After hybrid editions 2020 and 2021, normal operation again: And how! The Jazzfest Berlin 2022 was more party than ever. In the renovated building of the Berliner Festspiele, people danced, strolled, listened and a lively exchange of ideas was maintained. There were young discoveries and old heroes who stayed young. Four nights of jazz with an increased fun factor – and a concert with fire extinguishers.
Swing dancing expressly allowed! Long after midnight on one of the long evenings at the Jazzfest 2022: The French “Umlaut Big Band” plays palatable swing, the free jazz pioneer Sven-Ake Johansson steps in as a crooner with an old-fashioned suit and hat, announces gently singing “Don’t forget that one November in Berlin” – and in front of the podium some couples dance exuberantly to it.
A jazz festival can also be like this: a surprise package with sounds that celebrated the encounter in a particularly exuberant way this year. Because after two Corona years in 2020 and 2021 with online and hybrid concepts, the music was allowed to sound again in front of physically present people. And that in the “Haus der Berliner Festspiele”, which had been closed for renovation in recent years – and is now particularly open to jazz – at the 59th edition of the traditional Berlin Jazz Festival, this time under the motto “Moving Back / Forward”. Again under the artistic direction of cultural manager Nadin Deventer, who will continue to organize the festival program for the next two years.
“Playing the House”. Under this motto, nine different ensembles played around midnight on one of the festival days at three different locations in the house to give a special sign of the revival of live culture at the first edition after the two years severely restricted by the pandemic bands performed in the wide stage and backstage area open to the public, in the upper foyer and in the box office hall. The audience could stroll and discover sounds. And get almost up close and personal with the musicians. A trio led by drummer Sven-Ake Johansson just played in the middle of the room, and listeners were standing and crouching not even a meter away from the performers. You could have easily put your hand on the shoulders of the musicians.
Sniffing out sounds on leisurely walks: Apparently this worked brilliantly – and the sounds were as colorful as possible, from the swinging party sound to the sonorous exploration of identity in ensembles such as the duo of violinist Silvia Torozzi and cellist Deborah Walker, who artistically transformed Italian folk songs about bitter poverty, war and love into existential sound mosaics.
Folk songs and traditional sounds from different regions of the world were one of the common threads in the program this time: with highlights on Ukraine (“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”), Armenia (“Gurdjieff Ensemble”) and others. In addition, there was an emphasis on major figures of European free jazz and on Chicago’s particularly lively creative jazz scene. In 43 performances, an enormously colorful spectrum unfolded, in which moving moments with the free jazz masters Peter Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach also had their place. However, for those in the audience who were particularly willing to explore, it was impossible to hear everything due to the many concerts running in parallel: you always missed some exciting performance.
The jazz festival began early on Thursday evening with a classical string quartet led by cellist Tomeka Reid, who played compositions by saxophonist Julius Hemphill and sang with profundity – and it ended with the enchanting instrumental broadsides of the “Supersonic Orchestra” by Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen Festival Sunday night. More contrast is hardly possible.
The finale with the Supersonic Orchestra was perhaps the most spectacular festival finale in a long time. This band consists of seven saxophones, four brass players and three double bass players and three drummers each, and in some of their tracks they all blow and smash at the top of their lungs.
In the storm of wild saxophones and rhythm players, however, poetic beauty was always discernible. Well-known musicians such as Mette Rasmussen, Maciej Obara, André Roligheten and Otis Sandsjö (saxophones) or Petter Eldh and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (basses) played not only with power, but also with sensual delicacy in this magnificent big band.
There were around 100 hours and many exciting moments between these festival cornerstones – as well as a disappointment (of all things at the best time on Saturday evening). Some concerts are likely to resonate with some visitors for a particularly long time. A captivating theatrical moment was the concerto for 15 hand-held fire extinguishers, which Sven-Åke Johansson had composed and is now conducting. A ten-minute opus for fire extinguishers set up in a V-shape, which were activated by hand signals. And: a hissing, foaming white reflection on musical means and their expansion, hissing from right and left, which could also have come from the American avant-garde artist John Cage. At the same time a show piece with a deeper seriousness: it has been a long time since the world needed fire extinguishers as much as it did in 2022.
A paragon of refined musicianship was the Borderlands Trio, featuring Canadian pianist Kris Davis and her two American colleagues, Stephan Crump (double bass) and Erin McPherson (drums). You rarely experience piano playing with such subtle nuances as with Kris Davis, a bass with such a secure intonation as with Crump and drums that groove so quietly with a very wide sound spectrum as with McPherson: her (freely improvised) concert was chamber music with a trance character, because the pianist played frequent patterns that were repeated with subtle changes, and thus created a gripping intensity – also with increases up to concentrated sound outbursts.
The addition of the three offered cliché-free beauty of sound in particularly softly tuned tones: soft music with captivating intensity, because none of the beautiful tones seemed harmless. A discovery of the same line-up type was the trio of the young Estonian pianist Kirke Karja – with Etienne Renard on double bass and Ludwig Wandlinger on drums. Also here: a sense for chamber music, for fine tuning and moments of surprise in the free improvisational exchange.
A special emphasis this time was on free jazz as the most radical individual expression of jazz – and as music that developed its own new strength in a time of a new upsurge of autocrats in many political landscapes. He makes brutal music for a brutal time, said one of the German free jazz protagonists, the saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, decades ago. Today, many musicians can make this motto their own – and have every reason to do so.
Peter Brötzmann, 81 years old and as intellectually curious as ever, was at the jazz festival together with Moroccan gimbri player and singer Majid Bekkas and drummer Hamid Drake. The once impetuous saxophonist with the bushy beard and a double-breasted suit with dark stripes that was deliberately too large showed himself to be a remarkably sensitive sideman: He played – alternatively on tenor and alto saxophone as well as on a metal clarinet – fine, simple lines to the songs of Majid Bekkas – and allowed himself and the others many moments of pause to allow space for the tones. It also showed how much sense the old iconoclast has for musical dramaturgy.
Before the concert, Brötzmann was presented with the German Record Critics’ Honorary Award for his life’s work by the well-known publicist and former Jazz Festival programmer Bert Noglik. Brötzmann then thanked him warmly and responded to Noglik’s finely formulated speech of appreciation in his gently cracking voice: “After all the beautiful words, now a bit of music.”
Brötzmann’s former companion Alexander von Schlippenbach (84 years old), the conductor of the legendary Globe Unity Orchestra, which celebrated its world premiere in Berlin in 1966, was also present at this jazz festival: he was a sideman in the quartet “The Bridge” of the Portuguese tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado ( with Ingebrit Haker Flaten on bass and Gerry Hemingsway on drums) at the Quasimodo jazz club. This was an early highlight of the festival, with electrifying free jazz energy and moments filled with beautiful, archaic melodies. Alexander von Schlippenbach is now sitting very hunched over the piano, but with unusual part-writing and chords, which are still unaffected and skilfully bucking every cliché, he played breathtakingly ingeniously and highly disciplined at the same time.
Ironically, the project KOMПOUSSULĂ, which was particularly praised by the festival management, with ten musicians from seven different countries, including Ukraine, Poland, Turkey and Romania, remained unfinished in the somehow puzzled together. Singers with fascinating voices sang folk songs from different countries, but the audience never knew from which country and in which language: because not a single informative sentence was said about any song.
The fellow musicians on stage didn’t really seem to know the depths of the lyrics of the individual songs (which would certainly have been the case), because they chirped and sang very random motifs and phrases. The whole thing dragged on with little tension and, with superficial colourfulness, was a missed opportunity to penetrate into a productive substance.
Great compensation for such moments were offered by concerts such as those by the saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins and Isaiah Collier (on different days and places), two musicians whose enormous presence and creative power promise an exciting future. And last but not least, the crazy-exciting quartet of cornetist and vocal performer Ben LaMar Gay – part of the Chicago focus, like drummer Hamid Drake and cellist Tomeka Reid – which, among other things, includes an interlude of hand bells waving in the air for a fascinating aha -Moments worried. Sweeter the bells never swing. At the Jazzfest Berlin, they heralded another very successful year for artistic director Nadin Deventer. Not only the jazz world can look forward to the anniversary year – the 60th Jazz Festival, which is due in 2023 – but also a curious music world without blinders and without restrictions.