Choose Your Own (Musical) Adventure [part 2/2] ~ The Free Jazz Collective

By Paul Acquaro

Continued from yesterday.

Friday’s line up at the Jazzfest Berlin featured the rich bounty of saxophonist Peter Brötzmann with Hamid Drake and gimbri player Majid Bekkas, along with the fire extinguisher opus “MM schäumend” from Sven-Åke Johansson, among other highlights; however, other commitments kept me away.

So, skipping ahead to Saturday. As alluded to in the previous review, the decisions of what to see were about to get harder as I chose my own adventure through the many offerings. Any chance to hear saxophonist Matana Roberts is not to be taken lightly, but neither is one to hear woodwindist John Surman. So, opting for a change of scenery and the sad sounds of Transylvania folk tunes, I headed to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnisse Kirche to hear the trio of John Surmanpianist Lucian Banand violator Mat Maneri.

The venue is pretty stunning. Sitting not far from the Festspiele, the church has a few parts, one is the ruins of the original church, destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and left as a memorial, to its south is a lower octagonal building that serves as the current church and inside the blue aura from the light streaming though the countless stained glass panels is inspiring. A large carved wooden Jesus does jut out over the pulpit, but his style seems to be more welcoming than suffering.

Transylvania Folk Songs. Photo (c) Cristina Marx / Berliner Festspiele

Following the festival’s thread of Eastern European folk music, the trio’s music is a modern take on the over 3400 folk tunes that Hungarian composer Béla Bartók collected, transcribed and partially committed to wax cylinder recordings. In recent years, Ban (who is originally from Transylvania) and Maneri began exploring this music and invited Surman to help them bring it into the 21st century. The repertoire this evening drew from their 2020 album Transylvanian Folk Songs – The Bela Bart​ó​k Field Recordings (see here for more info).

The set started with Maneri roughing the outlines of a discernible folksy melody through his sweeping microtonal lines. Then Surman’s entrance was grand, the earthy timber of this bass clarinet, deep and resonant in the reverberant room, provided a lovely counterpoint to Ban’s chordal mocements. Maneri’s chromatic passages generally added an extra bit of sourness, underscoring the emotional heft of the music. Together, the trio made an ethereal sound, their mix of tonalities generating a moody cloud above. They moved flowing from piece to piece, picking up the pace, sometimes generating a vibrant burst of joyous energy, other times withdrawing into shadows. The music breathed. It was not jazz, classical, or folk, but rather something touching and different, with roots in each.

The next choice was to either call it a day – it had been a long one, due to activities outside the festival – or push on a bit and head back to the Berliner Festspiele to hear the last concerts of the night. This decision led to another, whether to hear the interpretation of post-Coltrane spiritual jazz by Isaiah Collier or the interpretation of traditional Eastern European music by Black Sea Songs.

Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few. Photo (c) Anna Niedermeier / Berliner Festspiele

Chicagoan Isaiah Collier has been making waves in recent years with his group “Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few.” They recorded their latest album Cosmic Transitions At the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, presumably under the watchful eye of John Coltrane’s spirit, which was celebrating a 94th birthday. The result was a rather incredible album that was followed-up by a duo collaboration between Collier and Chosen Few drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode entitled I AM: Beyond, which if anything, ratcheted up the intensity and fire. At the festival, both projects performed, starting with the duo.

The music had already begun when I walked through a stairwell and into the hall’s seitenbuhne. The room was rather full and Collier was mid-fury in his playing. With drummer James Russell Sims holding down and then elevating the drums, Collier was reaching for musical peak after peak, in fact, just when it seemed obvious that the only place to go was to back off, he somehow found another. Flying through the scales, Collier was propelled even further by Sim’s stickwork, though that word does not capture the roiling percussive energy emanating. Even when the duo backed off the overblowing and took the energy level down a few notches, the flow of ideas (and notes) did not. Eventually locking into a syncopated melody, it was possible to hear the slight echo effects being used in amplifying his horn.

For the rest of the show, the other Chosen Few, bassist Jeremiah Hunt and Pianist Julian Davis Reid joined and the group began their quartet set with some ritual: first, an AACM-like facing the East, and then picked up an assortment of bells. Like their recent recording, the set began with a ringing of bells, and then as the group took to their respective instruments, then a recitation of the cosmic words and transitions. With that out of the way, they began to earnest with a rather primal scream and an atonal melody from Collier. The transition from the duo was complete as Reid began laying big, suspended chords in the spirit of McCoy Tyner but mixed with hiw own deft, percussive tonal clusters. Straight ahead walking bass kept the group rooted as Collier and Sims reprised a bit of their earlier play, pulling the group ever upwards. In a quieter moment, Hunt delivered a fantastic bass solo full of double stop chords and kinetic digits on the fingerboard. Later in the set Collier played a rather sweet, yearning melody that then gave the last tune of the night, a real scorcher, even more power. The group came down from on high with an extended crescendo leaving at least one concert attendee pleasantly gobsmacked. If Collier, 24, and his colleagues are playing at this level now, where will they be in say five years? I’m pretty excited to find out.

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Sunday began with hard choices and I was unable to attend several concerts earlier in the day, but rather joined the already in progress Jazzfest at 6 pm for Kris Davis’ Borderlands Trio. The trio, David on piano, Stephen Cump on bass, anc Eric McPherson on drums, had put on a captivating show at Jazz em Agosto this past summer and a chance to hear them again was quite welcome.

Borderlands Trio. Photo (c) Anna Niedermeier / Berliner Festspiele

The trio began with a collection of small musical motions: Crump tapping his bass’ body before softly bowing a note, Davis pressing down on wide intervals on her keyboard, and McPherson using brushes to add hushed textures. Crump was the first to break the atmosphere with a solid pluck, to which the others responded. Davis began to fill in more notes, offering an abstracted melody along with McPherson’s persistent brushes. The slow burn continued, patiently building in small waves, each interaction showing an uncanny telepathy between the players. Davis, at one point, added preparations to the piano strings and the dampened notes added an extra percussive layer. The musical structures emerged slowly as the group as they effortlessly pulled the audience through their gentle but powerful set.

Ben LaMar Gay. Photo (c) Borderlands Trio. Photo (c) Anna Niedermeier / Berliner Festspiele

The Borderlands Trio was followed by Chicago’s Ben LaMar Gay‘s ensemble, reprising their recent album Open Arms to Open Us. Confidently taking the stage before festival director Nadin Deventer could even introduce them, Gay led off the concert with an array of electronics, singing a phrase and electronically manipulating a sample of his voice. The group moved then to an assortment of bells and finally to their respective instruments. Gay on cornet, synthesizer and vocals, Edinho Gerber on guitar, Matt Davis on tuba and Tommaso Moretti on drums, proceeded through a collage of themes with buzzy vocal lines and catchy layered instrumental passages.

Before the closing concert, there was the final decision: percussionist/singer Mariá Portugal’s Quartabê project or guitarist Jeff Parker playing solo. Applying the simplistic criteria that I had never seen Parker play, but had enjoyed Portugal’s performance last year, the decision was made.

Jeff Parker. Photo (c) Anna Niedermeier / Berliner Festspiele

Jeff Parker played in the other smaller side-stage, the Kassanhalle, to an intimate, sold-out crowd. Quietly introducing himself, Parker let his electric guitar say what was needed. Starting off using a looping pedal, he developed a simple syncopated riff and then overlaid a gentle chord melody in which slight tinges of Americana could be heard. Using the oscillations of the electronic guitar and elongated sustain afforded by his pedals, Parker then played dissonance-infused melodic lines taking the music ever so slightly farther out. The opening tune was the title track from his recent album “Forfolks,” and the next, “My Ideal,” a finger-picked melody suffused in the tradition of solo jazz guitar. Later in the set, Parker put on a recording of street sounds and then set up a highly syncopated loop which he then played over. One could get the impression of Parker sitting in his apartment with the window open and just practicing. The song, he said later, was ‘Super Rich Kids’ from Frank Ocean. Parker closed the set with his composition ‘La Jet​é​e’ an arpeggiated tune with a long descending harmonic structure. The set ended on a quiet, atmospheric note.

In contrast, the festival’s closing act was Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra. Nilssen is a busy guy, his Acoustic Unity group recently released a recording on ECM and members of that group, plus his other collaborators in his groups like Cortex, make up, among others, a portion of the Supersonic Orchestra. The group tonight was 17 members strong, featuring a slightly different line-up than on 2020’s If You Listen Carefully the Music is Yoursfrom which many of the evenings themes were drawn.

Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra. Photo (c) Roland Owsnitzki / Berliner Festspiele

The music began the best way possible, a chaotic blast of 17 musicians playing off a nervous sounding theme. With three drummers, three bassists, and eleven wind instruments, the power would seem hardly containable anyway. Soon, the musicians began pairing off into smaller sub-arrangements, and trumpeter Goran Kajfeš took the first solo over the pulsating, driving rhythm. He was followed by fiery saxophonist Mette Rasmussen who seemed intent on emptying all of the notes out her instrument with primal blasts and serrated runs. Handing over the reins then to the group leader, Nilssen then led the group into the next tune which had an Albert Ayer hymn-like quality. Saxophonist André Roligheten, acting as a musical director, was triggering different parts of the group with hand signals, and gave saxophonist Signe Emmeluth the next chance to show off her musical chops. The next tune “Letter to Alfred” featured bassist Ingebrit Haker Flaten with a muscular solo instruction leading to Per “Texas” Johansson’s contrabass clarinet bringing low-frequency tears to my eyes.

The songs were based off of simple, catchy melodic heads that sounded great when being pounded out by the band and energized further with solos from each band member. While it is tempting to go through each musician’s contribution, it is suffice to say that the cumulative result was an rousing set that brought the audience to their feet with applause.

So, now we come to the end of the Jazzfest Berlin 2022. The choices made have had no impact on reaching this inevitable point, there is simply not much one can do about time, but they certainly did help make it a musical adventure well worth having.

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