BERLIN CALLING: Being in Berlin immediately following Obama Day, it seemed proper to make a pilgrimage to the Rathaus Schneberg, where, in 1963, John F. Kennedy made his legendary goodwill speech with the line “I am a small donut” (one actual translation of “ich bin ein Berliner“). Now, President-elect Obama is poised to make peace with the world, and Germans, like others in and out of the United States, seem jubilant about the possibilities of U.S.-imposed wounds being healed. At the moment at least, visitors to Europe may find a sweeter exchange rate and a sweeter temperament amongst Europeans toward Americans.
On this rainy Sunday in the square before the hulking Rathaus (“city hall”), flea market vendors hawked wares, including old, Berlin wall-era GDR bric-a-brac. One historical landmark visitation deserves another on a lazy Sunday in Berlin, so it was off to the Friedhof Studenrauchstrasse cemetery to pay respects to the grave of Marlene Dietrich, connected by six carnal degrees to JFK. Fresh flowers and ivy mark the spot, with its understated epitaph “Heir steh ich an den Marken meiner Tage” (“here I stand on the marker of my days”). Helmut Newton‘s final resting place is nearby. Also in Schneberg is Cafe Neues Ufer, a hangout of David Bowie during his masterpiece-producing Berlin era (Heroes, Low, Lodger).
Despite the plentiful, dark markers of its WWII legacies, Berlin and the outside world have long had a love affair, especially on the jazz front, as the autumnal Berlin Jazz Festival reminds us yearly. What makes this festival special and sets it apart from the expanding jungle of European jazz festivals? For one, the fest celebrates its off-season, offbeat leanings, and usually slips in some juicy intelligent big band music and bold free improvisation (a scene in which Germany continues to play a strong role). From the former camp, L.A.-based but often Europe-employed composer/arranger Vince Mendoza presented his luminous new Blauklang (also recently-released on CD, on the German Act label), sporting a jazz-meets-chamber ensemble. From the free zone, Berlin’s powerhouse tenor man Peter Brtzmann rattled walls and cerebrums in Quasimodo, the renowned basement club, in groupings including Japanese guitar-and-angst man Keiji Haino.
Swedish flavoring marked this year’s festival-no surprise given the new artistic director, Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren. Landren’s funk leanings meant the program included the Headhunters (without founder Herbie Hancock), Bernie Maupin (formerly of the Headhunters, here playing with his own group), David Sanborn and, yes, even Hancock himself-albeit in a much less slick and crowd-pleasing mode than he has been in so far in his post-Grammy afterglow this year.
But Landgren also invited intriguing Swedish musicians to the party, including the premiere Swedish jazz musician alive, the fluidly virtuosic and coolly lyrical pianist Bobo Stenson, who arrived with a trio, playing music from his great new CD, Cantando (ECM). We also heard a “best kept secret” from Sweden, jazz-art-pop singer Lina Nyberg, who stretches boundaries in the most delightful and quirky-yet-musical way. Both Stenson and Nyberg relied on the artful kindness of the wild, warm, wonderful young drummer Jon F¤it-another name to watch for.
In other Swedish news, the way cool voice ‘n’ drums duo of Wildbirds & Peacedrums also made a popular noise at the festival. (Local note: They hail from the invention-inclined Gothenburg, as does the fab brainy dance band Little Dragon, coming to SOhO on Saturday. They tore up the Mercury Lounge back in April.)
Cultural lines and languages can cross easily in the passport-eschewing world of jazz, as with one of the festival’s most impressive shows: French accordionist Richard Galliano-the current jazz accordion king-was joined by Cuban/Floridian/Earthling piano master Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Czech bassist of note George Mraz, and N.Y.C. drummer Clarence Penn, all of whom were getting along famously. Translators were unnecessary. They, and we, were all Berliners and global citizens, in a good, hopeful mood at this historical moment.
TO-DOINGS: The slow parade of so-called “world music” continues this Friday in the lovably intimate venue of the UCSB MultiCultural Center, with Los Angeles-based Andean music-and-dance group Inca.