October 31 – November 3, 2019
Unusually, Jazzfest Berlin has a policy of changing its artistic director every three years, to ensure flux rather than embedded continuity. The English music critic Richard Williams established an adventurous artist selection, but his younger successor, Nadin Deventer, has deliberately destabilized into wildness. For her second year, she ripped out the front seating in the core venue’s main concert hall, laying down mattresses and installing two blocks of seating on the Berliner Festspiele’s large stage. In her first year, Deventer had initiated a late night project in the caverns below the stage. Much of the music of this 56th edition moved further away from jazz, even in that music’s more out-there manifestations. Unlike some other wayward jazz fests, this Berlin four-dayer set the controls for modern composition, rather than rock, electronic, or global-rooted side-sounds—although all of those aspects were present to some degree.
The festival’s looming high-stature artist was Anthony Braxton, who presented his massive six hour Sonic Genome construction in the grandiose Martin-Gropius-Bau art exhibition hall on opening night. Musicians from Braxton’s own Tri-Centric Foundation formed the core of a 60-strong battalion, providing section leaders for players arriving from three Berlin ensembles, as well as members of the visiting Australian Art Orchestra. Braxton, James Fei, and Chris Jonas conducted the orchestral-sized compositions, sometimes bringing out their own saxophones, to feature prominently in these strategically placed works. Otherwise, the players broke off into smaller units, perambulating, then settling, with perhaps a few individuals wandering over to another cluster of activity.
There was the look and sound of improvisation, but also the section leaders gave hand signals at key junctures, initiating a fresh phase or manipulating an in-progress sequence. Both performers and audience were continually in flux. Initially, the activity was concentrated down on the main floor space, but over time, smaller groups grew, finding satellite exhibition rooms, upstairs and off the balcony. Hearing music arriving from all quarters set up a kind of cacophony, intersecting at times into a communal mass, depending upon the location of each subjectively-placed ear. Ratios and relationships shifted as we wandered around, your scribe finding that he steadily increased the speed of his movement, mapping out the venue, becoming more confident in deserting one group speedily, ensnared by another distant, promising sound, and relishing the changes as one section receded, another increasing in subjective volume. There were horn groups (with Australians Peter Knight and James Macauley) and string groups (one led by Jessica Pavone), and an unusual configuration with Alexander Hawkins on melodica and Bassem Alkhouri on qanun.
As early as 8:15 pm, there were already doubts about the momentum being held for another five hours, as many of the more conventionally-minded concertgoers began to drift off, but just when dispersal threatened, a new ensemble would converge, and the night would reinvigorate. This happened repeatedly, until well after the witching hour (this was a Halloween gig that resisted the temptation for a costume element, the occasion being nowhere as significant in Berlin as it is in NYC).
Braxton conducted a large-scale work, featuring tuba and soprano saxophone solos, with one particular palm-forward gesture holding great power, his presence magnetizing the music as he triggered dramatic punctuations from the ranks. His post-Stockhausen vocabulary dominated the evening sonically, but there was one stage where he and his two fellow conductors headed up the marble stairs and proceeded to play a saxophone trio piece, with the composer and Fei on sopraninos and Jonas on soprano horn. Your scribe had paused, sitting for a spell as the three passed, overhearing Braxton quipping “they’re working an old man too hard! I was only supposed to be playing ballads…”.
The impromptu trio produced some of the night’s most extreme sounds, bending New Orleans jazz into a capering abstraction of reeling, serpentine relationships, at very high speeds, swinging with an experimenter’s glee. This was a prime example of space being the place: a chance flicker of sonic information could assist the experiencer in assembling their own personal sequence, depending upon where they stood, sat, or wandered, and how they made up their own continuum, using the entire hall as their mixing desk, becoming human faders.
Two days later, Braxton and Fei took part in a panel discussion in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Braxton talked about how all of his compositions are designed to be connected, in “a ritual symbolic system,” as “composite humanity,” with “becoming” being the key word, as if he never desires his works to be completed, never finalised. Braxton hunts surprise, and sees himself as a perpetual student. He’s not rejecting tradition, he’s affirming it, citing Charlie Parker, John Philip Sousa, and Johnny Mathis amongst his influences. Other heroes include Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Pauline Oliveros. Braxton reveals that, if he had the funds, he would build a theme park, along Tri-Centric Disney lines, also shouting out Walt as a prime inspiration. Then, Braxton talked about selecting musical elements Subway sandwich style, inspired by the branch just up the avenue. Hearing the composer up close, it became apparent how naturally Braxton merges formal, arcane wordiness to detail his concepts with the next breath’s plucking of an absurdist, humorous observation out of the ether. Braxton also underlined his method of systematic-meets-surprise, with section leaders versus individual choice. He closed up the interview by recalling his induction year being hosted by Ornette Coleman in NYC, during which time they played pool every day, but no music. Ornette gave Braxton the keys to the city.
Jazzfest Berlin’s biggest contrast could be found by shifting from the Gropius-Bau to Quasimodo, which is mostly a basement rock club, not too far from the Berliner Festspiele. James Brandon Lewis delivered a late night set with his UnRuly Quintet, which featured a front line of Jamie Branch (trumpet) and Ava Mendoza (guitar), alongside the leader’s tenor saxophone. The mission was avant-funk, and the melting began immediately. It’s not often that we hear an Albert Ayler vibrato coming from a younger player, especially draped over a grinder-honk funk-hop base, as Lewis slurred over the slinkin’ beats of drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III. One number bled into the next, and Branch took up the tambourine, like an avant Stevie Nicks, Lewis flowing like a warmly invitingly harmolodic Junior Walker. Mendoza grated and Lewis howled, simultaneously grasping the same power-spot of toughened free-funk. Luke Stewart’s electric bass had a head-banging intensity, his broad, churning sound ever-present. As “Haden Is Beauty” closed the roiling 90 minute set. Lewis erupted into a massive volume, fragmented free-scrabble, sounding like an electroacoustic composition, until the groove resumed with full, urgent force. Braxton would surely have loved this!