The Lage Lund Trio, Julia Hülsmann and Christopher Dell inspire at Jazzfest Bonn


During its unlikely spell as the post-war capital of West Germany, Bonn was the butt of numerous jokes about its size. Its nickname, the Federal Village, says it all. Nowadays it's still too sleepy and provincial to have much of a music scene. But it has history. Beethoven was born here and the ailing Robert Schumann spent his final years in an asylum just outside the city. It's also the base for Germany's national youth jazz orchestra, the BuJazzO, which has been bringing through future stars for the past 30 years. And, if you follow the River Rhine a little way north, you're in Cologne – home to one of Europe's oldest and most highly-regarded university jazz courses; the WDR Big Band; and excellent venues the Stadtgarten and the Loft, whose organisers are doing great things with minuscule budgets.

Numerous players from the Cologne scene, including pianist Pablo Held, were on the bill for this year's JazzFest Bonn, which was founded by dynamic saxophonist Peter Materna in 2010. As were international stars John Scofield, Django Bates and Ed Motta. Not that the festival does headliners. Materna knows how hard it is to build a profile as a musician and one of his philosophies is to give all the acts equal prominence in the marketing material. For the same reason, each concert in the festival's two-week run is a double-bill, and Materna has tried to programme unlikely pairings, to introduce audiences to something new.

Huelsmann-Dell c Walter Schnabel

That's a nice idea in theory. I think the crowd at the Beethoven-Haus, an airy 200-seat recital room adjoining the composer's birthplace, enjoyed local vocalist Inga Lühning and bassist André Nendza's mix of jazz pop covers and originals (complete with groovy beat-boxing and the odd kazoo solo) more than I did. But it was worth it for the second half: a meeting between pianist Julia Hülsmann and phenomenal vibraphonist Christopher Dell (pictured above), two key figures on the Berlin scene playing for the first time as a duo. Piano and vibes is a challenging combination and, with both musicians playing chords and trying to keep on top of the time, the early numbers felt a little rigid. But there were some gorgeous, disorientating moments when the sound of the two instruments blurred and you couldn't tell whose scrambling lines and fractious, close harmonies were whose. And from the balladic 'Weit Weg' onwards everything was freer and more relaxed. Hülsmann cut through the brightness of Dell's vibes on 'Hundert', by damping the piano strings with her hand and playing wiry, percussive figures. And Dell scattered notes like hundreds-and-thousands on his own abstract solo composition, 'Plötzlichkeit', taking tennis swings at the bars and throwing his limbs around like a second set of beaters. For sheer invention there aren't many contemporary vibraphonists who can match him.

Two nights later, after another divisive set of jazz pop (from UK vocalist Julia Biel this time, pictured below), he sounded equally comfortable shredding over minimalist rock grooves with charismatic drummer Wolfgang Haffner and his quartet in the theatre of the Haus der Geschichte. Haffner is a showman and he worked the crowd like a pro: cracking jokes, leaping to his feet in time with the final cymbal whack of each tune, and closing his set with a feature-length version of 'Concierto de Aranjuez', as heard on his latest release Kind Of Spain. It opened with a theatrical bass solo for Christian Diener, incorporated a snare drum feature, and climaxed with bruising chords from Dell and pianist Roberto Di Gioia, as Haffner gave it everything on kit. Cue two standing ovations and two encores.

The most satisfying double concert pairing was also the least surprising – a night at the Brotfabrik cultural centre, which opened with a set from Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund (pictured top). There's an easy-going weirdness to Lund's compositions that distinguishes them from run-of-the-mill post-bop, and a thoughtful air to his playing that I like. He stared into space as he played, cloaking the uneasy melody of 'Brasilia' in a complex nexus of chords and puzzling, unexpected resolutions on 'Suppressions'. 'California' was a balmy feature for bassist Matt Brewer, whose upper register blended beautifully with Lund's guitar. While Justin Faulkner, a prodigious drummer who gave the Branford Marsalis Quartet a new lease of life, tore up a Metheny-ish unnamed composition with a solo full of thundering rolls and crash cymbal cuts. His explosive energy was the perfect foil for Lund's glossy, unhurried calm.

The second half was a gentle, musical conversation between Belgian guitar great Philip Catherine and bassist Martin Wind. They traded melodies and choruses on 'How Deep Is The Ocean', 'But Beautiful' and 'Why Can't You Behave?'. And Wind (a wonderfully melodic player) added some glistening bowed phrases to lesser-known Hoagy Carmichael tune 'Winter Moon'. These three days at JazzFest Bonn felt genteel and both sets perfectly suited that mood.

Thomas Rees 

– Photos by Walter Schnabel (Hülsmann/Dell) and Lutz Voigtländer (Biel/Lage)

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