The challenge of putting on a jazz festival in November 2020 would be hard to overestimate. But for four days last week the 57th edition of Jazzfest Berlin presented music to the world with imagination and ingenuity, making the most of the available technology to bring musicians and listeners together in the era of social distancing.
The event’s customary home, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, is currently being refurbished, so the festival’s director, Nadin Deventer, built a digital bridge between her alternative choice of home venue, Silent Green (a repurposed crematorium in the Wedding district), and the Roulette club in Brooklyn. Bands played in both spaces, alternating sets. Forty separate performances totalled 1,500 minutes of music, all of it broadcast via the ARTE Concerts network (and available to view for the next 12 months).
So, for instance, from Berlin we got to hear two of the expatriate American drummer Jim Black’s groups, a trio and a sextet, and the saxophonist Silke Eberhard’s expanded Potsa Lotsa band playing pieces by Henry Threadgill, who was to have been the festival’s special guest until the pandemic made physical travel from the US impossible. From Brooklyn we heard the intense saxophone/piano duo of Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis, the drummer Thomas Fujiwara’s sextet, with Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Mary Halvorson on guitar, the altoist Lakecia Benjamin paying homage to Coltrane, and the pianist Craig Taborn’s new trio, with Halvorson and the drummer Ches Smith. And many others in both locations.
The set that nailed my attention was a 57-minute composition/performance by the British pianist Alexander Hawkins and the Berlin-based Lebanese poet, rapper and visual artist Siska, whose collaboration had to overcome the enforced inability of Hawkins and his two UK-based collaborators, Matt Wright (electronics) and Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet), to travel to Berlin. Instead they recorded their contributions to the piece, with Siska, the trumpeter Lina Allemano and the bassist Nick Dunston located in Silent Green and improvising on the template of Hawkins’s graphic and notated score, with the occasional appearance of film of First and Third World scenes and social rituals on a suspended screen sharing the space with the musicians and a large mirror ball used as a reflective light source.
The recent explosion in Beirut, Siska said, had inspired him to use Arabic lyrics he had written in the Lebanese capital between 2001 and 2008. Allemano contributed strikingly expressive interludes and accompaniments, while Dunston provided sonorous arco playing, a fluid drive when necessary and, to introduce the final section, a memorable solo of his own.
The composition began with plain electronic drones and overtones like something from a La Monte Young installation or a Necks studio album. Slowly unrolling through passages supported by prepared gamelan-like patterns, a clarinet ostinato and the whirring of a 16mm projector, it gradually gained emotional weight until achieving something very like catharsis in its closing passages: imagine, if you can, a fruitful meeting between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Arthur Jafa, with a global perspective. If the meaning of Siska’s urgently whispered and muttered words was inscrutable to non-Arabic speakers, the accretional impact of the whole work was undeniable, at least in this corner of the digital auditorium. Here it is.
* To see recordings of all the livestreamed performances from Jazzfest Berlin 2020, go to https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/RC-020309/jazzfest-berlin/