REPORT: Official Opening Concert of 2016 Jazzfest Berlin



2016 JazzFest Berlin Opening Concert
(Haus der Festspiele. 3rd November 2016. Report by Sebastian Scotney(*))

Jazz needs influential champions, and in Germany it has one: Culture Minister Monika Grütters of the CDU sees the value of jazz, believes in its centrality, ("not a side-show") expresses a desire to make it "unverzichtbar" (indispensable/ impossible to overlook). She also takes the trouble to assert these priorities as policy at the main events in the German jazz calendar such as Jazzahead in Bremen, and also at last night's official opening of the Berlin Jazz Festival, where she gave a welcome speech, describing the festival as "one of the highlights of the cultural year in Berlin," and staying right through all three sets. This 2016 Festival is the second one under the Artistic Directorship of Richard Williams,

Monika Grütters. Photo credit: Berliner Festspiele / Camille Blake


Jazz doesn't just need advocacy, it also needs strong persuasive, charismatic musical voices and last night's headliner was one. Wadada Leo Smith carries a sense when he plays that each separate, clear utterance he makes has meaning. He shapes it with such conviction, one starts to wonder if maybe such clarity has even the power to change the way people think.  Simple, lapidary utterances: a single low note. Then a rising fourth. Another one slightly louder and  a major third higher. Then single high note loudly, triumphantly declaimed. But each one with intent, meaning. As he plays, he mostly focuses on a microphone set at knee-height. He leans in to it as if the microphone is a small immobile child who needs to be told and keep these messages for life. It certainly held the attention of the audience.


Wadada Leo Smith. Photo credit: Berliner Festspiele/ Camille Blake


Wadada also has a hand-picked quartet. The drummer Marcus Gilmore - Roy Haynes' grandson - is, as Wadada explained afterwards both "sensitive" and "explosive," and creates a constantly changing backdrop for the others. Wadada was controlling the intensity and volume with hand signals like a conductor, and the responses from Gilmore were instantly and faithfully carried out. Bassist John Lindberg was particularly impressive in his bowed solos and saxophonist Jonathan Haffner rises well to  tricky the challenge of adding, commenting, contextualising Wadada's utterances, and of soloing in an idiom which the listener can relate back to what has already been said by the leader.


Jonathan Haffner, John Lindberg, Marcus Gilmore, Wadada Leo Smith

One of this year's festival themes is women in jazz.  The first act had pianist and jazz advocate Julia Hülsmann with her regular quartet including Tom Arthurs plus guest alto saxophonist Anna Lena Schnabel. From the start they captured the upbeat, outgoing mood required for the occasion, with Arthurs impressive and assertive and seemingly rejuvenates on drummer Henrik Koebberling's composition Laters. Arthurs tune Como Rebi was more spacious and lyrical, and Schnabel's Burn-Out was a fast roast.

Mette Henriette. Photo credit Berliner Festspiele / Camille Blake

A completely different vibe came from the 13-piece ensemble assembled led by Norwegian saxophonist  Mette Henriette. When Henning Bolte reviewed her debut double album on ECM  HERE, he wrote: "For Mette Henriette everything from utmost fragility to sharply shooting directness is a natural consequence of her artistic choices and the work’s internal logic. Mette Henriette is from a new generation of musicians that perceive stylistic modes of all kinds without fear, and likewise applies them as apt and effective forms to express themselves." The listener is welcomed into a particular, richly-textured sound universe where different heritages co-exist and can have patient dialogues with each other.

A successful opening concert.

(*) I am here for just part of the festival. Our full round-up will be co-written with Henning Bolte. I will also be doing a Jazz Travels feature for JazzFM.

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