Jazz 2015 Creative troublemakers

Drummer Christian Lillinger with Frank Möbus in the band KUU! © Ralf Dombrowski
Drummer Christian Lillinger with Frank Möbus in the band KUU! © Ralf Dombrowski | © Ralf Dombrowski

Big band music made a resounding comeback, and the diversity of the German jazz scene exploded in 2015.
Bass clarinettist Rudi Mahall calls his Berlin quintet Reich durch Jazz (Rich From Jazz). This is Mahall’s deliberately sarcastic commentary on the basically precarious economic situation of jazz musicians in Germany.

But how do most jazz musicians in this country actually live and work nowadays? The Union of German Jazz Musicians together with the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt and IG Jazz Berlin, and with academic assistance from the University of Hildesheim’s Cultural Policy Institute, put a questionnaire online in 2015 to find out about the musicians’ living and working conditions. According to the Darmstadt Jazzinstitut, some 2,100 jazz musicians responded to the online survey and the first results should be in by mid-March 2016.

Are most jazz musicians, as is generally presumed, from highly educated families? How high is the average fee in Germany? These are some of the questions the study seeks to answer for the first time using confirmed empirical data. This poll isn’t about to change their living and working conditions anytime soon, to be sure, but it may well furnish some important insights for the various actors in the music and concert industry as well as in the media.

Celebrating an out-and-out melodist

2015 was Eberhard Weber’s big year. The legendary bassist, who grew up in Esslingen and turned 75 last year, received in Stuttgart the Baden-Württemberg State’s lifetime achievement award in jazz (which was conferred for the first time ever). And just a few months later his life’s work was honoured yet again by an Echo jazz award.

At the Great Jubilee Concert in Stuttgart (for which the author of this article served as recording editor) a bunch of Weber’s renowned peers, including Jan Garbarek, Gary Burton and Paul McCandless, paid tribute to the legendary bassist by performing his compositions with the SWR Big Band. The concert made it clear how heavily Weber’s electric double bass playing and sound have influenced American and European jazz concepts. It may have had a particularly prominent effect on the compositional and guitar-playing style of Pat Metheny, who named Weber as a formative influence and thanked his idol with a 31-minute suite.

Metheny’s first work for big band, Hommage, integrates samples from Weber’s solo performances and uses this material as the basis for a jazz orchestra composition that is unique in its melodic and harmonic architecture. Eberhard Weber said laconically, “I can’t play bass but I know how it goes.”

In the World of Oo-Bla-Dee

But 2015 was also the year of big new young talents. One of them, Erik Leuthäuser from Freital in Saxony, brings the German language into the world of bebop from the World of Oo-Bla-Dee (as he called his debut album). Born in 1996, he’s a master of vocalese – i.e. improvising lyrics to musical pieces and solos that were originally purely instrumental. “What appealed to me was that adding words to instrumental pieces or improvisations wasn’t done in German. It was previously done only in English by for example Eddie Jefferson or Jon Hendricks. I was always particularly struck by that.”

Development of “Third Stream”

In 2015, young German jazz showed itself receptive to a wide range of different styles and with a striking tendency to transcend the differences between genres in highly creative ways. This fusion of genres is particularly conspicuous in projects like Sebastian Stern’s Symphonic Society and Roger Hanschel’s work with the Auryn Quartet, which merge the approaches to music of jazz and classical chamber music, bringing jazz and string quartet together for a felicitous encounter full of mutual challenges. The upshot is known as “Third Stream” – a confluence of jazz and classical music influences.

Speaking of jazz and classical art music: Michael Wollny continued his triumph in the concert halls in 2015. On his successful album Nachtfahrten (Nightrides) (ACT) – a romantic journey into the realm of dark dreams – the Leipzig-based pianist gives himself up to a music of tranquillity and sound-conscious reduction.

Funding and research

All of this successful experimentation, however, can hardly obscure the arduous conditions that Germany’s jazz musicians still have to contend with. More and more young musicians studying jazz at German conservatoires are vying for opportunities to play in clubs, whose numbers are not growing, but actually stagnating in proportion to the number of music school graduates.

In this midst of this not always rosy situation, German jazz was in for at least one pleasant surprise in 2015: the State of Baden-Württemberg upped its jazz funding by 120 (sic) per cent, an increase of €338,000 on 2014. The additional funds are to set new priorities in the promotion of up-and-coming young talents, professional musicians, and festivals and associations that sponsor and support jazz music.

For the time being, musicians in other German Länder can only dream of having such an ample public funding strategy, but it could also serve as a role model. Baden-Württemberg’s approach includes support for concerts outside the state as well as intercultural projects, such as funding for the initiative in Ulm to promote “young jazz music from the Danube region”, featuring a new festival for jazz and improvised music where young jazz musicians can meet their peers from other countries along the Danube. The JazzFest Berlin took on a new artistic director in its 51st year: Richard Williams, a British journalist who banked on a decidedly cosmopolitan programme. This fresh start – featuring Cecile McLorin Salvant and the Diwan der Kontinente Orchestra (made up of 22 Berlin-based musicians from many different nations and cultures), among others – went down well with the audience.

Creative troublemakers

He plays like a waterfall. His rhythms have something shimmering and evocatively dense about them. Christian Lillinger is one of the exciting and original drummers in experimental improvisational music. Last year he surprised the jazz scene with two projects. His Grund Sextet fuses New Music performance practices with free improvisation to generate sounds which at first seem wild and chaotic, but on closer listening turn out to be both compositionally and spontaneously structured. Amok Amor (with bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Wanja Slavin) is, in contrast, a purely improv project with a phenomenally high-octane sound: a band that generates pure energy in a fervid exchange between clash and concord.

The projects of Christian Lillinger, Julia Hülsmann, Kalle Kalima and many others epitomize the uninterrupted appeal of the Berlin scene, a jazz magnet with a power of attraction that extends far beyond German borders. No less powerful, however, were the creative impulses emanating from the Cologne scene in 2015. The Klaeng-Kollektiv with their Klaeng Festival, the circle around Club Subway, the Winter Festival and maverick artists like Jonas Burgwinkel, Angelika Niescier and Christian Lorenzen speak volumes about the high degree of self-organization and creativity among musicians in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Fountain of youth for a fossil

Another German jazz trend in 2015 was the remarkable number of new jazz orchestras on the rise. A fossil, namely the big band, long written off with a sigh of pity as a dying dinosaur because it’s so hard to finance, is coming back with a vengeance. And for the most part it’s young enthusiasts, ambitious jazz students and professional musicians who are fuelling this renaissance: Jörn Marcussen-Wulff and the Fette Hupe Orchestra in Hannover, Lars Seniuk and the New German Art Orchestra in Hamburg/Leipzig, Tobias Wember and the Subway Jazz Orchestra in Cologne, Malte Schiller and Red Balloon in Berlin. They and plenty of other large ensembles represent the yearning of musicians to give expression to the wide range of experiences they’ve had over the years through the nuanced palette of a jazz orchestra and to turn them into a new idiom of European big band sound.

So it’s only fitting that, independently of this development, some glad tidings came at the end of the year: namely, TWO Grammy nominations for the renowned WDR Big Band and their Köln album project with American arranger/trombonist Marshall Gilkes. The Cologne crew were in the running for the music world’s most coveted awards in the categories Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and Best Instrumental Composition (for the piece Vesper).

So in the face of the great adversity German jazz still has to contend with, jazz made in Germany looks to be in fine shape all the same – and is highly prized even in the motherland of jazz.