Jazz by any other name

Wolfram Knauer believes Europeans could never really connect to the African-American blues elements of jazz, which has allowed them the freedom to create their own nuanced versions.

While it's not exactly open warfare, there has been a lively debate for some time over the respective virtues and artistic collateral of European-based jazz compared to its homegrown, Stateside counterpart. Prior to his recent concert in Tel Aviv, 68-year-old Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, for example, said he returned home in the mid-Seventies, after seven years in New York, because "the scene in the States became less interesting for me." This Monday, Wolfram Knauer, director of the Darmstadt Jazz Institute in Germany, will be in town to enlighten us on the added value German jazz has to offer the world; he will take part in a lecture and discussion session entitled: "What's so German about German Jazz?" Knauer will present his thoughts, as will former local radio show presenter and music expert Shlomo Yisraeli, at the Goethe Institute in Jerusalem (at 7 p.m.) as part of the German jazz season that runs through the end of June. According to Knauer, some American jazz fans feel so strongly about what is, after all, an American art form that they consider European artists something akin to imposters. "I have been told by members of my audiences in the States that Europeans should call what they do by a different name - and not jazz." In the past, some American jazz musicians have ventured that perhaps their European counterparts could allow themselves more freedom to play around with the discipline because it originated elsewhere. "There's some truth to that," Knauer concurs. "In order to play American jazz you have to know about the blues, about the traditional elements that went into jazz. You have to know about African American society and musical forms like gospel. I think Europeans seemed to understand what jazz is all about, and then realized it was hard to bring Afro-American blues into what they do, that it was not their own tradition." That, says Knauer, gave rise to the numerous nuances and cultural add-ons that Europeans, including Germans, incorporate into their jazz output. Knauer mentions that politics and changing demographics may also have impacted on the evolution of European jazz in the past 15 to 20 years. "The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that Western European countries began to compete culturally with each other more than they did before, and with Eastern countries. Countries like Estonia and Lithuania had to redefine their own identity after the Iron Curtain fell, toward the east and the west, and that generated lots of interesting artistic developments." SO, WHAT'S so special about German jazz these days? "There's a new generation of German jazz musicians who have more self-confidence to explore and try out new things while still honoring the traditions," says Knauer. "There is, for example, a vibraphonist called Christopher Dell. He has a very tight trio. They play very complex music, but it is also a lot of fun. They have arrangements that can also be changed on the spur of the moment. I think the group context is very important here, too." Besides Dell, compatriot trombonist Nil Wogram is also fast making a name for himself on the global jazz scene, and he will play in Jerusalem on June 15 as part of the Israel Festival. Then, in early July, the highly energized German organist-pianist Carsten Daerr will be here with his own trio. The German jazz community certainly has an abundance of talent to offer as, no doubt, Knauer will demonstrate on Monday.