Mark De Clive-Lowe on ÜBERJAZZ \\ The progress of progressive programming

In what has already has been a remarkable year for Jazz, 2017 is ending on a high note; with a number of innovative and multi-dimensional festivals that have been consistently pushing artists on the progressive and genre-fluid end of Jazz.

Le Guess Who? in Utrecht—the Netherland’s mainstay event for musical boundary-crossing—has just ended on Sunday, with an exciting cast of veterans and exciting newcomers alike. Amongst them were Pharoah Sanders, Peter Brötzmann, Shabaka & the Ancestors and Shabazz Palaces.

A weekend later—and via London Jazz Festival—ÜBERJAZZ in Hamburg celebrates its eighth edition. The line-up reads like a who’s who of today’s innovative Jazz scene: Thundercat, Moses Sumney, Sudan Archives, Portico Quartet, Poppy Ajudha, Jamire Williams, Robert Glasper and Christian Scott all feature, next to some of London’s head-turning breed of creative musicians like Yussef Dayes and Zara McFarlane.

Also taking part for the first time this year is Hamburg-based and musician-owned label and collective Jazzlab, who will be doing a special showcase on Friday night. Featuring five groups from the label’s diverse roster they will present the local scene to an International audience.

Just in time, we spoke to festival curator Heiko Jahnke, trumpet player and Jazzlab-co-founder Philipp Püschel. We also go in depth with musician, producer, composer and longtime ÜBERJAZZ invitee Mark de Clive-Lowe about the role and risks of experimental Jazz programming..

“Thinking in categories is something I still avoid” – Heiko Jahnke

The idea for ÜBERJAZZ was born in 2009. “We basically said: Let’s do a Jazz festival and invite all the acts that would normally not play on larger stages—at least in Germany”, says Heiko Jahnke, who’s been in charge of programming since the first edition. “’I didn’t expect Jazz to sound like this’ is a reaction I always get during the two days. Or people come to see certain artists in the line-up, but end up discovering a whole other branch of music”, says the Hamburg-born Jazz head.Jahnke draws influence from the early 90s when he was a DJ at Hamburg’s Mojo Club; a successful offspring of the UK Acid Jazz scene. Jazz, House, Hip Hop and Disco fused together to form a distinctive club culture—“that’s why thinking in categories is something I still avoid, up until this day”, says Jahnke.

Still, up until a couple of years ago, labelling their music as ‘Jazz’ was something most forward-thinking bands would avoid: “Maybe it has to do with Germany, where Jazz seems to have a conservative air to it”, says Jahnke, “and where anything slightly out-of-the-box would not be considered right. Take Herbie Hancock’s later records, for example. That wasn’t considered Jazz”, he recalls. Thankfully though, he’s seen things change in recent years. “Many musicians don’t see the issue anymore. Jazz is part of their DNA, they grew up listening to it.”

A distinctive feature about ÜBERJAZZ has been the pool of artists that have been playing year after year, at times even forming one-off collaborations for the festival; saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is a prime example. He has consistently been a part of the line-up—save for this year, unfortunately—and in 2015, on top of a show with his quartet Sons of Kemet, he teamed up with German musician and producer Sven Kacirek for a special duo performance. “Seeing the development of an artist over time is something we hold dearly”, says Jahnke. Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin is another example. After playing ÜBERJAZZ for the first time in 2014, Jahnke booked them again, because of their powerful live performances. “At that time, they couldn’t have played in front of a large crowd in Germany, they just weren’t that known. And they absolutely nailed it.”

Inviting the world’s most prolific artists can sometimes overcast local talent, however. During the last editions, ÜBERJAZZ had a distinctive lack of Hamburg-based groups. This year, the collective and label Jazzlab, founded in 2015, will set this right by presenting the talent on their roster of up-and-comers.

“We want to build a network that carries a name–Jazzlab–but in the end is a collective effort of all the musicians involved”, says Philipp Püschel. Jazzlab started as a concert series featuring local and International artists but quickly established itself as a monthly event and label, now in its seventh release. “We realised there was a demand in the city for what we’ve been doing–young people showcasing Jazz that is slightly out of the ordinary”, says Püschel.

“the current generation of musicians has some understanding of club music and DJ culture” – Mark de Clive-Lowe

Part of the issue with new Jazz in Germany, he says, is that many people think in target groups: “If you’re doing a Jazz concert, there needs to be a Jazz crowd–which is not true”, he says. Jazzlab has been reaching out to young listeners; people whose listening habits are not determined by specific styles. The label itself has also held close ties to the vibrant local Hip Hop and Punk scene. Püschel believes young Jazz acts can learn from what these scenes have been doing a great job of: upholding a close-knit community who help each other out with booking and promotion. During ÜBERJAZZ, five of the Jazzlab groups will be playing a collective set on Friday night; one of the many performances you should be looking forward to this weekend when eyes turn to Hamburg as Europe’s rising capital for new adventures.

Los Angeles-based keyboarder and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe has been a regular at ÜBERJAZZ; last year he presented his Jazz mash-up project CHURCH. This year, he’ll be sharing the stage with fellow Californians Dexter Story and Carlos Niño. Prior to this year’s edition of the festival, we chatted to Clive-Lowe about the Hamburg festival and the juice behind some of the world’s most impressive music scenes.

\\ There’s been a handful of dedicated festivals pushing experimental and progressive Jazz-related artists in recent years. Tell us about some that stick out for you?

I love playing festivals where the audience has broad tastes—where they are as interested in checking out free Jazz as they are hearing Moodymann or Theo Parrish DJ-ing. Festivals that understand and support how blurred the lines between genres are have become such a breath of fresh air. Jazz always has the risk of being its own worst enemy; when people, or even artists insist it has to sound one certain way, the essence of the music and everything our Jazz heroes fought for is lost. I’ve seen a trend with festivals all over the world gravitating towards the more progressive side of Jazz and see it working when it’s done with integrity and passion.Festivals like ÜBERJAZZ in Hamburg and XJAZZ in Berlin understand how to program in a way that creates a natural synergy between artists, the festival and their audience. Tokyo Crossover Jazz Festival was a great festival built primarily on club-Jazz–unfortunately they haven’t been able to continue. Revive Music, while not a festival, is a big part of the new-generation NYC Jazz community and Jazz re:freshed in London run a great annual festival as well as a weekly event that focuses on young artists pushing the boundaries.

How would you sum up what is happening in vibrant and multi-dimensional jazz scenes like Los Angeles, London or Chicago right now?

I don’t think LA, London and Chicago are necessarily any more or less pro-active in pushing the creative envelope as other cities, but they have benefited from communities of committed creatives working diligently at executing their ideas. In LA, artists like Kamasi Washington have been doing it for decades; it’s just that the world is now taking notice. Similarly in London, Jazz re:freshed has been running weekly shows for over a decade and the seeds for that community and sound were planted earlier by the likes of Gilles Peterson and influenced by the West London broken beat producers. Chicago has an incredible history of genre bending and progressive improvised music and to me, what’s happening there now is just a continuation of the same story.

If there’s one common thread though, it’s that the current generation of musicians has some understanding of club music and DJ culture. We all love hip hop and we embrace technology as a creative tool. In the more progressive cities there’s a letting-go of being precious about what Jazz is and what Jazz isn’t. I love playing shows to a room full of people dancing and getting off on the electronic rhythms while we’re still feeding them interesting and organic musical content along with that. At the end of the day, it’s just music and we all want to have fun with it.

\\ Let’s talk about ÜBERJAZZ–you keep coming back to Hamburg to play with different people. What intrigues you about this festival in particular?

The community aspect of ÜBERJAZZ is always memorable; most of us know each other and are always happy to be sharing a bill together. And those of us who don’t know each other usually can’t wait to meet in person! I think many of the artists that ÜBERJAZZ books are used to being the “interesting” or “young” act on a festival bill along with more conventional acts. For us to be able to both individually and collectively help to tell the story of a festival alongside each other is super special.

\\ Last year you had a memorable set with your project CHURCH, involving a  handful of musicians that joined you on stage spontaneously. How important is that aspect of togetherness when sharing a bill?

Music is a community activity. Especially in this day and age of technology assisted creativity, where so many disciplines can be executed in solitary confinement as long as you have a laptop and maybe an internet connection, opportunities to bring people together to create together are invaluable. My CHURCH project has always been about spontaneity and inclusion. The first time I played with Dwight Trible was at a CHURCH LA event and he felt so taken by the spirit that he just jumped up on stage and took the mic! That’s happened in LA, NYC and elsewhere with people like Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave, Deantoni Parks, Keyon Harold and plenty more.

When it comes to a lot of musicians I know, we met each other on the bandstand, communicating and sharing through our instruments before we even said an actual word to each other. Some festivals promote a sense of hierarchy between artists–like there is the headliner act and the support acts, and they occupy separate worlds both on and off the stage.
At ÜBERJAZZ, it feels more like a hang–we’re all there for the same reason, and if we have time to kick back, hang out and catch up with each other, then that’s high up on the agenda. As musicians who are challenging the status quo of what came before, it’s important that we feel a solidarity together and know that we’re not out there alone battling the old guard.

\\ The festivals we’re talking about are very progressive but they’re still labelled as “Jazz festivals”. How do you feel about that description when it comes to your music?

It doesn’t bother me. One person will tell you Sun Ra is Jazz, while another will tell you Kenny G is Jazz. The best thing is if people understand that it’s a very broad term and that it isn’t limited to any one sound. There’s so many limiting preconceptions about the music that are perpetuated by all sorts of people: record labels, journalists, musicians, educators, listeners. For me the term Jazz gives me an open license to go in any direction I like. Whether it’s spontaneous fully electronic dance-floor beats, solo piano experimentation or remixing an artist like Dexter Story live on stage, it’s all equally creative and aligned with what Jazz is to me. Now someone else listening might hear it differently, and that’s their prerogative–I’m not mad at that at all.

\\ Would you agree that a lot of young people attending ÜBERJAZZ and like-minded festivals may have just dipped into Jazz by following artists like Kamasi Washington?

It’s great that artists like Kamasi or Christian Scott have such a massive platform right now; they’re reaching more new ears and imaginations than the numerous reissues that the legacy labels bless us with. People want to hear music they can relate to–sonically, stylistically, generationally. They need to be able to connect with it in some personal way. I’m a huge fan of the music that inspired us all, and I don’t think any of us are trying to disparage the timeless and peerless work that preceded us. It’s hard to convince a 20-year-old who loves listening to contemporary music that some Miles or Trane record is worthy of their time–hopefully they’ll come to that conclusion themselves after they’ve moshed at a Makaya McCraven gig or sweated out on the dancefloor with me at CHURCH.

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EZH | Ken Münster