Südtirol Jazz Festival

Various venues
26-06-2015 to 01-07-2015

The Südtirol Jazz Festival is based in that part of northern Italy that is right up near the Austrian border in the Dolomite mountains in some of the most stunning scenery in Europe, and is probably the festival in Europe that makes the best use of its environment.

In a recent blog Peter described how the Elb Festival makes brilliant use of the docks and shipyards of Hamburg, and two years ago I described on this site how the Jazz a Luz in France festival creates several spectacular events up in the mountains of the Pyrenees. But the Sudtirol Jazz Festival, I would suggest, goes much further by placing virtually every concert in a setting where the band and the audience are surrounded by the mountains or views of the mountains.

I heard great music in Bolzano, the capital of the region and centre of the festival, in a beautiful garden with a small amphitheatre looking down on the band with the backdrop of the mountains gradually changing colour as the sun went down, and as darkness set in revealing an almost full moon. I heard another band in an attractive square by the monastery in Blixen, outside Bolzano, again with the backdrop of the mountains; I travelled by cable car to hear a voice keyboard duo in a restaurant high up in the mountains looking down on the valley. I listened to another duo on the 4th Floor of the Museion which has a large window behind the band which looks up to the mountains. But, best of all, we travelled for an hour high up into ski country and then walked for 40 minutes to sit beneath a huge slab of rock to hear the Singing Rocks concert which combined jazz with rock climbing.

What’s more, the music is excellent. Klaus Widmann, the director, is committed to contemporary jazz and to creating new work, often by the placing together of musicians from different countries who have not previously worked together. The festival also focusses on the jazz of a particular country and this year it was UK. The festival was branded as UK Sounds with roughly 50% of the programme being made up of UK bands. Most of the bands were London based, but Birmingham did get a look in with Soweto Kinch appearing both with his own quartet and in two specially created bands, Mark Sanders playing with Paul Rogers, and Jerwood Jazzlines Fellow Lauren Kinsella appearing in various contexts. The UK Sounds programme was curated by Ruth Goller who was born and brought up in the region before coming to London, and Kit Downes.

It is difficult to pick out highlights; it was all so good! I should of course begin by mentioning the totally unique Singing Rocks concert that took the whole concept of placing music in a striking setting to a real peak of excellence. The concert paid tribute to the English climbers who were the first to climb rocks in the Dolomites in the 1850s, and the music involved a local choir with 60 men all in lederhosen whose “Alpine” music had been arranged by Matthias Schriefl, a German jazz trumpeter, for a group consisting of saxophones (Soweto Kinch on alto), trombone doubling tuba, trumpet and the magnificent bass trumpet, Alpine horns, guitar, bass and drums. The music was a wonderful mix of Alpine songs, jazz both fairly “out there” and also a kind of crazy traditional jazz with the duo between Matthias on alpine horn and Soweto on rapping vocals a highlight. This was accompanied by various climbers making their way up the huge rock and at various points in the music splitting out in unison from the rocks and abseiling down. At the end the whole band marched down the mountain through the crowd, no mean feat if you are carrying a tuba or trombone.

Brass Mask in Bolzano (Photo © Alison Bentley)

Brass Mask in Bolzano (Photo © Alison Bentley)

Most players had several gigs, either with their own band or with one of the specially created groups.  Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask, a marching band mixing the sounds of Albert Ayler with other more straightahead jazz, have a daily gig in the various towns of the region (the festival finishes tomorrow,  5 July). I caught them on their first day creating quite a stir as they were guided round the Bolzano town centre, especially as they marched through a local bank. Soweto Kinch played in the opening concert which was directed by the Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer, and then was part of the Singing Rocks concert. His own quartet gig in an open square was a great success despite a short rain delay; the quartet had Jay Phelps on trumpet and an American drummer Jason Brown whose duets with Soweto on alto sax created a really high level of excitement. I was also struck by the excellence of Nick Jurd’s contribution and his integration with Jason Brown on drums with whom he was playing for the first time, I believe.

Lauren Kinsella was also everywhere playing with Human Spirit, an expanded version of Laura Jurd’s Blue Eyed Hawk, in duo with Dan Nicholls in Keys to the Exhibition and singing with a created band called, very longwindedly,  G7 Great Europe Jazz Conference, a group led by trumpeter Matthias Schriefl featuring three singers, Lauren, Laila Martel from France and Tamara Lukasheva from the Ukraine. The latter was a lovely concert with songs presented by each member of the group and lots of humour with Matthias finishing the concert playing in the venue’s swimming pool.

Paul Rogers and Mark Sanders contributed a very rich and subtle improvised backing to Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times focussing on creating interesting patterns that enriched the viewing of the film rather than attempting to match the humour of the film.

Andreas Schraerer

Andreas Schraerer

This was, however, a festival that really brought home to me how improvising vocalists are now a major part of the contemporary scene. The opening concert led by Andreas Schaerer was full of variety and the sheer range of what Andreas can do with his voice is amazing. He moves from almost operatic vocals to creating the sound of different jazz instruments in his trio with guitarist Peter Rom and trumpeter Martin Eberle, then to rapping with Soweto. I was also very impressed with Lucia Cadotsch who sings jazz classics such as Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Don’t Explain and other well-known songs such as Moon River; she sings them in a very gentle, slightly melancholy voice, but is supported by saxophonist Otis Sandsjo and bass player Petter Eldh doing rather crazier stuff around her vocals. It really worked. Laila Martel also impressed; she’s probably the most experimental of the vocalists I heard making full use of electronics to create fascinating soundscapes. I particularly liked her speech-like wordless improvisations that mimicked human conversation. Alice Zawadzki created an attractive range of moods in her duo with guitarist Moss Freed in the garden of the Laurin Hotel.

So I conclude that this was a great festival in a wonderful area that provides plenty of food for thought for UK promoters in its use of the surroundings and its creation of special groups. Also it is wonderful that the UK scene for once gets the opportunity in a European context to show what it can do and what a great scene it is.

Categories: Live review

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2 replies

  1. I should add that various other UK players and bands were at the festival after I left, notably Chris Sharkey solo and with the Shiver Band, Three Trapped Tigers, Matthew Bourne, Kit Downes with Tricko Tareco and Troyka, Julia Biel, Polar Bear, Sara Gillespie, Tori Freestone, Strobes, Alex Bonney, Melt Yourself Down, Chris Montague playing with the local Mirko Pedrotti Quintet and Troyka, Tim Giles. While I was there, I had the privilege of hearing part of a rehearsal of the Killing Popes quartet with Kit Downes on keys, Oliver Steidle on drums, Kalle Kalima on guitar and Petter Eldh bass; a great hard hitting band.

  2. Well if we are going to talk about these sort of jazz festivals in really cool settings etc…..Cully Jazz Festival in Switzerland….amazing and best kept secret in the Euro Jazz world.

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