Last night’s concert at the Tollhaus in Karlsruhe marked an important landmark. The SWR New Jazz Meeting is among the many institutions still in existence – JazzFest Berlin and the world’s biggest selling jazz book das JazzBuch – that are the direct legacy of that energetic and massively influential defender and builder of jazz in Germany, Joachim Ernst Berendt (1922-2000). The Meeting started as the SWF Free Jazz Meeting Baden-Baden in 1966 and this was its 50th edition.
As Günther Huesmann, Berendt’s successor in the role of Head of the Jazzredaktion of the broadcaser SWR, emphasized in his introductory remarks, the guiding principle is still very much the same. To invite a group of artists and to give them the time and space – and a studio – to develop new ideas. It was, and is to this day a “celebration of creative musical dialogue.”
The picture above shows just one event from the early history of the meeting. The featured artist for this 2017 golden jubilee was Brasilia-born guitarist Pedro Martins. Martins is in fact the first South American artist to be given the role of curating SWR’s annual event. Berendt had a problematic and shifting attitude towards Brazilian jazz, and the twists and turns of his self-justifying footwork are gleefully tracked by Andrew Wright Hurley in a whole chapter in his recent book The Return of Jazz. There may indeed be some poetic justice in giving Martins this role: Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell even lived in Baden-Baden for five years (which might look like a leg-pull, but it’s true!), and yet he was never asked to do it.
Martins really is something special. The mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda has described him as “the kind of guy who was born ready.” He won the jazz guitar competition at the 2015 Montreux Jazz Festival, where his playing caught the ears of jury members John McLaughlin and Kurt Rosenwinkel. And he has continued to work with Rosenwinkel.
On a first hearing, Pedro Martins’ playing is mesmerising. Whether he is just gently rocking back and forth between a pair of chords as the main harmony instrument in the band, or flying off into fluent and clearly thought-out soloing, or leading an insanely complex Hermeto-ish melodic line on guitar, or even providing backing vocals, there is nothing which ever jars or aggresses or feels other than completely natural in his playing. And there seems to be nothing which stands in his way expressively or technically. He has that insouciant way of getting into a zone where ideas flow. It is about beauty, it’s a breeze, and I found it addictive.
And at those moments when the music has veered off into electronic abstraction (sphärisch is the German adjective du jour for this kind of thing), and when more band members seem to be clicking computer mice and tweaking effects pedals and samplers than actually playing instruments, where the pulse and harmonic anchors have been ditched, and where those of us with jazz ears are sitting and waiting to be rescued… Martins can sketch in a pulse or a chord and it instantly carries all the hope of a ship seen on the horizon, he knows how to draw the listener back in with something particularly beautiful and shaped. In the encore, just for a change, there was no rescue, and with broad conspiratorial smiles all round, the band called our bluff and left us marooned.
For this week-long project, Martins was given free rein to invite the musicians he wanted, and the choice of a wise head from an older generation alongside him, alto saxophonist David Binney, was to prove an inspired one. The doyen of UK jazz critics John Fordham wrote of a new CD by Binney earlier this year, the he “has rarely sounded more at home, either with his materials or his partners” That was the sense he carried in this context playing with younger musicians. He stood his ground in his blue LA Dodgers cap, and delivered cascade after cascade of coherent and masterful soloing. And would then bring things to a stop. And then start again. It was commanding, and totally involving for the listener.
A key member of this sextet assembled for the project was the singer / keyboard player Genevieve Artadi, who is one half of the band Knower. She has worked with David Binney before (video of Edge of the Cliff) and her powerful imprint as vocalist and composer was increasingly felt through the set. She has that capacity to do the impossibly complex and make it sound natural that seemed to be the hallmark of this band. For UK listeners it is similar to the role Brigitte Beraha has in Solstice, another composers’ band not unlike this sextet, but with piano.
I had read in an Interview Artadi’s remark about Knower that “we never know how people are going to interpret anything we do. We’re so deep in it, we feel almost isolated while we’re working,” but that belies the fact that she is no wallflower: Artadi has considerable stage presence and can shape lyrics in a totally convincing way which stays in the mind.
I also enjoyed the contribution of saxophonist Sebastian Gille, originally from Sachsen-Anhalt and now based in Cologne. What I found the most convincing was his working selflessly as a melodic unit in tricky lines with David Binney, reinforcing the contours of a wayward composition, and owning it in the way that players like Mark Turner and Chris Cheek do so well. When soloing, his way of showing all the effort and the work that he was putting in, all the energy and strain he was expending, stood in sharp contrast to the effortless, frictionless way the Brazilians around him were playing. But hey, opposites and dichotomies are good too.
The exremely classy young rhythm pairing of bassist Frederico Heliodoro and drummer/vocalist Antonio Loureiro added to the sense of making the new and complex sound natural, again with that air of being able to contribute to any texture, any feel, no matter how intricate.
What will stay in the mind from this significant celebration, however, is that Martins – and Binney and Artadi and the others – have etched another significant chapter in the history of the SWR New Jazz Meeting.
And if the name of Pedro Martins is not yet familiar, simply give him time: born June 1993, he is just 24 years old.
Fuki’s Tune (Binney)
Better Now (Heliodoro)
Edge of the Cliff (Artadi)
Mad Man ( Artadi / Loureira)
Unsaid (Martins / Artadi)
Waiting for the Blast (Artadi / Louis Cole)
For Us (Artadi)
Nowhere to Go (Artadi)
Encore: Now What (Artadi)
BAND – Pedro Martins’ Spider’s Egg
Pedro Martins, guitar, vox
Genevieve Artadi, vox, keyboards
David Binney, alto saxophone
Sebastian Gille, tenor saxophone
Frederico Heliodoro, bass
Antonio Loureiro, drums