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A nice pair of cords doesn't mean it's spring

Markus Schneider on the Berlin Jazz Festival and Total Music Meeting

The Berlin Jazz Festival 2005 ended some time on Sunday night. Unlike in previous years when there were only a very few reasons not to slate the entire event, this year it wasn't all good.

What was bad was that among the huge numbers of fully sold out performances, Jazzrock quickly emerged as the secret thematic focus. This unsavoury blot on the musical landscape with its very unfunky happy-go-Latin funk rhythms, its empty virtuoso demonstrations, and electrified sounds was something you hoped had been buried once and for all in a mass grave back in 1975. Even in its heyday it didn't sound any less musty than what Dave Pike's Soul Jazz troupe (mp3) performed on Wednesday night in Quasimodo. On another stage at the Delphi cinema, the ambassadors of the genre were the music school Turkish rock band Tamburada and the haphazard Enzo Favata Quintett from Italy; in Haus der Festspiele its representatives were the irrelevantly romantic Hüsnu Senlenderici Sextett with their uniform high-pitched synthetic tones and penetrating pianistic flourishes.

It was here on the main stage that much whispered-about Brazilian jazz legend Hermeto Pascoal committed two impressive faux-pas. Before the festival started, the white haired multi-instrumentalist delivered an almighty snub to drummer Han Bennink with whom he was programmed to play a blind-date duo. After just three piano chords and a single snare beat from Bennink, Pascoal broke it all off: the drummer was treading on his toes with his rash playing. And then during the performance later on, Pascoal failed to deliver any evidence to substantiate his diva status. Instead he mustered up a chaotic mass of jazzrock cliches, indulged in some well-rehearsed quirks - water gurgling and musician patting – and every now and then he would tinkle about on the synthesizer a bit.

But Maria Schneider and the Liberation Music Orchestra with Charlie Haden and Carla Bley were good. Their performances proved in very different ways that it is possible to be original with a big band. Haden and Bley like to reanimate their Liberation Orchestra when they feel a need to protest against the American government. This is hardly a cause of concern for the US government but it certainly makes for wonderfully inspired music, which addresses the subject of America though their own compositions and those of others.

Maria Schneider prefers to go for contrast and tension, in the pitch of the wind instruments as well as all-round tempo: a leisurely and warped guitar solo, with its highly individual timing, was by far the best of the entire festival. And there was an utterly captivating duet between a clarinet and a flugelhorn.

It gave the impression that the festival felt very at home in the aesthetically political corduroy glamour of great jazz entertainment. Kitschy but great. This goes too for the elegant Enrico Rava and his communistically-approved Cool Bop. Thrown in almost casually was a fantastic, very free double quartett performance by Frank Gratkowski. And in Quasimodo, when the jazz award went to Ulrich Gumpert and he gave a shining performance, you were reminded not only of jazz's history of socio-political explosiveness in the USA but in the GDR too.

There's little point in moaning about the festival's mainstream orientation: big festivals need big names. But the accompanying programme seemed to have been randomly thrown together and aesthetically muddled. As were two interesting performances which would normally be classified as rock: Bill Frisell's pleasantly kitsch ambient version of Beatles songs which float freely over the upper tones and harmonic colours. And a Lou Reed type song with sounds and string scratching by Steve Piccolo, Gak Sato and a very restrained Elliot Sharp.

Which is why you felt compelled to get back to the Total Music Meeting which unfortunately was taking place at the same time in the Berlinische Galerie. The line-up here was stylistically consistent: freely improvised dialogue only – another art form which is getting a little long in the tooth – music which has nonchalantly freed itself from its traditional jazz roots. At TMM too, the odd musical dialogue fell on its face, but after all, that's the riskiness and beauty of improvisation. It did strike me as odd, though, that a jazz festival which sells itself as tradition-preserving and multicultural, had no Afro-American band leaders - apart from Amina Myers who played at Quasimodo. The TMM, on the other hand, presented the fantastic trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith (as both soloist and in a movingly cautious game that became increasingly confident as it was played out, with the no-less wonderful Günter Sommer and Barre Phillipps) as well as the titanic pianist Cecil Taylor (mighty as ever and playing high-spirited communication games with Tony Oxley).

And this reveals the central conceptual problem with the Jazz Festival, even if it did seem better this year than in the past. But if improvised music is now being presented with more concentration and competence by TMM, if multicultural music has found a roof over its head at the Popdeurope festival and if the young, exciting and experimental music comes under the Club Transmediale umbrella and Rock has plenty of other homes anyway, shouldn't Peter Schulze and his colleagues be thinking very carefully about what kind of jazz they still want to celebrate in their Jazz Festival?

Perhaps it could sound something like the Breakbeat jazz which Vincent von Schlippenbach and Nu Box performed on Saturday in Quasimodo. Perhaps a super cool trumpet is enough today, a nervously humming base from the DJ decks accompanied by some hand-made beats. Maybe you no longer have to invent the clock to give people the time.

The Berlin Jazz Festival 2005 ran from November 2-6, 2005. The Total Music Meeting ran from November 3-6, 2005.*

This article originally appeared on November 8, 2005 in the Berliner Zeitung.

Translation: lp.

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