Jazzfest Berlin

Jazzfest Berlin 2016

Jazzfest Berlin continued the process of spreading its wings in 2016, when more than 6,000 people attended 15 events in six venues – two of them new to the festival -- spread over six days and featuring 138 musicians, all broadcast over the 11 radio stations of the ARD network.

Many members of the audience came away with one impression in particular. The intention, without making a headline out of it, was to present to the public a programme for the 2016 Jazzfest Berlin with an equal number of female and male bandleaders. Not to create a “women in jazz” festival (which has been done elsewhere before) but to try, without fuss or hype, to make the programme represent the gender balance of the world in which we all live.

The process began, quite unconsciously, even before the thought presented itself. The number of outstanding women composers and bandleaders currently active around the world made it a relatively easy task. The first name on the list of potential musicians for 2016 was that of Matana Roberts, the Chicago saxophonist, composer and sound artist. She was invited to open the festival at Martin-Gropius-Bau, one of the new venues, with “For Pina”, a wonderfully imaginative and heartfelt hour-long piece dedicated to the late choreographer Pina Bausch, whose rehearsal space in Wuppertal, the famous Lichtburg, had been recreated inside the art museum.

If Matana Roberts was the first on the list, others soon followed. They included such new names as the young Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette, accompanied by her 10 musicians and a lighting designer in a very dramatic set; the British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed with her band Family Hafla; the Hamburg-based saxophonist Anna-Lena Schnabel, invited to expand Julia Hülsmann’s regular quartet into a quintet; and the Swiss-born, Berlin-based singer Lucia Cadotsch enjoying a late-night triumph in the Seitenbühne with her highly original trio, Speak Low.

In the intimate setting of A-Trane, four women – the American guitarist Mary Halvorson, the Japanese pianist Aki Takase and the German saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Charlotte Greve – played duets in a series of evenings titled “Brooklyn-Berlin Dialogues”. In the Grosse Bühne, the Polish-born saxophonist Angelika Niescier joined the German pianist Florian Weber in their well received quintet. Myra Melford brought another quintet, called Snowy Egret, which played her suite “Language of Dreams”, featuring the brilliant drumming of Tyshawn Sorey, who flew from New York specially for the occasion. The inventive Californian singer-songwriter Julia Holter gave a performance that provoked worthwhile arguments among the audience and the critics about exactly what jazz is and isn’t.

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau epitomised the festival’s definition of jazz as “the art of conversation” with a beautifully poised and searching set of duets, while Jack DeJohnette brought out two younger musicians he has known since they were children, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, for a set that deepened in meaning and impact the longer it went on. Steve Lehman’s octet found dazzling new ways to make composition inspire improvisation, and the great trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith appeared twice: first with his own crowd-pleasing Great Lakes Quartet and then in a duo with Alexander Hawkins, who turned the pipe organ of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche into the perfect partner for Wadada’s highly emotional sound.

Alexander von Schlippenbach brought an 18-strong Globe Unity Orchestra to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ensemble’s debut at the festival, demonstrating the continuing vigour and relevance of their music. The Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch expanded his “ritual groove music” by adding the massed horns of the hr-Bigband from Frankfurt to his regular quartet, Ronin, with mesmerising results. The Finnish quintet Oddarrang exploited electronics to paint vivid sound pictures in a darkened Seitenbühne.

In the Institut Français, Michael Schiefel and the Wood & Steel Trio performed beautifully crafted arrangements of pieces from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook, and the pianist Achim Kaufmann assembled an octet, including the poet Gabriele Guenther, to perform a work called “SKEIN Extended”, including small miracles of spontaneous interplay.

Closing the festival, the French composer and pianist Eve Risser and her 11-piece White Desert Orchestra received an ovation after a journey through soundscapes that shifted from the austere to the unashamedly beautiful, summing up in a single hour many of the intentions and values that underpinned this year’s programme.

Richard Williams
Artistic Director Jazzfest Berlin