BERLIN JAZZ: Like most cities, yet unlike any other city, Berlin bubbles along, continuing on its ambitious and evolutionary path. It oscillates between the old east and west and historic and contemporary aspects. Then, suddenly the city is in prime time and in the world news cycle’s sights again with last week’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of the “fall of the Wall.” On the night before the official November 9 anniversary, I was munching on categorically delicious custom-recipe chicken at a vibey hundred-year-old place in Kreuzberg-on the Wall-hugging western fringe of Soviet-era Berlin-called Henne (meaning “chicken”), enjoying some Bavarian landbier, and pondering the very different Berlin that was in this spot just more than two decades ago.
History can make you dizzy in this city, in myriad ways. Leading up to the much-adoed reunification celebration, based around the fireworked-up Brandenburg Gate, next to the Reichstag, was the now 45-year-old JazzFest Berlin, one of the boldest “off-season” Euro-jazz fests. Its five-day spread was denser than usual, with material and inspirations to the left and right.
The 2009 festival was the second round for still-new festival director Nils Landgren, a fine trombonist and bandleader with a taste for funk-flavored jazz and also big bands. Landgren’s personal tastes naturally filter into the mix, but overall, the 2009 program, like last year’s, offered a diverse survey of the myriad directions making jazz jazz in the 21st century. Funk-wise, Sunday night’s sold-out show featured John Scofield’s juicy, fun, N’Awlins-y Piety Street combo and Booker T. A high point came from jazz’s lower register, in a concert where bassist Eberhard Weber received a festival prize, British avant-garde ace Barry Guy led his New Orchestra, and Dave Holland held down the fort in the great new band Overtone Quartet (with Chris Potter, Eric Harland, and Jason Moran).
This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records (as noted locally with the Blue Note Seven concert at Campbell Hall last January-one of the finest shows in an otherwise too-lean jazz year in town). Berlin got into the tribute act by bringing Blue Note guitarist Lionel Lueke and Terrence Blanchard (who is coming to the Lobero next spring) and his his “Requiem for Katrina” with the Deutsche Filmorchester Babelsberg, plus pianists Hank Jones and Aaron Parks.
Pardon the word association game, but there is something magical about the cult-heroic Norwegian duo known as Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, which duly hypnotized a midnight audience in the smaller Seitenbune room of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Susanna Wallumr,d (sister of the luminous and similarly dream-weaving Norwegian musician Christian Wallumr,d) sings with a cool, entrancing style and adds occasional electronic touches to the one-man, multi-gadget “orchestra,” being keyboardist Morten Qvenild. For cover material, they stirred up new moody enticements around songs by AC/DC and the best version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” ever to hit these old ears.
Norway, not too surprisingly, accounted for some of this festival’s high points (Norway being a hot spot on the global jazz map at the moment). The list included veteran bassist Arild Anderson’s trio and up-and-comer young trumpet notable Matthias Eick and his cool electro-acoustic band, plus an post-midnight set by the intriguing Nordic big band Ensemble Denada, led by trombonist (yes, trombonist) Helge Sunde.
SIDETRACKED: Accidental tourism ranks among the most desirable and, by nature, least predictable of occasions on any traveler’s itinerary. For this sometimes distracted and distractible traveler, it happened while on the short train ride to charming old river-wended Brandenburg (only 45 minutes out of Berlin and well worth the side trip). With mind elsewhere (my favorite place), I accidentally got off a stop too early, in Gro Kreutz. With an hour to kill before the next train amended my error, I walked away from the boarded-up and graffiti-slathered station on a pleasant 15-minute walk to a perfectly pleasant municipality in the Potsdam area, a place otherwise off the travel-guide grid.
Berlin, one of the more affordable of the great European cities, appeals to anyone’s tastes for accidental or intentional adventures. Hanging out just in Charlottenburg, for instance, the tourist can amble from the K¤the-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin in the Fasanenstrae-a pilgrimage to the famed Berlin-based artist and feminist art icon-and stroll along the Unterschleusen by the Zoo-hugging canal to the fairly new Helmut Newton Museum f¼r Fotografie, a place teeming with artful and softly kinky nudes. Voil , from cultural penance to prurience, in an afternoon.