along with the violin like an orchestral string instrument in densely-written, overlapping Steve Reichian patterns. Clarinet, baritone, tenor, French horn and voice thickened the texture - though the horns' richly unsettling harmonies were a little under-amplified from my seat. Piano, bass and drums created a more conventional jazz framework for the bari and flugel solos (cadenzas?). The first used wildly throaty multiphonics; the second an Enrico Rava-like plaintiveness. The piano solo seemed to distil all the written themes before stirring in tastes of Ligeti, Gershwin and even a little Beethoven. The other instruments picked up the riffs again, as fragmented as the light refracted from the huge glitterball hung over the audience.

The sound lightened in the next movement as clarinet and soprano pulled against the deeper tenor and French horn in a dislocated swing; counterpoint phrases touched to create more dissonance than harmony. The sweetness of the emerging piano, flute and violin trio was an exquisitely beautiful release of tension-I'd have loved to hear more of them improvising together.
It was fascinating to hear a classical voice in this jazzier context, though it was a part of the luscious texture rather than used in improvisation. A powerful bass solo and feverish gypsy violin solo showed how these musicians can move in a moment from disciplined ensemble playing to imaginative improvising.

The last movement started fast and funkily, drums pulling the jumpy rhythms together: cerebral and emotive at the same time. Riffs in 11/8 were rocky but never rocked-out, in carefully-constructed but brilliantly bewildering layers. It was a remarkable piece, from an incredible musical imagination.

Members of Bernard Struber's Jazztett
Photo credit: Mathieu Schoenahl/ Jazzdor

Jazztett: Bernard Struber, direction, composition, guitar / Michael Alizon, saxophones / Serge Haessler, trumpet and horn / Jean-Charles Richard, saxophones / Raymond Halbeisen, saxophones, flute and clarinet / Frederic Norel, violin / Benjamin Moussay, keyboards / Arnault Cuisinier, bass / François Merville, drums / Svetlana Kochanas, vocals

LINK: Jazzdor Berlin Preview and full Festival Programme

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