Jazz 2011 A “mega-express” to put more blue notes across

Jazz needs communicators and authors to show the same passion and proficiency its musical practitioners are already displaying. Impressions and observations by Roland Spiegel on the German jazz year 2011.

Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, Jazzfest Berlin 2011; Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, Jazzfest Berlin 2011; | Foto: © Grzegorz Drygala One thing’s for sure: 2011 was a bumper year for German jazz. A year in which a number of musicians chalked up outstanding performances or CD releases. And a year in which efforts to put jazz across to the public at large gained some vital momentum, above all thanks to the exemplary work of the Jazz-Institut in Darmstadt.

Within a short interval at the turn of the year 2011/2012, jazz got two big write-ups in the press in long feature articles on the front page of the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s arts section, a prime space invariably reserved for the most salient cultural topics and social issues of the day. Jazz as a subject of current cultural debate: now that goes to show how stimulating this musical art form is still – or once again.

What was there to discover or experience in the way of top-notch German jazz in 2011? Well, there were some clear-cut highlights: CD productions and concerts in which some very well-trained young German musicians displayed not only brilliant technique and stylistic elegance, but also, and above all, a sound of their own that came to the fore in 2011.

Bringing the harp along into the 21st century

That was made clear by some of the performances at the internationally rated JazzFest Berlin, which is still the leading jazz festival in Germany – for which, by the way, a new artistic director, the eminent jazz journalist Bert Noglik, was appointed last year to begin in 2012.
One large ensemble that had already made a splash reached the peak of their development to date: the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, led by composer/saxophonist/clarinettist Daniel Glatzel (born 1984). Eighteen musicians on instruments ranging from saxophone and trumpet to electric guitar and keyboard and including bassoon, harp and string quintet presented what must be an unprecedented diversity of musical sounds at the festival. The upshot: a coherent and compelling whole, played with uncannily casual virtuosity to boot by such accomplished musicians as trombonist Johannes Lauer and bassoonist Sebastian Hägele. Music that is no longer of the 20th century anymore, but clearly 21st-century music.

The second milestone concert at the Berlin festival was by the [em] trio made up of Michael Wollny, piano, Eva Kruse, bass, and Eric Schaefer, drums (all of whom were born in the 1970s). They’d been making breathtaking music for some time already, but in Berlin they succeeded in distilling the quintessence of their pieces. What made this vehement music all the more compelling was that none of these skilful instrumentalists sought to shine: instead, each subordinated their instrument to the collective statement – which made for the shine all by itself.

Trend towards instrumental song

“The aesthetic whole” could well have been the motto for many a gig and CD production by German ensembles and instrumentalists in 2011. The young saxophonist Charlotte Greve (born 1988), for instance, who had already made an impression at the Jazzbaltica the year before, attracted notice with her band, the Lisbeth Quartett, in 2011 in Berlin. Their approach was also about pooling their forces to make top-notch music together: their “songs”, i.e. in this case instrumental compositions with a pithy melodic thrust, can be heard on the CD Constant Travellers (on Traumton Records).

That album, taken together with two other standout CD releases last year, suggests a nascent trend towards “the inward song”, so to speak, which is the title of an album (on the Pirouet label) by alto sax Christian Weidner (born 1976). His music progresses through lyrical, clear-cut structures to develop an extremely powerful aura, as does the CD Anthem (on the same label) by Hamburg-based tenor sax Sebastian Gille. And that consistent approach bore fruit abroad as well: Allaboutjazz.com named an up-and-coming German musician one of the outstanding artists of the year 2011: pianist Pablo Held.

Jazz needs communicators

Last year saw exciting developments not only among musicians and labels like ACT, enja (with such outstanding groups as Subtone), Traumton et al., but also in the domain of communication.

The Jazzinstitut Darmstadt took the most important stride in that direction: its 12th darmstädter jazzforum, in the autumn of 2011, entitled jazz. school. media”, was about putting jazz across to the general public.
Wolfram Knauer, director of the Jazzinstitut, summed up some of the results of those efforts as follows: “Teaching is essential. Teacher training ought to put more emphasis on jazz at any rate. Teachers are interested in practical pointers – in other words, how can I work improvisation into my courses, even if students haven’t had much exposure to improve before? – as well as theoretical aids.” At every level, there is an “awareness of the need for stronger communication to get jazz out of the elitist corner and into the centre of discussion”. Young musicians are conscious of their public and take them seriously, adds Knauer, and are trying “to reconcile the artistic quality of their music with its communicability”. Editors at daily newspapers as well as freelancers for music journals are frustrated, he explains, because the scene is so small that it’s getting harder and harder to be independent critics and part of the scene at one and the same time.

Impetus for jazz critics

In the run-up to the jazz forum in Darmstadt, the Jazzinstitut had already held an online workshop on jazz criticism in the form of a contest, in which young journalists were asked to choose from a list of selected topics and submit a written review.