XJAZZ is the name of an annual festival held in Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin that is home to a large immigrant population. The four-day event is dispersed between a dozen or so venues, all within walking distance of each other. Most of them are rock or dance clubs, but there are also the very striking 19th century Emmaus Church, reconstructed after 1945, and the Lido, built in the 1950s as a cinema.
Of the events I attended this year, the two most striking were both by piano trios. Vijay Iyer’s group (pictured above), completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore, arrived at a packed Lido on Friday night intending to play the usual hour or so after being presented with the German jazz critics’ association album of the year award for their latest ECM album, Break Stuff. Such was the crowd’s enthusiasm that they ended up playing only a minute or three short of two hours.
They began by playing without pause for more than half an hour, and the applause that greeted the closing notes might have gone almost as long had a rather bemused Iyer not manage to bring it to a halt. The response was the same throughout the set as the trio explored complex but irresistible grooves that created and released tension with an exhilarating effect. They played many original compositions, several of which — such as “Hood” — showed off a love of playing rhythmic games, as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons”.
Sooner or later the deluge of creative piano-trio music will dry up, but perhaps not for a while yet. The following evening another interesting group took the stage at Watergate, a house and techno club whose bar looks out on to the River Spree. As the light faded on the water through the windows behind them, the Bosnian-born drummer Dejan Terzic, the Danish bassist Jonas Westergaard and the German pianist Florian Weber created three-way conversations characterised by an astringent lyricism and a wonderful ability to play with full commitment while giving each other plenty of room.
These two trios operate at a dauntingly high level of intellectual activity, but the spontaneous enthusiasm of both sets of listeners demonstrated the music’s ability to warm the spirit as well as stimulate the mind.