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)

For more info visit www.jazzfest-bonn.de

 

Founded in 2004 by 'choreopoet' Jonzi D and still curated by him, this annual celebration of hip hop dance takes a startling turn towards jazz this year. And that makes perfect sense given the longstanding entwinement of the genres. The sight of a 15-piece live band commissioned by Jazz Re:freshed, MD'd by saxophonist Jason Yarde and packed with an array of talent – Orphy Robinson, Jay Phelps, Nubya Garcia, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Ayanna Witter-Johnson (above) to name but some – brings an added surge of excitement to the succession of international crews that take to the stage, which, on the final night of the weekend-long event, has the audience amped with roof-raising energy.

bcsundayboyblue  0261

The aesthetics of each differ considerably, with perhaps the UK's acclaimed Boy Blue (above) being the ensemble whose style has a residue of the slick and seamless 'hoofers' and lindy-hoppers of the swing era, while Holland's The Ruggeds are a brilliantly experimental blend of breakdance and contemporary. As for the other British ensemble, The Locksmiths, they crackle with life. Ditto France's Mufasa, a large company with a vigorous, exuberant African character. In each case, the music provided by Yarde's big band is powerfully appropriate. The hefty stabs of horns, often tightly synced with the movements on stage, particularly for a Jonzi D solo piece where his arm extensions are punctuated by the brass and reeds, impart a fantastically vibrant quality to the performance that underlines the great lineage of orchestra-dancer unions exemplified by the likes of Cab Calloway-Nicholas bros. However, there is also much subtlety elsewhere, and the down tempo, dub-inflected pieces, where guitarist Shirley Tetteh's deft finger-picking is prominent, are a perfect foil for the more sensual routines, in which bodies arch and glide with real grace. 

bcsundayboyblue  023

Most importantly, the band (visible above with Boy Blue) is able to adequately harden its attack as the evening builds to a climax, and as all of the dancers shuffle joyously on stage the sheer weight of numbers finds a striking parallel in the depth of the Afro-funk that galvanises them.

Kevin Le Gendre

Photos by Belinda Lawley

The line-up for this year's EFG London Jazz Festival, which takes place from 16 to 25 November, is starting to take shape with some heavyweight additions now in place. Chief among these will be the powerful UPLIFT group led by eternally questing US trumpeter Dave Douglas (above centre), the band's cutting-edge personnel including iconoclastic electric bassist/producer Bill Laswell, guitarists Mary Halvorson and Rafiq Bhatia, renowned saxophonist Jon Irabagon and rising star drummer/percussionist Ches Smith (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 16 Nov).

Another genre-smashing highlight will be a rare UK appearance by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar who leads his 17-piece Rivers of Sound ensemble through his impassioned Middle Eastern-tinged vision of contemporary jazz and the musical heritage of his homeland (Kings Place, 16 Nov). With 1970s fusion enjoying renewed popularity, bass hero Stanley Clarke (above left) heads up his feisty young electric band in a double bill with jazz-funk icons the Headhunters, who appear with key original members Bill Summers, Paul Jackson and Mike Clark (Royal Festival Hall, 20 Nov). There's also a mouth-watering reunion of imperious Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen's (above right) epoch-defining Trio with pianist Shai Maestro and drummer Mark Guiliana. They join forces at the Barbican to celebrate a decade since they unleashed their Gently Disturbed album which spawned a new generation of acoustic power threesomes, not least Phronesis (24 November).

Further new additions include bluegrass stars Punch Brothers (Barbican, 16 Nov); composer Bramwell Tovey in collaboration British-Iranian turntabalist Shiva Feshareki and the BBC Concert Orchestra (QEH, 18 Nov); cool piano-led jazz from the Darius Brubeck Quartet (Kings Place, 21 Nov); the creole/folk duo of cellist Leyla McCalla and guitarist/singer Melissa Laveaux (Cadogan Hall, 20 Nov) and the exuberant Jamaican jazz of virtuoso pianist Monty Alexander (Cadogan Hall, 25 Nov).

These artists join those already announced in Jazzwise, who are media partners for the festival, including: Jazz Voice (RFH, 16 Nov); Tord Gustavsen Trio (Cadogan Hall, 16 Nov); Bobby McFerrin (Barbican, 18 Nov); Lea DeLaria (Bridge Theatre, 18 Nov); Elina Duni/Rob Luft (Clapham Omnibus, 18 Nov); Youn Sun Nah (QEH, 20 Nov); Orphy Robinson's Astral Weeks (QEH, 19 Nov); Eddie Parker's Mirrored (Purcell Room, 20 Nov); Myra Melford's Snowy Egret Band (Purcell Room, 23 Nov); Richard Pite's Jazz Repertory Company (Cadogan Hall, 24 Nov); BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018 Final (QEH, 24 Nov) and Madeleine PeyrouxAnthem tour (RFH, 24 Nov).

Mike Flynn

For full details and tickets visit www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

 

Every music festival has its logistical problems – from gremlins in the backline equipment to stormy weather for open-air gigs – but the most common obstacle that producers have to clear is that of transport. Flight delays are almost a given. So it proves this time round for Jazzkaar when an electrical fault at Amsterdam airport grounds half of Nik Bärtsch's Mobile. Only the pianist-leader and drummer Nicholas Stocker (above), who had travelled to the Estonian capital Tallinn, on other flights, made the gig. They present what could be called R.M.E – Reduced Mobile Experience.

Bärtsch makes light of the situation by welcoming the audience to the 'premiere' of a new band, and that raises the stakes. Is the duo going to be the quartet by half or two musicians creating as much interest as four? It is definitely the latter, and then some. Bärtsch's core principles are still identifiable – serial structures; eerie, icy motifs, particularly from his finely-weighted right hand; start of a new cycle marked by his trademark cry of "Oh!"; slow-burn narratives that release tension at crucial moments. However, this intricate groove aesthetic, touched by minimalism and non-western music, is really enhanced by Stocker's outstanding work on drums. The sensitivity and economy of his touch brings out a considerable amount of detail in the music that makes the absence of bass clarinet and additional percussion anything but problematic. Stocker's discreet, almost spectral drifts into melody, by way of a glockenspiel and kalimba thumb piano, enhance the uncluttered grace of the duo.

This and other headline concerts at the 10-day event – that included, prior to my arrival, The Bad Plus, Ambrose Akinmusire, Cory Henry and Sons of Kemet, to name but some – take place at two venues at the Telliskivi centre, a hipsterish cultural hub that encourages people to see as much music as possible. If Bärstch went down well at the large concert hall of Vaba Lava, then Delbecq 3 is an equal success in the smaller adjacent space of Punane Maja. French pianist Benoit Delbecq has been one of the most consistently creative figures in improvised music in the past decade, counting the likes of Mal Waldron and Muhal Richard Abrams as sources of inspiration, while being able to fashion his own language in many different contexts. This trio, featuring Canadian double-bassist Miles Perkin and Congolese drummer Émile Blayenda, has a fascinating blend of metric ingenuity and soundscaping, but the advanced numbers games and otherworldly sounds yielded by Delbecq's careful use of prepared piano do not obstruct the clarity and focus of the music. Blayenda, who is also of the acclaimed Les Tambours De Brazzaville, is something of a marvel, and the range of timbres he draws from several calabashes combined with his sparing depolyment of cymbals takes him far away from kit-drum conventions, without compromising the nuanced dynamics of the ensemble.

Kirke-Karja

Less engaging are the singers who come thick and fast on the closing weekend – Britain's Myles Sankho, as well as Estonia's Ashilevi and Anna Poldvee all have decent voices, but their material, broaching soul, electronica and rock to varying degrees, is unfortunately pedestrian. In contrast, the 'home concerts', which as the name suggests, are gigs in front rooms, are a real pleasure. Taking place in relaxed atmospheres where the hosts provide hospitality, the performance is more like a gathering among friends than a concert per se and certainly provides the opportunity to hear an artist up close and personal. Pianist Kirke Karja (above), one of the figureheads of a new generation of very gifted Estonian musicians, plays an engrossing set in a spacious lounge, with sunlight streaming in on a Steinway, which she uses to display the full range of compositional ideas that catch the ear for a lyricism that frequently soars over stark, sometimes austere harmonies. Her time is sufficiently fluid to make her switch between counts of  four, seven and nine, with the alterations being seamless rather than telegraphic. And her ability to draw inspiration from Stravinsky or Debussy, all the while avoiding any 'classical jazz' typecasting, is excellent. Her compatriot, bassist Peedu Kass (below) also acquits himself well, giving a consummate display of rhythmic verve, sweet balladry and technological ingenuity on acoustic and electric versions of the instrument. He starts with Mingus' 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' and climaxes with Massive Attack's 'Teardrop', but between there is a bracing African-oriented number reflecting the influence of Rich Brown.

Peedu-Kass

Plugged-in sounds of a different kind prove to be a fitting climax to the festival. Bill Evans' Petite Blonde is the group that might convert fusionphobes before they blow the amp of their own prejudice. With the powerhouse rhythm section of Dennis Chambers and Gary Grainger as its axis this is a solidly funky quartet that makes much of a hard steady downbeat and slinky themes and unison lines from their leader's saxophone, still sporting the bandana from his distant Milesian days, and Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. Wakenius is a dazzling soloist whose gritty, occasionally grinding tone and expanded lines, bubbling over with energy and agitation, are a potent compliment to Evans, harmonically. In any case, the keyboard-less group sound has an edge that is appreciated by a wildly responsive audience. Then again, in their centenary year of independence, Estonians have no problem lifting their voices.

Kevin Le Gendre

It's a small town, Cheltenham, and the jazz festival is a big deal both locally and nationally. So, thousands converged on the marquee-filled main site in baking hot weather for a programme combining crowd-pleasing big gigs – notably vocalists like Randy Crawford and Van Morrison – with jazz 'names' including Courtney Pine (above) and Jason Moran. Crucially, programmers Tony Dudley-Evans and Emily Jones ensured a strand of edgier, forward-looking music centred in the smaller Parabola Theatre, providing plenty for the jazz-minded to get their teeth into.

That venue's Friday-night programme had a pleasing unity, two concerts linked by a live 'remix' of the first which began with Swiss vocalist Lucia Cadotsch's Speak Low trio. Performing to some inner soundtrack, Cadotsch's unforced vocals coolly unfurled laconic standards and others while Otis Sandsjö's circular-breathing tenor sax and Petter Eldh's incessant bass followed their own paths around her. More unity of purpose fired ENEMY's powerful set, with drummer James Maddren's polyrhythms and the returning Eldh's unflinching bass providing proper foils to Kit Downes' increasingly complex piano visions. Numbers like 'Faster Than Light' became mini-suites, subliminal melodies emerging through pyrotechnic episodes and shifting moods. This was then excellently exploited by the remix team of Iain Chambers and Dan Nicholls, elements of both sets merging into a pulsing stream to create a virtual band-that-never-was.

Dinosaur2

This all led nicely into Dinosaur's (above) preview of their imminent Wonder Trail album, an entertainingly post-pop set of tunes reflecting the band's four diverse musical personalities. The deft economy of Laura Jurd's trumpet being less foregrounded, quirky cuts like 'Set Free' and 'And Still We Wonder' evinced an old-school Canterbury feel, while other tunes recalled 1980s synth-pop. It was good, bright stuff, musical intelligence laced with whimsy. Other Parabola highlights over the weekend included the willful theatrics of Estonian singer Kadri Voorand, whose attentive band somehow managed to stay with her whooping, roaring, harmonising and looping vocals, while the relaunched Roller Trio, now with added Chris Sharkey, revisited 'The Nail That Stands Up' (the only 'old' tune they played) and revealed how their new material has a tighter feel, thanks to Sharkey's electronica. Yet the group retains the rawness that made their name. Their next album – due this summer – should be a corker.

Kaadri-Voorand

The increased use of electronica was a definite trend across the festival, with drummer Jim Black's deployment of the tactile Roli keyboard in his Malamute quartet somewhat of a revelation. Fortunately, it didn't wholly obscure his distinctively forceful drumming, but the band's brash sound was blunted by the oddly muted tone of Óskar Gudjónsson's tenor sax. It seemed an odd choice for Black's otherwise typically assertive project, and the contrast with Donny McCaslin's (below) crisp howl the next day was marked. McCaslin's similar line-up benefited from Zach Danziger's whip-tight energy on drums, precision bass-playing from Kevin Scott and Jason Lindner's imaginative electronics. The music pulsed and throbbed with rock energy, with the sax soaring at its centre.

DonnyM

Seeing the Roller Trio had cost me Jason Moran – by all accounts a real class act – so I made sure to catch the last half of Christian McBride's Big Band (below) in the Town Hall. It didn't disappoint, the genial bandleader's impeccable bass with Quincy Phillips' drums the cucumber-cool foundation for excellent charts, including a joyfully funky setting of George Duke's 'The Black Messiah (Pt II)' that gave pianist Xavier Davis his well-deserved McCoy Tyner moment. Their rich, classic sound filled the room with a fine restatement of the jazz heritage.

Christian-M

It may have been that reminder – or possibly the introductory announcement as "the greatest jazz musician in the world" – that made me less positive about Kamasi Washington's set. The band's sheer power is indisputably impressive, and there were fine solos from keyboard-player Brandon Coleman and Washington himself (below), but overall the brashness of sound and similarity of the pieces became wearing. I was in a tiny minority, though, in a massively approving sold-out big top crowd.

Kamsi1

By contrast what pushed my buttons the most were three sets epitomising the value of collaboration and restraint. The Andy Sheppard Quartet, as ever, revolved around the leader's highly distinctive sax voice and lyrical imagination as composer and player. His latest ECM release, Romaria, gives more space to his excellent collaborators, notably Eivind Aarset's guitar-driven electronica. Played live, 'They Came From The North' revealed a new, rockier sound arising from an icy ambience, Seb Rochford's usually diffident drumming even bursting out for a jazz-rock moment, before things ultimately resolved into more typical calmness. Like Sheppard, Swiss trio VEIN are 'serial collaborators'. Their own sound was a tight and tidy contemporary chamber jazz which generously opened to make space for guest saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, in a set featuring their arrangements of pieces by Ravel. It was a happy combination of meticulous group-playing fleshed out by the warmth and fluidity of the saxophone. The unity of playing suggested they had collaborated for years, but as far as I know this short tour was a first meeting.

Bill-Thomas-Morgan

Finally, one of the ultimate collaborative players, Bill Frisell, showcased his artful partnership with bassist Thomas Morgan. The duo (above) provided an absolute masterclass in interactive improvisation. Somewhat dwarfed by the Town Hall's big auditorium, the two musicians began what would be over an hour of, more or less, continuous playing, standard tunes glimpsed as they evolved them onwards with absolute empathy. You had the sense, as they shared glances onstage, that they were oblivious to their audience, so wrapped up in listening and responding to what they were hearing. It was breathtaking stuff – Morgan's playing was a particular revelation – and an unshowy crystallisation of what jazz is all about.

– Tony Benjamin

Photographs by Tim Dickeson

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