Wollny Steals The Night As Moran Breaks Bach At Hamburg's Elbjazz

ELBJAZZ 19 Michael WollnyTrio 2 Christoph Eisenmenger copy

The first thing to notice were the queues, over 200 yards long and four abreast, at both ticket outlets. For a jazz festival? Fantastic. Apparently 30,000 people attended Elb Jazz 2019, spread between an open-air harbour site, a decommissioned cargo ship and Hamburg's stunning new Elbphilharmonie Hall. (Think the Albert Hall, reimagined by Gaudi, with perfect acoustics and balanced on top of a disused warehouse…). The programme’s strands reflected those venues, too, with the ship’s Stygian cargo hold hosting club-friendly acts including Belgium’s Glass Museum – tightly constructed dance-informed music, like Michael Nyman with ‘drops’ – and the uproariously funky Butcher Brown

ELBJAZZ 19 Michael WollnyTrio Christoph Eisenmenger copy

Across the harbour the three stages’ eclectic mix ranged from Randy Brecker with the NDR Bigband to vintage funk-soul legends Tower of Power via headliner Jamie Cullum. Clearly a festival favourite, pianist Michael Wollny (pictured top and above) stole the opening night show, blasting in with the Nirvana-esque 'Wasted & Wanted' before a bluesy reading of Scott Walker’s 'Big Louise' unleashed a phenomenal burst of improvised playing. His trio kept the balance between jazz and rock values, not least in Erik Schaefer’s remorseless drumming, and the climactically over-indulgent 'When The Sleeper Wakes' was perfectly judged for a roaring outdoor audience.

The British contingent did well, with Kamaal Williams and Jamie garnering big crowds, and it was gratifying to see Kokoroko packing out the enormous Schiffbauhalle to close the festival. Their accomplished Afro-beat brought fine solo playing to a highly danceable sound. In particular, Oscar Jerome’s guitar and Sheila Maurice-Grey’s trumpet caught the ear of the crowd inside the hall and outside, thanks to audio-video relays.

ELBJAZZ 19 Jason Moran photo Claudia Hoehne

Given Hamburg’s association with Steinway it was unsurprising that pianos loomed large, but surely Messrs Wollny and Cullum would both concede any accolades to Jason Moran (above). Playing solo on the wide empty stage of a sold-out Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall he began with economy, underscoring the spiritual melody of 'Wind' with rich harmony. It was a beguiling precursor to the intense 'Reanimation', its Bach-echoing counterpoint and phrasing a marvel of technical skill that culminated in an intricate right-hand motif repeated beyond the physically possible. More technique (and even more swing) drove stride classic 'Carolina Shout' through its ragtime structure to an exploration that included audacious Fats Waller-style variations. But the most impressive piece began with an extended 10-fingered battering of the lower octave. The lights dimmed and he continued in darkness, the roaring growl of the music throwing up unexpected harmonics and elusive bass phrases, swelling like a dangerously close jet engine. It was an intense and meditative piece that, absurdly, suddenly threw up a filigree of chirpy high-register blues and a rolling bassline that could have come from St Louis. Confounding expectations is another of his many skills.

ELBJAZZ 19 Kit Downes photo 2 Claudia Hoehne

To his own surprise Kit Downes (above) also pulled off a triumphant performance in the same hall, admitting: “This is the first time I’ve had to worry about an encore for a solo organ concert”. The instrument in question was the phenomenal beast with 4,000-plus pipes woven into the organic architecture of the hall and played by Downes sitting in a mid-stage pool of light. From the bubbling Terry Riley-influenced 'Obsidian' to the stately hymn tune of 'The Last Leviathan' it felt as though he was exploring the full potential of the instrument as much as the music, wafting from reedy solo clarity to massive orchestral sweeps. It was captivating stuff, ancient and modern, that fully merited the ovation.

If Swiss vocal gymnast Andreas Schaerer (below) felt disappointing it was only because his improvisational duel with Soweto Kinch at Cheltenham Jazz had been so phenomenal. Singing with regular band Novel of Anomaly diminished his chances for spontaneity, restraining his remarkable combination of scat, beatbox and vocalisation. Fast Finnish tango 'Aritmia' showed off accordionist Luciano Biondini’s quick-thinking skills, 'Stagione' gained a plausible faux-trumpet solo, and the set finished with a virtuoso solo display from the capering Schaerer that clearly disappointed no-one.

ELBJAZZ 19 Andreas Schaerer and A Novel Of Anomaly photo 2 Claudia Hoehne

For the seasoned jazz festival goer it would hard be to fault Elb Jazz. A satisfying programme blessed by brilliant weather, with shuttle buses and boats efficiently criss-crossing between venues that included one of Europe’s most spectacular concert halls. What’s not to like?

Tony Benjamin
– Photos by Christoph Eisenmenger (Michael Wollny) and Claudia Hoehne (Jason Moran, Kit Downes and Andreas Schaerer)

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