Berlin Jazz Festival Fosters European-American Collaborations
Posted 12/30/2013

European and American jazz musicians have made numerous connections in the past half-century, especially with U.S. expatriates leading makeshift bands in their new countries (e.g., Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen and Paris during the ’60s). At this year’s 39th annual Berlin Jazz Festival (Oct. 31–Nov. 3), however, two unique shows featured collaborations fashioned by European bandleaders enlisting all-star jazz artists from the States.

German pianist Joachim Kühn spotlighted tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in his percussion-heavy, seven-member Africa Connection band, while Polish pianist Michal Wróblewski augmented his trio with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Both transatlantic invites proved fruitful.

On Oct. 31, Kühn’s peppery North African-meets-West African griot program, “Gnawa Jazz Voodoo,” took place at the main theater of the fest, Haus Der Berliner Festspiele. No stranger to recording with American artists such as left-field adventure-seekers Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp (the latter appearing on this year’s Voodoo Sense trio album on ACT), Kühn ignited his rhythm team on the first tune, “Sky,” with a flurry of notes that opened the way for Sanders to exhale muscular, high-pitched melodic lines that climaxed in an exhilarating feat of sax shredding.

While the percussionists (most noteworthy of the bunch being talking-drummer Joseph Bessan Kouassi, who bounded out to the edge of the stage to draw the audience in) kept the steady stream of beats flowing, Kühn was free to converse with Sanders improvisationally—dancing disjunctively across the keys to incite the saxophonist to create a stirring outpouring of lines. On another occasion, Sanders let the rhythms cushion him as he hollered in response while Kühn mirrored the saxophone fillips.

While Kühn’s band on its own is impressive (guembri player Majid Bejkkas was a standout), Sanders gave the set a fresh jazz edge.

Two nights later, on Nov. 2, young pianist Wróblewski marveled at the way Blanchard took his trio to a different plane. The two-set show took place at the low-ceilinged downstairs club Quasimodo, with the young crowd drinking glass steins of beer and grooving to the upbeat tunes. This was a case of an elder giving a master class in improvisation to a cast of already well-schooled musicians (including the solid rhythm team of bassist Michal Jaros and drummer Pawel Dobrowolski) who appeared astounded by the trumpeter’s energetic playfulness.

The seamless collaboration featured Blanchard taking the lead at times and even having the final say once by blowing the last notes on Wróblewski’s “Warsaw Blues,” much to the pianist’s surprise.

Two years after delivering his debut trio album (I Remember, Ellite Records/Fonografika), Wróblewski dazzled on the keys, exhibiting a fine, swinging fluidity on his string of originals. However, the show was dominated by Blanchard compositions, including the ballad “My Only Thought Of You,” where at one juncture the trumpeter played the melody while Wróblewski improvised on it. The only standard of the bunch came at the end of the first set when the trio and Blanchard skipped through “Autumn Leaves,” with each member bringing his expressive voice to the mix.

Both shows presented a rare opportunity to catch American artists in new settings, exploring within the parameters set by their European hosts. Neither player seemed overly challenged, yet they sounded refreshed by this type of experience, which seldom takes place at a festival. The European-American collaboration is just another example of how Berlin’s programming displayed an innovative approach to celebrating jazz by showcasing, as its manifesto attests, “the multifaceted currents of improvised music [striving] for areas of the unexpected.”

Dan Ouellette


Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (center) at the Berlin Jazz Festival (Photo: ©Berliner Festspiele / Ali Ghandtschi)

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