Seldom if ever before has German jazz been in such fine fettle as it was in 2010. Berlin garnered international regard as the hub of European jazz, and up-and-coming German jazzmen proved more adventurous and exuberant than ever. Projects to connect up disparate scenes bore fruit inside and across Germany’s borders, as did efforts to bridge decades-old rifts between East and West and between free jazz and mainstream.
German Jazz Meeting gives the cueThe 3rd German Jazz Meeting was an honest-to-goodness creative shock. On 23 and 24 April 2010, the Jazzahead! trade fair presented selected acts from the current German scene to the international industry. Each group got only 20 minutes’ playing time there – which is usually way too short for a jazz band to hit its stride – but even the aficionados were unanimously awed by the calibre of the various acts.
The musicians did not confine themselves to proving themselves up to international standards, but with a healthy dose of self-assurance they made it clear that the German scene need no longer play second fiddle to France, England or the US.
As a matter of fact, Berlin bands like Soko Steidle or Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa are setting new standards in collective improvisation, the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra came up with an outrageous blend of big band and chamber orchestra sound, the Julia Hülsmann and Pablo Held trios catapulted the piano trio back into the limelight of jazz discourse, and Michael Wollny celebrated kitsch-free exotic sounds in the tradition of German Romanticism.
For a brilliant grand finale, Daniel Erdmann’s trio Das Kapital gave absorbing renditions of Hanns Eisler’s old songs.
So the German Jazz Meeting was more than a bunch of magic moments strung together, it did more than take stock of the present state of German jazz: it was the vociferous proclamation of a new attitude – akin to the last revival that came out of Wuppertal back in the late 1960s.
While in the past German jazz enthusiasts have often had to feel like onlookers watching the worldwide evolution of jazz from the sidelines, they were now suddenly propelled smack into the innovative hub of jazz...
Berlin – a city on the moveFor a long while, Berlin was regarded as the worn-out capital of post-bop.
The real jazz was happening elsewhere. And yet what was inconceivable 20 years back now suddenly works.
Old jams with young, East fraternizes with West, tradition lends an ear to avant-garde and vice versa. Thanks to the perseverance of label-built platforms like Traumton, Intakt and Jazzwerkstatt, clubs like the A-Trane and b-Flat or associations and organizations like Jazzkeller 69 e.V. and the Jazzkollektiv Berlin, an organic scene has sprouted up virtually overnight where it used to be every man for himself and where old boys’ networks and professional envy once prevailed.
Berlin is a whole lot more than just a place: jazz from Berlin is an idea.
And the Berlin jazz diaspora is spreading across the globe. Instead of offering handouts in the form of public funding, the city lures talent with its unique infrastructure and its unbeatably low cost of living.
Two fair-to-middling music schools have been fused to form the Jazzinstitut Berlin, a talent pool that draws first-rate teachers and students from all over the world.
In response to the public challenge, the Berlin jazz community has climbed down from its erstwhile ivory tower to plunge straight into the effervescent cultural life of the shimmering metropolis. It no longer defines itself in terms of a specific sound, generation or credo. For the borders have long since blurred between traditional or modern approaches to jazz, on the one hand, and idioms like rock, hip hop, noise and electronic, on the other, along with the myriad ethnic music cultures in the capital.
But above all, Berlin remains a place of eternal transit, both geographically and artistically. One can no longer imagine the Berlin jazz world without such international leading lights as Greg Cohen and John Hollenbeck, such established veterans as Till Brönner and Michael Wollny, or such Junge Wilde as the bands Hyperactive Kid and Johnny LaMarama.
In this ever-buzzing creative swarm, even one-time pop icons like Rainbirds keyboarder Ulrike Haage – who has always had a decided penchant for improvisation – feel challenged to embark on new adventures in jazz.
Cologne –all abuzz at the Western frontGerman jazz’s newfound self-assurance is not only conspicuous in Berlin.
Cologne, which used to be home to Jazzhaus and the Kölner Saxofon Mafia, is also witnessing the emergence of a new jazz scene, which may be somewhat less spectacular, but may well prove the more enduring for all that.
After decades of big sounds, musicians like Nils Wogram and Florian Ross have persistently and insistently laid the foundation for this milieu of creative understatement. Both have been quite at home for some time now at European jazz festivals and they have pooled their sensuous, imaginative forces in a band called Nostalgia.
Pianist Pablo Held epitomizes the new introversion in Cologne. At a mere 24 years of age, this quiet philosopher of sound is already a poster child of German jazz. Without any claim to reinvent the jazz idiom, his extraordinary power lies in his sheer individuality.
His bassist, Robert Landfermann, likewise under 30, currently ranks among the busiest German musicians, covering a broad spectrum ranging from mainstream to free.
His Grünen trio, which also includes Berlin drummer Christian Lillinger, is building a musical bridge all the way from the Rhine River to the Spree.
The continuity of Cologne’s jazz biotope is exemplified by Sebastian Gramms, whose formation Underkarl is continually discovering new, subversive interconnections between avant-garde jazz, contemporary underground rock and the multifarious traditions of European classical music.
But Cologne-based jazz resonates far beyond the limits of the cathedral city. Its gravitational field extends to the minimalistic jazzcore of the Zodiak Trio from Essen and Jan Klare’s powerful avant-garde big band The Dorf, which brings musicians from all over North Rhine-Westphalia together, to name just a few.
Jazz 2.0 – a fountain of youth for German jazzJazz is like good wine, so they say: it gets better with age. This golden rule seems to have put on ice for the time being by current developments in German jazz. Wherever you go, young bands are calling the tune. And they have long since ceased to adhere to the canons of a jazz industry that’s been stuck in the same old groove for decades. The Internet and the new social networks haven’t bypassed the jazz scene, so now bands and ensembles can work together even across large distances.
One prime example of this development is the band Expressway Sketches: drummer Max Andrzejewski, keyboarder Benjamin Schäfer and guitarist Tobias Hoffmann live in Berlin and Cologne and are involved in several projects in both cities. The drummer is still studying at the Jazzinstitut Berlin, but he’s already one of the great white hopes in German percussion.
Together these three bold-as-brass jazzmen in their mid-20s are formulating a sort of inter-city shortcut music that’s rousing, trend-setting and of exuberant virtuosity.
Christian Lillinger, the enfant terrible of the Berlin scene, is only 26 years old, the Hamburg piano prodigy Pär Lammers is 28, the above-mentioned Pablo Held and Robert Landfermann are youngsters too.
In a milieu like this, innovative musicians like the pianist Florian Weber from Detmold or Cologne trumpeter Frederik Köster, both 33, are already almost oldsters. And – believe it or not – even Michael Wollny, who seems to have been going at it for ages already, is only 32. Never before have the 30ish and under-30s been so firmly established in German jazz. In jazz terms, the “young” generation of musicians is no longer the aspiring “next” generation, it is THE current German jazz generation.
German jazz goes globalBut what do we really mean these days when we say “German jazz”?
Daniel Erdmann, the saxophonist with Mangelsdorff-Gen, is clearly a German musician – though he lives in France.
With his band Das Kapital he has put some of the political bite back into German jazz that had been lacking for so long. Taking up compositions by Hanns Eisler, he’s making a real contribution to the reprocessing of the German music tradition – even though the other two band members are from France and Denmark.
Meanwhile, not only has Florian Weber signed up the American Jeff Denson and the Israeli Ziv Ravitz for his successful trio Minsarah, but the trio itself backs up past master Lee Konitz, who’s been a central figure in American jazz since the 1940s.
Trombonist Nils Wogram has settled down in Zürich, where he has long since come to emblematize the culmination of international exchange in the top tiers of jazz.
But the interconnectedness of German jazz goes a whole lot further still. The Jazzkollektiv Berlin, an amalgamation of various Berlin musicians and bands, invited members of partner collectives from all over Europe to its Kollektiv Nights festival in December 2010.
And when an authority like New York saxist Henry Threadgill covers a piece by Berlin cosmopolite Uli Kempendorff on their latest album, that in and of itself goes to show how much recognition jazz made in Germany now enjoys even in the US.
Baby Sommer and Till Brönner – the Wall is goneOld free jazz wild man meets young perfectionist.
Walls can be torn down in Germany, the whole world watched it happen in real time back in 1989. But jazz took a lot longer to overcome the old antagonisms. The ideologically, stylistically and even regionally opposed camps remained irreconcilable for 20 years after the fall of the Wall.
That’s over now that dyed-in-the-wool avant-gardist Günter “Baby” Sommer (East) and the 28-years-younger pop jazz pioneer Till Brönner (West) – who would have thought it possible? – have put a joint project in which they unreservedly compare notes and share their views and the stories of their acculturation.
But this duo is ultimately about much more than a meeting of two protagonists from diametrically opposed camps. Though it was not their avowed agenda, Brönner and Sommer have ushered in the end of ideology and, with that, what may well prove the biggest turning point in German jazz since 1968.
So even if last year hadn’t seen all those other innovations, culminations, trends and impulses, 2010 would go down in German jazz history for this milestone project alone.