Jazzahead 2019 was bigger and better than the ones before for various reasons: first of all, it has become a true international event for the jazz business, with plenty of music. Secondly this year’s partner country Norway was a more active partner than many others, with concerts, showcases and events, well prepared information on the market and its artists and by sending writer and poet Lars Saabye Christensen to do the opening speech, talking about jazz as only a poet could: “Jazz is something that does not yet exist, that hasn’t happened, that still hasn’t been played. Jazz is movement, as indeed all music is. …. Jazz is always putting something behind us, without forgetting it, mark you, without forgetting it. In jazz, memory is the theme that creeps up on you or to which you return. In jazz, memory is forward looking ….”. Overall the mood at the fair/conference was very positive despite the jazz record market going through a rough time as audiences are not changing to streaming services as fast as they would need to with rapidly declining CD sales. Nevertheless, the indie sector (and that’s what you will find in Bremen and what is driving our business today) is picking up what the major labels are not able or willing to do anymore and most of them are thriving. All change, all challenge, but no panic!! As Lars Saabye Christensen did say: ”We know where we are going, but not how to get there. That’s jazz.”
In terms of showcases I did see 4 of the Norwegian ones and a few others, all of which I will describe in short words as follows: the first short concert was a duo by European jazz legends Karin Krog and John Surman. Krog has been the first Norwegian jazz musician who found in the mid 1960’s success internationally and opened many doors for the generations after her. Her delicate duo with Surman is full of beautiful moments in their communication, so creating jazz as well as using Norwegian folk music as inspiration. A wonderful bow by the partner country to its own history and at the same time a reminder that jazz is ageless.
Then off to Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide, a quintet performing chamber music-like compositions based on influences ranging from folk songs to contemporary works. The musicians Hakon Aase on violin, Ole Morten Vågan on bass, Ayumi Tanaka on piano, Leo Svensson Sander on cello and Strønen on drums, played a wonderful and melodic set with a very unique ensemble sound. Musically open and sometimes adventurous, this is beautiful music that needs the listeners attention to fully enjoy the deepness and variety of their performance.
There is a reason why Acoustic Unity, the trio led by drummer Gard Nilssen, featuring Andre Roligheten on saxes and Ole Morten Vågan on bass, is considered on of the most exciting jazz bands in Europe today: first of all these are some of the best improvisers of the Norwegian scene and secondly they work extremely well as a group – listening, reacting, driving the compositions through tons of space to a delightful conclusion. This is as energetic a group as you might find – the power is incredible and the trio delivers on each of their songs with a smile on their faces. Fascinating, challenging, but extremely rewarding for the listener. Gig of the jazzahead for me, no doubt!!!
For Frode Haltli the name of his band is the program as well: Avant Folk. The outstanding accordion players 10-piece band, featuring instruments from the traditional fiddle of Norwegian folk music to electric guitar, performed his compositions with verve and perfection. The often cinematic sounds of the pieces led them into free spaces and back into delicate melodies, touching and making one smile. Simply a wonderful concert by Erlend Apneseth on Hardanger fiddle, Hans P. Kjorstad on violin, Rolf-Erik Nystrøm on sax, Hildegunn Øiseth on trumpet, vocals and goat horn, Sigbjørn Apeland on keyboards, guitarists Stein Urheim and Oddrun Lilja Jonsdottir, Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson on bass, as well as drummer Siv Øyunn Kjenstad and of course Haltli, who sounded incredible.
I finished the Norwegian showcase night with Kristin Asbjørnsen, the wonderful singer I used to work with in the past. Here she presented her new music, simply performed with Olav Torget on electric guitar and Suntou Susso on kora and additional vocals. This was an incredible mix of gospels, African influences and vocal improvisations. With the additional vocals and some loops they sounded sometimes like a full ensemble performing … with the unique voice of Asbjørnsen leading the way. Check out her latest album ‘Traces Of You’ for more of this intoxicating mix and her wonderful vocal skills.
On the second day of jazzahead I went to see 4 show cases between or after the good meetings I had, starting with AKSHAM, a project featuring Elina Duni on vocals, Marc Perrenoud on piano, David Enhco on trumpet, Florent Nisse on bass and Fred Pasqua on drums. Duni provided all the lyrics for the compositions of her band members and performs these songs with feel and quality – musically Perrenoud and Enhco are the perfect lyrical partners for Elina and Nisse and Pasqua laying the carpet everyone is walking on rhythmically. Beautiful music!
The Lisbon Underground Ensemble was next on my list, as I had heard about them and was curious what composer and pianist Marco Barroso would perform with his 15-piece band. In the mid 80’s Frank Zappa asked ‘Does humour belong in music? And Barraso gave a clear answer with his band: YES! Incredible changes from free parts to swing elements, wonderful soli and some hilarious snippets from prepared tapes, gave this powerful performance some funny twists, without minimising the musicality and individual contributions. Impressive from start to finish!
Elliot Galvin was next with a freely improvised solo piano show. Galvin is one of the new musicians in the UK that is creating a buzz – a unique piano player and composer with a feel for little melodies and flowing improvisations. Immaculate technique and inventiveness made the solo show a captivating experience, especially when he prepared the piano to get different sounds and therefore extended his possibilities to create new colours. Someone to watch out for!
Last but not least that evening I listened to MDCIII, a project led by Belgian sax player and loop master Mattias De Craene with drummers Lennart Jacobs and Simon Segers, who as well is using electronics. This music is all about sounds and grooves, samples and powerful sax lines. Spacy and ambient and then building a rhythm one could dance to. Modern and exciting music played in a cloud of colourful smoke … perfect for a late-night gig!!
Day three brought even more meetings with labels, agents, managers and artists – all really interesting and good, but I had to take a break in the afternoon to go and hear singer Simin Tander and cellist Jörg Brinkmann performing as a duo. This show was absolutely amazing, it’s simplicity and beauty beyond words and the careful use of electronics only to enhance the songs, was very impressive. Tander is a wonderful singer with amazing control and expression and Brinkmann a sensitive companion to her. The mix of repertoire from early music songs to today is eclectic and extremely well done. Need to check their album, if there is one. Touching.
Last for me was Matthew Whitacker, the 18-year-old Hammond B3 player and pianist with his band, featuring Marcos Robinson on guitar, Karim Hutton on bass and Isaiah Johnson on drums. The perfect end of a busy day … organ grooves and piano fire works! Nothing really new, but extremely well done, down to his version of the Michel Camilo composition ‘Caribe’. The tired-out audience loved it and danced along to his funky grooves. Surely a young artist to look out for .. there is more to come from him!!!
That concludes my report from a wonderful three days in Bremen with old and new friends and the confirmation that jazz is alive and well. For all who want to check out the gigs from Bremen I mentioned above, and more, they are all on YouTube .. check this link: