Now approaching its 10th year, Köln’s Klaeng Festival (Nov. 23rd-26th) has developed into a synaptic hub of local and international jazz talents. Fueled by seven musicians with a passion for seeking out the finest in improvised music, 2018’s incarnation brought out the collective’s most eclectic mission statement yet upon the Stadtgarten stage.
Throughout the three-day festival, a number of perennial themes clarified themselves. First and foremost was listening, as quintessentially expressed in the music of Clang Sayne. Led by vocalist/guitarist and principal composer Laura Hyland, the Irish band hung meticulously woven tapestries of song in celebration of life and death. Together with Judith Ring (voice/cello), Matthew Jacobson (drums) and Carolyn Goodwin (bass clarinet), Hyland crafted a tender yet restless atmosphere. Songs like “Thoughts from a Church Pew at a Mountain Cabin” and “The Round Soul of the World” revealed a lifetime’s worth of impressions with dirge-like pathos. Through it all, an awareness of silence as a physical substance of memory prevailed.
David Virelles and Marcus Gilmore showed us the art of listening within to bring meaning without. The pianist and drummer were more than that, as each had a modest arsenal at his disposal—Virelles on his Alesis MIDI keyboard fed with custom samples and Gilmore employing Sunhouse sensory percussion technology—to fill in the finer details.
Either musician could fill a room without these enhancements, which made their tasteful application thereof all the more joyful. Over the course of one long-form improvisation followed by something of a summary encore, the performance cycled through ambient grooves, massive block chords and solo relays in service of pathfinding music blurring the line between compression and decompression.
No mode of listening was as intense, however, as that brought to bear by bassist/vocalist Ruth Goller, whose Skylla (a new group playing its first live gig) gave pause to the relatively denser sound clouds preceding it. Flanked by the precise intonations and occasional aphasic turns of vocalists Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant, Goller proceeded from humble intervals to unravel an intimacy so deep it felt almost blasphemous to be privy to its wonders. Bass kept things grounded in every sense, serving as an interpreter of dreams in a larger feedback loop.
Likeminded inwardness abounded in Of Cabbage and Kings, a local “neo a cappella” quartet who opened for drummer Leif Berger’s sextet and whose spiritual arrangement of Laura Mvula’s “Overcome” gave a taste of what could easily have been an entire concert.
Berger and friends spotlighted a second major theme of the festival: communication. Here the focus was on gestures, motifs and improvisational strategies. Berger’s band was catalyzed by alto saxophonist Fabian Dudek, trombonist Moritz Wesp, pianist Felix Hauptmann, synth wizard Yannis Anft and bassist David Helm. Half of the tunes were so new as to have only numbers for titles. Of these, “Zwei” and “Sechs” evoked an arid, desert-like atmosphere. The moodier “Basilica” was a highlight for its vivid evocation of sun, stone and glass while “Pflanzem,” despite its nonsensical title, proved Dudek to be a sensible improviser.
Further outstanding communication came from violinist Harald Kimmig, bassist Daniel Studer, cellist Alfred zimmerlin and pianist Philip zoubek, who over two long takes fleshed out a fascinating hour of free improvisation. Shifting between contemporary classical music (at times veering into darker, George Crumb-like territories) and jazz (as when Studer rubbed a drum brush across his instrument), every extended technique felt natural and inevitable and proved the humility of a quartet willing to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.
The festival’s communication ambassador, however, was Soweto Kinch. The British alto saxophonist lifted his trio with bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Will Glaser to postmodern heights across a set of six original tunes, followed by a freestyle rap built around words suggested by the audience. Kinch’s forays into hip-hop firmly placed the cornerstones of his politics, worldview and harmony-seeking personality. His original blend addressed salient issues of division without proselytizing, yielding the most audience-aware act of the weekend.
A final binding theme was synergy. Philm set the tone in this regard as the festival’s opener. Comprised of Philipp Gropper (tenor sax), Elias Stemeseder (piano/synths), Robert Landfermann (bass) and Oliver Steidle (drums), the band spoke in poetry rather than prose and brought unforced flow to fruition in chains of subtle explosions. The band carefully framed one scene after another, if only to allow dialogue to flow unscripted. Thus, piano and drums conversed from either end of the stage. Like a spirograph in sound, they embodied a dichotomy of chaos and order, revealing a depth of design in every turn of the cog.
The Buoyancy Band, a new outfit from pianist and bandleader Pablo Held, took synergy to an even higher level. Boosted by the flair of Percy Pursglove (flugelhorn), Kit Downes (organ) and Sean Carpio (drums), Held sparked one beautiful fire after another. Pursglove was a special treat, as his stratospheric improvisations recalled the late Kenny Wheeler in the most heartfelt way imaginable. Downes was another key presence, bringing depth to tunes like “Floater” and a remarkable translucence overall.
Synergy incarnate came in the form of Gilad Hekselman’s Zuper Octave. Joined by keyboard player Aaron Parks and drummer Kendrick Scott, the guitarist closed the festival with mostly original music that was on-point and welcoming. Between the fast-fingered “VBlues” and downtempo encore “Stumble,” the trio made magic seem like second nature. Parks held the most unenviable post, providing basslines on a Korg microKEY while playing Rhodes underneath. Hekselman’s writing represented one of the band’s many strengths. Whether in the beautifully arranged rhythms of “Tokyo Cookie” or relief-oriented “It Will Get Better,” his love of life was as obvious as the smiles he exchanged with his bandmates were plentiful. Theirs was a wisdom of experience most bands would take a lifetime to achieve.
If nothing else, however, 2018’s Klaeng Festival was about sound as substance. This was nowhere so obvious as in the venue’s slogan, printed on the door opening into the concert space: “We eat music.” If so, then everyone was surely nourished to capacity, leaving room only for the dessert of reflection.
(This article in its original form appeared in the January 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)