European Jazz Jamboree Berlin, Germany September 18-24, 2009 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the global appreciation of Germany's jazz is arguably finally getting its due, with no small help from the European Jazz Jamboree (EJJ). In its sophomore year, EJJ has quickly garnered attention throughout Europe, and now the States, too, is (and/or should be) taking notice. Founded and run by entrepreneur Ulli Blobel (who a few years ago also started Jazzwerkstatt, a most distinctive jazz record label), this year's festival, sub-titled "Composers & Improvisers" focused overwhelmingly on the music of mostly bygone American jazz legends (11 of 16 booked acts were "tributes," some more successful than others) such as Fats Waller
, perhaps the most impressive feat of this European festival is its devotion to homegrown talent, a mix of living legends and a crop of up and comers, as well as musicians from countries in close proximity who share somewhat similar if not necessarily complementary aesthetics.
Unofficially the festival got under way a day early at the Jazzwerkstatt + Klassik Shop, a quaint street level CD shop and cafe cozily fitting 50 people with natural if slightly boomy acoustics. The wall to the side of the stage featured a dedicated display of Jazzwerkstatt's 70+ deep catalogue of titles, a visually stunning mural effect of exquisite award-winning cover art reflecting bold fonts and images of mostly black, red and white binding the music with Blobel's music mission. Alan Skidmore's recent release S.O.H. Live (with Tony Oxley and Ali Haurand, recorded over 25 years ago in London) was one of those titles on view.
Skidmore's trio expertly and intensely covered the terrain of John Coltrane, his primary mentor in, strangely enough, one of the few unadvertised tributes. German bassist and drummer, Johannes Gunckel and Thomas Alkier respectively, both stuck to the legendary English tenor saxophonist's relentless blazing runs like glue, an easier said than done task. And having only rehearsed (let alone met) together earlier that day in the context of a more expansive Don Cherry large ensemble tribute which took place the following week (more on that later), this threesome's empathy and cohesiveness was not only surprising but inspiring from this first time live meeting. Between sets Skidmore could be heard repeating the word, "Fantastic!" as if incredulous how natural the music seemed to collectively flow forth from the threesome"I feel like we've been playing together our entire life!" With Coltrane arguably the saxophonist's greatest influence as both person and musician (Skidmore's daughter Alice is named after Coltrane's recently deceased second wife and his grand daughter, Naima, after the late saxophonist's first wife!), the trio performed renditions of "Good Bait"(which Coltrane recorded with Dizzy in the early '50s though most memorably on his Soultrane), "On Green Dolphin Street" (a Miles staple which Trane recorded on several occasions with the trumpeter), "Some Other Blues" (the last track of Side B on Coltrane Jazz from 1959), and "Impressions" (which undoubtedly placed Skidmore as one of the obvious though sorely neglected great post-Coltrane tenors for those uninitiated). Latching onto a melodic theme and stretching it beyond with awe-inducing and blistering note runs, and utilizing an extended technique of momentous tones and harmonics, Skidmore rarely took the horn from his mouth. Never taking the conservative route, as was the case with his mentorthe sky was quite literally the limit. (Kudos to festival organizer and promoter Blobel for having the foresight to present Skidmore in his festival's first two editions)