Twenty-five years and still going strong is some achievement, especially in jazz. It's also testimony to the high status this music enjoys in Germany, and tonight's sold-out concert at Berlin's grandly imposing Konzerthaus confirms the affection with which ACT Records and its boss, Siggi Loch, are held.
Applauded to the rafters as he introduced the dazzling line-up, Loch wasn't the only one grinning broadly for most of the night as trombonist and soulful vocalist Nils Landgren played the genial compere and dynamic soloist and singer throughout the evening. Musically it was a fair reflection of the label's approachable artistic outlook, which acknowledges jazz can work as a commercial entity, while embracing the edgier interactions that heat of the moment improv inspires. So while Landgren's low key opener 'Send in The Clowns' and slyly simmering take on The Beatles' 'Come Together' allowed for an accessible entry point into the programme there were more daring delights to come. These mainly involved pianist Michael Wollny (below), can miraculously transform anything he plays into miniature works of genius, so powerful are his ideas and so imposing his technique. He repeatedly impressed whether grooving to that Beatles classic, or busting out some dazzling stride runs in a swinging duo with drummer Wolfgang Haffner, or diving into his poetic realms with fellow trio collaborator Eric Schaefer – his imagination never faltering, his drive unstoppable.
Senior keys man Joachim Kühn was equally compelling especially with his combustible duo with soprano sax firebrand Emile Parisien, the latter skipping, hopping and nearly karate kicking in a state of agitated excitement – the pair's spiralling web of interlocking lines snowballing to a thunderous climax that brought the house down and all the more impressive for the fact they'd never played together before. With an interchanging but never less than starry ACT Family Band, star soloists included the Asian quarter-tone invention of Nguyên Lê's serpentine guitar lines, and Ulf Wakinus' blues and funk soaked six-string breaks, yet a surprise highlight came in the form of the wittily conversational double bass dialogue of Dieter Ilg and Lars Danielsson, which was as dynamic as it was technically daring.
The older players may have exuded classy virtuosity but it was often the new generation of emerging stars that unleashed the fireworks, with violinist Adam Bałdych taking his soloing well into the red; beat boxer/jazz and opera vocal maverick Andreas Schaerer (above left) cracking and popping with infectious energy while accordionist Vincent Peirani (above right) was bouncing barefoot as he jabbed at the keys of his instrument with fleet-fingered finesse.
With some 30 artists on stage the after-party started early with unashamedly feel-good covers of Sister Sledge's 'We Are Family' and Roxy Music's 'Let's Stick Together'. It all pointed to a label in its prime, embracing the new while respecting the old, nurturing both emerging and established stars, ACT coming of age with a smile on its face and a swagger in its step.
– Mike Flynn
– Photos courtesy ACT by Gregor Hohenberg