Empirical Among The Imperious At Jazzfest Berlin

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For his third and final edition of Jazzfest Berlin, the veteran English music critic Richard Williams programmed a strong contingent of British artists, as well as commissioning several new works from Stateside composers. As artistic director, he also initiated a mini-season of London-Berlin collaborations, set in the intimate A-Trane club, which is a 15-minute stroll from the main Festspiele concert hall. The first two nights introduced the Lido club as a festival venue. To the east side of the city, in Kreuzberg, it created a mostly-standing, informal atmosphere, with Shabaka & The Ancestors and Steve Lehman's Sélébéyone making strong appearances, establishing South African and avant-hop territories, and beginning a marked emphasis on jazz divergence at this year's Jazzfest. The passing of Muhal Richard Abrams, at the beginning of the festival, hung over many artists, as each of them revealed their own stories of how his influence had pervaded their development. The opening night at Lido was dedicated to his memory.

One of the most ecstatically received sets was played by Empirical on the main stage, making their Blue Note rooted 1960s-style jazz sound almost revolutionary, with its direct proximity to the classic American style. So many other Jazzfest acts had been taking the music to satellite zones, but these be-suited Londoners delivered a show of tightly-controlled post-bebop complexity, using the old guidelines as a basis for launching off into their very 2017-style soloing extremities. Empirical flirt with nostalgia, while living on the edge of experimentation. Negotiating a nervous, twitching, runaway 'Anxiety Society', they not only reflected Brexit struggles, but also cut through the morass of generally downer global news developments, wriggling triumphantly out of this messy sphincter of woe.

On a more alternative level, the first of the Berlin-London Conversations involved Jean-Paul Bourelly (guitar), Frank Gratkowski (reeds), Orphy Robinson (vibraphone) and Pat Thomas (piano), with these last two (known as Black Top) also operating their tables of sampling electronics. The improvisations inhabited an unusual zone, loaded with jittery lo-fi Jamaican and American vocal cut-ups, shot through with stuttering electro-beats, spiralling fuzz guitar and the sometimes sidelined Gratkowski's bittersweet alto patterns. Thomas got into some atonal ragtime piano, and Gratkowski bent notes like Lol Coxhill, this quartet reminiscent at times of his Recedents. Bourelly loosed powerchords at low volume, vocalising like Billy Jenkins, as Thomas got a case of the pitch-bending wobblies, Monk fragments spliced and diced, paused then raced. This was a boldly alternative improvising incarnation.

tyshawn sorey

The fest's artist-in-residence was Tyshawn Sorey, drummer, percussionist, pianist, trombonist, composer, improviser and constant shades-wearer. Perhaps his best set was with his trio, as each member softly began, one-by-one, making glacial progress across a Morton Feldman landscape of true minimalism. Sorey demonstrated his control over the tiniest vibes shimmers, celeste tinkles, and then the deepest big bass-drum thunder, or scraping huge gongs slowly out of their slumber. He also led a large conduction ensemble (in the post-Butch Morris parlance) and played a duet with reedsman Gebhard Ullmann.

One of the greatest jazz movie soundtracks is by Miles Davis (and indeed, it's one of the trumpeter's finest albums), for Louis Malle's Lift To The Scaffold (1958). The pianist René Urtreger is the sole surviving member of the quintet who recorded that score and, following a screening at Cinema Paris, the 83-year-old appeared in person, to play, and to be interviewed by the festival's artistic director Richard Williams. Urtreger began with a set of tunes by Cole Porter, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington ("to make my cold hands warm", he quipped), delivered in an outgoing, confident manner, with a bold, detailed flow. Urtreger has an open, bright sound, prettifying into an amber glow, negotiated with a melodic traipse. Following 'Polka Dots & Moonbeams', he sat down with Williams, and told the world about sharing a room with Miles, and how Davis had an affair with his sister. Urtreger also played with Lester Young when he was in his early twenties. He's dapper and witty, not afraid to deem Monk a great composer, but a lousy pianist (ahem), and to affably dismiss Michel Legrand's efforts at being 'jazzy'. Urtreger was candid and enlightening throughout, stepping back to the piano to close the afternoon with a rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's 'Con Alma'. It was a heartwarming joy to learn about this key historic personage, while Urtreger is still around, playing, and full of beans.

The US trumpeter Amir ElSaffar premiered 'Maqam/Brass Resonance' in the modern Hohenzollernplatz church, whose long, arched sides hosted the horn section before they promenaded to join the drums and tuba on the stage. Drawn out tones fed on reverberation, and the horn patterns accelerated and overlapped, as they moved through the piece's various developmental sections. A Balkan wedding skip backed a writhing saxophone solo, breaking down into a free-er passage with sparse hand drumming, then into a maqam-style processional. The players returned to the arches unexpectedly, then presented a rousing conclusion back at the front of the stage.

The next afternoon, in another modern church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial, Kit Downes played its mighty organ, showing an impressive restraint, finding fresh sounds, delicate in their avoidance of bass thunder, but investigating a risky-sounding, juddering pipe-coughing when he did head down to the lower depths. We feared that he might bust this hallowed instrument. Following a mysterious set by Trondheim Voices, awash with real-time sonic shaping, as they wafted around the pews, Downes played along with this all-female Norwegian group, at the afternoon concert's conclusion. Perhaps they could even have worked out a more extensive collaboration.

From churches to clubs, cinema to concert hall, Jazzfest had all the locations covered, and with hip hop, Indian free-ness, electroacoustic collage, South African jazz, avant easy-listening (courtesy of the excellent Nels Cline Lovers project), and the Brazilian retro songbook (with the return of Monica Vasconcelos), it had many musical spheres to pass through in highly successful fashion.

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Camille Blake/Jazzfest Berlin