One of the dividends from three years of going back and forth between London and Berlin was an insight into the phenomenal amount of interesting music being made in the German capital by young musicians of many nationalities. In my first year I went to the Jazz Kollektiv festival in a Turkish theatre in Kreuzberg and heard a trio called Speak Low, led by the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch and completed by two Swedes, the bassist Petter Eldh and the tenorist Otis Sandsjö. While Cadotsch delivered standards — “Don’t Explain”, “Willow Weep For Me”, “Strange Fruit” — in a clear, steady voice somewhere between jazz and cabaret and all the more powerful for a sense of understatement, Eldh and Sandsjö used the extended instrumental vocabularies of free jazz to provide a dynamic underpinning. It felt fresh and creative.
Last night they played in London for the first time in three years, mixing material from their first album, released by Yellowbird/ENJA in 2016, with songs from their forthcoming release, due next year. What they demonstrated was how the strength of the original concept is providing a platform for further explorations. They chose to perform the songs grouped together mostly in twos and threes, so that Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” bled into Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and Brian Eno’s “By this River” prefaced “Wild Is the Wind”. The most ambitious of these sequences linked Henry Mancini and Norman Gimbel’s “Slow Hot Wind” with Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke’s “What’s New” and a real surprise, Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time” (which provided the title track for an unjustly neglected Gil Evans album of the mid-’70s). Other songs heard during the course of the 70-minute set included Duke Ellington’s “Azure”, “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”, Rickie Lee Jones’s “So Long” and, as a delicious encore, Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River”.
Every time I’ve seen them, I’ve been struck by the way they gradually draw an audience into the spell of their music. Sandsjö uses circular breathing and false fingerings to create skeins of feathery-toned notes that can function either as an obligato or a countervoice, while Eldh deploys the combination of strength and mobility that make him one of the most compelling of all current bassists, with the kind of emotional generosity that once belonged to Charlie Haden. Both were given the opportunity to create lengthy unaccompanied passages of startling inventiveness. As for Cadotsch, she deploys none of the usual tricks and only the barest minimum of gestures but relies on the quiet confidence of her delivery to create the tension between her poised, free-floating phrasing and the often roiling contributions of the others. It’s a brave project, but I’ve yet to see it fail to work its magic, and last night at the Purcell Room was no exception.
On Sunday afternoon, in the same intimate South Bank recital hall and also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, another Berlin-based band, the all-German quartet led by the pianist Julia Hülsmann, played a set that came very close to perfection in its balance of thoughtful writing and expressive improvising. Based on the contents of their new ECM album, Not Far From Here, the material included compositions by Hülsmann, the tenorist Uli Kempendorff, the bassist Marc Muellbauer and the drummer Heinrich Köbberling, all of them outstanding. They played two covers: Leslie Feist’s lovely waltz “The Water” (familiar from an earlier album, In Full View) and David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” — which, as Hülsmann gently pointed out, is a song that carries greater resonance today than its composers could have foreseen when they wrote it in 1985 for the spy film The Falcon and the Snowman.