Jazzfest Berlin 2017 Recap

After the wise and successful move to Kreuzberg’s Lido for the first two nights of this year’s festival, the remaining four days were staged at the traditional, main venue, the Haus Der Berliner Festspiele (and various club/church locations again).


Angelika Niescier
Angelika Niescier after receiving the Albert Mangelsdorff prize. With Chris Tordini and Tyshawn Sorey.
Photo: Camille Blake

Friday night was the most difficult one for me. It turned out that the concert of this year’s Albert Mangelsdorff price winner, saxophonist Angelika Niescier, was by far the most identifiable, easiest to listen to. With her Coltranesque cascades and riffs, she proved that she not only is a master on her instrument, but also a very creative composer. Tyshawn Sorey as the drummer in her group was changing into accompanying role with giving some little bits and pieces of ideas, too.

The much awaited solo set by the admired pianist Michael Wollny turned out to become a “look what I’m able to do in sixty minutes” sort of concert without any construction or longer stretch of accessibility. A disappointing set with lots of hammering on the piano which to me just made no sense at all.

Ambrose Akinmusire premiered a piece especially written for the Berlin festival, based on tape recordings of Mattie Mae Thomas from 1939 from a Mississippi prison. Those tapes reminded Ambrose

Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire at Jazzfest Berlin 2017.
Photo: Camille Blake

of the singing of his grandmother who was also born in Mississippi and stayed there for most of her life. His band was perfect, with Gerald Clayton on piano, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Joe Sanders on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Why the original tapes were played simultaneously to the singing and narrative of Dean Bowman, was very irritating and almost ruined the whole performance.

When Tyshawn Sorey played his duo set with German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, you would not have expected them to be on stage for the first time. Both had a lot of fun together and even though this free improv jazz isn’t exactly my cup of green ginger tea with lemon, it was a pleasure just watching them

Tyshawn Sorry Gebhard Ullmann
Tyshawn Sorry and Gebhard Ullmann at Jazzfest Berlin 2017.
Photo: Camille Blake

interact. At least for most of the time. Tyshawn switched to the piano during the set and I had the feeling that at the beginning, they first had to slowly but surely check each other out.

UK quartet Empirical were playing in a Berlin shopping mall prior to their debut on the big stage on Saturday night and after watching their set, I knew all of a sudden why I hadn’t heard of them before: their music is pretty irrelevant and had zero spark. Suit and sax, vibes and virility just didn’t match, didn’t click. Nels Cline Lovers performed movie-themed love songs and songs about romance, interspersed with standards and some original material – lifeless, the little chamber orchestra was more like foreign matter than actually enhancing the songs. Listening to “I Have Dreamed”, “Beautiful Love”, “Secret Love” or “Why Was I Born?” in this context made me think “Why Am I Here?”. Unfortunately, groove meister Dr. Lonnie Smith couldn’t save the evening with his bluesy, funky Hammond B3 set – the excitement was all gone and I think that acts like his would be a benefit for the Kreuzberg clubs instead of being forlorn on this huge stage.

I wasn’t able to check out all of Sunday’s performances, but Tyshawn Sorey‘s final set, this time with a 20-piece ensemble playing music in the conduction style, was interesting stuff. Tyshawn conducted the Berlin-based musicians by pointing at them and showing cards, much like George Lewis did in 2015 when he opened the festival with his Splitter Orchester. The piece only made sense by listening to the complete show which had a lot of Indian/Asian influences by incorporating tabla, ghatam and guzheng into the group, but the voice of Alex Nowitz was the only irritating factor here. Quiet a stirring act, sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating, like the whole edition of this year’s festival. Congratulations again on the move to the clubs. That was long overdue!




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