Jazzing it up in Bremen

Like all jazz events, including the most prestigious and venerated festivals around the world, not all the sounds we heard strictly pertained to the jazz discipline.

May 6, 2019 21:46
4 minute read.
Jazzing it up in Bremen

The Lisbon Underground Music Ensamble . (photo credit: RITA CAMAN)

As jazz get-togethers go, Jazzahead has ‘em all beat. This is the jazz world’s biggest international showcase, with this year’s edition – which took place in Bremen, Germany from April 25-28 – attracting industry professionals and musicians from 64 countries across the globe.

It is a time for mingling, for booking agents to seek out promising acts, for musicians – and there were quite a few Israelis in the mix – to try to further their cause and make useful contacts, which will hopefully lead to show dates and/or recording contracts.
Naturally, there was an abundance of live entertainment to be had, with the spacious Messe conference facility hosting shows throughout each day in two halls, while the Schlachthof venue – barely a stone’s throw away – presented gigs from the evening through to the wee hours. The latter is a delightful place to watch live music, with most of the audience on tiered seating, creating a palpable sense of intimacy and bonhomie.

Like all jazz events, including the most prestigious and venerated festivals around the world, not all the sounds we heard strictly pertained to the jazz discipline. Still, there was plenty to see and hear.

One of the highlights of the three-day program of shows was the Skadedyr troupe. The 12-piece ensemble performed on the Thursday evening show, which – according to Jazzahead tradition – is devoted to the partner country of the particular year. This time around, it was Norway’s turn. Skadedyr is a bunch of young artists who, besides the vast array of sounds they make, simply seem to be having a grand time of it on stage. That’s already a strong point in their favor. Add to that a freely roaming repertoire that ran the gamut from straight-ahead jazz, to more feral rock-leaning numbers, balladic material and some highly comic content, and you have yourself one attractive proposition.

All 12 youngsters exuded a sense of beguiling insouciance, and all delivered with the utmost professionalism. One number had them all playing a Jew’s harp. They seemed to be just jamming around, but it somehow all came together and lowed. They put on a performance that was, at once, tight-knit, playful, inventive, orchestrated and charmingly improvisational.

On the morrow, French-American sextet Ajoyo played a set that largely fed off African and Latin sensibilities, with vocalist Sarah E. Charles belting out some powerful yet mellifluous vocals and with drummer Guilhem Flouzat powering the whole gang hard and fast from behind.

There is nothing finer than catching a big band at its frenetic, dynamic, synchronized best. We got that from Portuguese 15-piecer the Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble (LUME), spearheaded by pianist Marco Barroso. Barroso also seasoned the troupe’s output with the odd sliver of sampling, and there was plenty of raw, white hot visceral energy in the offing. There was an appealing air of gainful urgency as the group careered through densely-textured, sumptuous soundscapes – some tending towards cacophony – interspersed by lyrical balladic slots, funk and groove.

AT THE other end of the volume and personnel scale, there was an eagerly-awaited solo spot by promising British pianist Elliot Galvin. He produced dense chords, rippling Bach-esque arpeggios and occasionally strummed some of the piano strings. But solo piano is one of the toughest acts to pull off, in entertainment terms, and Galvin did not quite manage that.

Meanwhile, Polish violinist Adam Baldwych went the whole hog and then some to get his audience on board. He contorted himself and jived while bowing away, but in truth, neither his calisthenics nor musicianship were particularly rewarding.
Then there was the Botticelli Baby gang from Germany, led by irrepressible double bass player-vocalist extraordinaire Marlon Bosherz. Tall and floppy haired Bosherz looks like something of a 1940s throwback, but sounds like a mix between a 1950s rock-and-roller and a jazzy crooner. The Schlachthof was on board from the first beat as Bosherz and the rest of the septet pumped out a high octane show that was equally visually and sonically entertaining.

The third night is traditionally Club Night, with dozens of venues around Bremen hosting shows, in addition to the main Jazzahead auditoria. I opted for the now Montreal-domiciled French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. I interviewed him and spent some time with him a few years back, at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. He performed solo and, over his three decade-plus career to date, he has attracted a certain degree of criticism for his so-called “uncommunicative” style of playing. Personally, I have always been impressed by his peerless musicianship and, in particular, his chops. And boy, did he deliver in Bremen. The first set was a solo gig, with Pilc running through multiple styles and lines of attack in the space of a few bars – like grease lightning, but somehow always conveying a sense of lyricism. It was a masterly showing, spiced with comic antics and a little self-deprecation.

After the break, Pilc came out with a Canadian quintet led by trumpeter Jacques Kuba Seguin. This was as polished and as fun as jazz can get, with all five excelling on their solos, and as a wonderfully cohesive and intuitive collective. The vibist trotted out some spellbinding slots, and Pilc enjoyed several solos of his own as the quintet morphed into a classic piano-bass-drums trio for a while, before the trumpet and vibes rejoined the fray. It was the best act I caught during a rewarding four-day stay in Bremen.

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