A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Alexander von Schlippenbach
Alexander Von Schlippenbach                                                                                 Francesco Martinelli©2008

On a cloudy but pleasant September afternoon, a small crowd fills a comfortable and luminous shop in a small street a few steps away from Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm. The shop smells of new paint and wood, has been open only a week but seems already a focus of the community: it's called Jazzwerkstatt & Classic, taking the name from an organisation that promoted the famous Peitz festival when Germany was still divided. The man leading both is Ulli Blobel, quite a controversial personality in the past for sometimes producing records without a clear agreement with musicians, including Anthony Braxton. Blobel says that the ensuing court cases proved his rights; the records themselves are now for sale in the shop, together with a wide selection of classical music and jazz. Blobel also managed Wuppertal musicians after the East German authorities – in an unprecedented gesture – invited him to move to the other side and carry on his activities there, since all this free jazz was rather suspect and unmanageable for the régime. He’s now in Berlin where the new Jazzwerkstatt promotes jazz concerts, operates an active record label and now the shop, filling a void in the contemporary Berlin.

The town was famous as one of the hotbeds of European Improvised Music, due especially to the concerts and record productions of the Free Music Production; but the retirement of founder Jost Gebers slowly tapered FMP’s position, leaving ample space for new initiatives. Since the plan of Berlin becoming one of the business centers of Europe did not work completely, there are ample affordable spaces in the former East Berlin for artist studios, galleries and lofts, as well as a generally lower cost of living than in other German cities. This, added to the traditional charm of the town, attracted a new generation of artists and musicians, as well as investments by clever private firms in facilities for cutting-edge artists, dancers, and musicians. Blobel was at the right place at the right time with the experience and contacts. From their prize-winning graphics, striking lines and typewriter-style fonts, the Jazzwerkstatt CDs bring to mind the broadsheet FMP style. The label has already released multiple titles by veterans like David Murray, Connie Bauer, Peter Brötzmann and Tony Oxley, as well as younger improvisers like bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall and bass player Jan Roder. Blobel's associates include saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, singer Uschi Bruning and guitarist Uwe Kropinski: the small crowd is in the shop to celebrate the release of Kropinski’s DVD, Man is a guitar, documenting his trademark extended techniques, which can make him sound like a full orchestra, together with his use of voice and percussion. I personally find his music more compelling in the context of Doppelmoppel, the two trombones-two guitars quartet where the rougher edges of Conny and Johannes Bauer’s horns and Joe Sachse's guitar coax Kropinski in quicker exchanges. But, heard live, his solo work is definitely impressive and at times extremely poetic.

The DVD release party opened the second edition of the Jazzwerkstatt-promoted European Jazz Jamboree festival. There was none of the rigorous approach of the Total Music Meeting here; for better or worse, the program covers a huge territory – from 50s vocalese to contemporary improvised music – and takes place in venues as prominent as the Kammermusik hall of the Berlin Philharmonie to small clubs in restored industrial buildings. This makes sense in a town where a tourist-oriented map, the Berlin Jazz Guide, lists all the clubs and venues for jazz in town, is now at its third edition: it is curated by the German Jazz Federation ,whose president is Klaus Doldinger. Among them are the revivalist caves and the upscale restaurants where fashionable “smooth jazz” is played for the international customers' “chill-out,” but also clubs like A-Trane, Quasimodo, B-flat, the “art-factory” at the Schlot – venues that present internationally renowned contemporary jazz artists and are open to avant-garde music. Every night, says Blobel, there are at least four or five places for serious, real jazz.. A more cutting-edge scene for freely improvised music centered around the Eichzeit Muzik collective and website is not included in the guide. Venues like Ausland, Gelegenheiten, Salon Bruit, Exploratorium, and Kulturhaus Mitte present minimal, experimental music, often involving electronics as well as dance and visual art for a dedicated community; the spirit of the environs is similar to the “loft jazz” of the Seventies in New York: where lofts, studios and galleries operated in the shadows of gentrification. This is also a more international community, with musicians from all over Europe, Middle East, Japan, and the US. There are also several strong Australian improvisers in this scene like bass player Clayton Thomas and harpist Clare Cooper, both of whom are well worth the myspace search. There's a border between the two scenes, but recently a degree of porousness has developed and Echzeitmuzik musicians are collaborating with major figures like Evan Parker and Rudi Mahall. Besides all this, another group led by presenter Helma Schleif and clarinet player Wolfgang Fuchs carry on the FMP imprint, produding CDs, selling graphic works by artists-musicians like Han Bennink and Peter Kowald, and producing concerts and the annual Total Music Meeting (the 2009 edition will commence on November 6th; the program includes Keith Tippett, Julie Tippetts, John Edwards, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Evan Parker, and Alvin Curran).

After Kropinski's solo, the proceedings moved to the Philharmonie where English vocalist George Fame of Blue Flames and Van Morrison fame, demonstrated the jazz roots of British rhythm and blues, as well as a consummate showmanship, perfoming his major hit, “Yeah Yeah,” which was written for Mongo Santamaria by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick, with words by Jon Hendricks. Fame was backed by Alan Skidmore's quartet – the tenor saxophonist was a member of the Blue Flames – who opened with his passionate Coltrane tribute, “Mr. P.C..” After Uschi Bruning joined the group for a final celebration, the Philharmonie concert was closed by the Italian Parco della Musica Jazz Orchestra, a Roman big band led by tenor and soprano saxophonist Maurizio Giammarco, whose influences and collaborations include notably Karl Berger and Lester Bowie. The outfit performed original compositions, and was perhaps not well served by the sound system, because they started quite tentatively; many of the charts, while precisely played, are on the busy side and it took Giammarco himself to find the right sound, releasing the tension with his cinematic composition dedicated to Rome. Besides Giammarco, remarkable solos came from trombonist Mario Corvini, new saxophone talent Daniele Tittarelli, and baritonist Elvio Ghigliordini, who was featured on flute in an arrangement of an obscure Miles tune, “Sidecar.” The long day came to a close in a very hip club, the Schlot, in the basement of yet another restored East Berlin industrial building, full of jazz and communist memorabilia. They hosted a bass clarinet extravaganza, which was brought to a climax by a quartet of three bass and one contrabass clarinet, though it lacked a clear idea of direction, it was sonically exciting at times.

Clarinets started to become more an obsession than a pleasure on the last day of the festival (and I love the instrument), with an evening featuring Michel Portal, Rolf Kuhn and Gianluigi Trovesi with their respective groups. Portal's duo with Vincent Courtois' cello, a world première, was very successful, a combination of unique chamber music stylings with folkish melodies and energetic blowing and plucking - contemporary jazz with an European slant at its best. Rolf Kuhn, yet another of the musicians who escaped East Germany,  who managed to play in the USA and record for Impulse! with brother Joachim in the 1960s, presented a set of mostly original compositions accompanied by TRI-O, a young and enthousiastic guitar trio. Competently played and ispired by a variety of styles, the music only occasionally recaptured the free-funk flow of his best MPS albums of the Seventies. Trovesi's trio is a rather ponderous idea, based on melodies by opera composers and obscure songwriters of the XIX century; his tone on the alto and piccolo clarinets was beautiful and unique as ever, his companions Umberto Petrin on piano and Fulvio Maras on electronics and percussion were inventive as much as possible. But the set was bogged down by excessive length and tiresome spoken introductions, and never ignited; or maybe it was just placed at the end of a long and clarinet-full day

The centerpiece of the festival – the celebrations for Alexander von Schlippenbach's 70th birthday – took place the following day at the Radialsystem V.  Facing the Spree, the venue is located in an ancient pumping station of the Berlin sewage system (which was avant-garde at the end of XIX century) that has been transformed into office and art center spaces; in its main hall, acoustically rather problematic, about five hundred people (many grey beards but also many kids born around the fall of the wall) listened in rapturous silence to a masterfully measured piano solo, an exciting set by the trio with Parker and Lovens, and then an all-out blowing session by the current Globe Unity line-up. The first two sets were breathtaking for clarity of purpose and sheer personality of the music, the third one a rather cruel affair where all soloists took turn to the center mike improvising with the rest of the bunch playing in the background: it seemed that after a while the group either got bored and started to blow or got excited and started to blow, either way effectively drowning the sound of the soloist after a while – the barrage of the twin drumsets of Lovens and Lytton being more than enough whenever they wanted. The aim seems to put the soloist in a position of having to devise a strategy to keep a balanced situation where the ensemble is interested enough to take part, but still needs to be very attentive to what the soloist is doing: Trumpeter Axel Dörner’s arcane little breathing sounds managed to be heard, and were among the most successful statements of the set. It was rewarding to hear veterans like trumpeter Manfred Schoof and saxophonist Gerd Dudek joust with newer members like trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo and Dörner, as well as young musicians like trombonists Nils Wogram and Christof Thewes: a plastic representation of continuity and vitality in a musical movement devoted to the creation of a modern European musical identity.

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Francesco Martinelli©2008

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