Jazzfest Berlin 50th Anniversary

Jason MoranThe last time I saw Vincent Peirani, the brilliant accordionist on stage last Saturday with the legendary drummer Daniel Humair,  was about a year or so ago and I didn’t dare ask him to have his hair cut. So it was a nice surprise when he went on stage shaven-headed. But sorry, this is mainly about the music so I might add that Humair’s Sweet & Sour Quartet was by far the most enjoyable group at this year’s anniversary Festival. The group interplay was brilliant, the solos tight and imaginative and not completely out of focus, and Emile Parisien on sax made it clear why he has won so many awards in the last few years.

Other programming features didn’t really work out as good as that. The liberty songs that Richard DeRosa and his WDR Big Band chose to play with the charismatic singer Kurt Elling simply were a strange choice. No, I was not one of the many people booing and walking out of the room, but I could understand the frustration of the dreaded Berlin audience because the song selection was so randomly chosen and the arrangements, at least most of the time, very corny and schmaltzy. Songs like The Scorpions‘ “Winds Of Change” or the German Folk song “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” didn’t really spark the fire, nor did a strange medley which included, among other songs, Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On”. The set got off to a very promising start with a powerful “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and then lost strength with each subsequent track. What a waste and Elling was certainly not to blame. At times, it looked and sounded as if he was used or rather mis-used for the concert.

Archie Shepp, the veteran saxophonist, best known for his politically oriented “Fire Music” from 1965, delivered a solid, 5-song set where he also sang a couple of tunes and even though the anger and the strong link to the African music tradition is no longer the main subject of his shows, he still has that amazing, bluesy sound on his instrument.

Another amazing sound is that of pianist Jason Moran, who was invited with two of his projects and played on Sunday, the last night of the Festival. I can listen to his Bandwagon group with Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums every day. You never know what the output and the outcome will be, but you’re always pleasantly surprised by the innovative, original, and technically sophisticated improvisations.

It was a different story for his Fats Waller Dance Party, the commissioned work that he’s been playing time and again since about three years. It is not a simple dedication to the great Fats Waller, but more a showcase of the fun-loving, dance-heavy times that defined the relatively short career of Waller. There were some sound problems (drums too loud, change between piano and keys didn’t work, voice was muffled), but the added trumpet (and vocal) of Leron Thomas and amazing drummer Charles Haynes and the brilliant jam-like playing by Moran were a lot of fun, indeed. Except for the last piece which was simply too long and Lisa Harris who didn’t convince at all (except for a great “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” where she shared the refrain with drummer Haynes). The arrangements of well-worn songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” or “Ain’t Misbehavin'” were stunning, though.

The total of 17 concerts attracted almost 7.000 people and nearly all of the shows were sold-out. The 2015 edition is taking place November 5-8 under the artistic direction of Richard Williams.

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