There was a time when ‘European jazz’ was a cultural tag used principally to differentiate continental improvised music, with its regional folk elements and roots in classical forms, from the more blues-based American tradition. Like all such tags, it tended to create more confusion than clarity. If ECM has been the quintessential European jazz label, for example, does that mean that guitarist John Abercrombie, an ECM stalwart for over thirty years, is a European musician? Hardly.
So what meaning does the term carry in the twenty-first century? Four decades ago, Miroslav Vitous, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and others made their jazz pilgrimage to the US, opening the art form to rich European influences and building bridges that we now take for granted in a globalised culture. Since then, much has changed in Europe, politically, culturally and musically. Some argue that the diversity and curiosity of European jazz, nourished by so many strains of ethnic influence and underpinned by more robust government support, is broader and healthier than the American scene. Others point out that European jazz’s traditional national qualities – glacial Scandinavian, pastoral British, free-spirited Dutch – are themselves outdated, and that we have entered a new era where national boundaries make less sense to musical definition than the free flow of ideas and genres in an interconnected global village.
Well, the world may be smaller, but the openness of European jazz and its audiences still marks it as a distinct entity. Some cultures are better at nurturing improvised music performance and education than others (with Norway perhaps leading the charge), but all twenty-seven countries of the new expanded EU continue to broaden and deepen the jazz tradition year by year.
The 12 Points! Festival in Dublin is a showcase of new jazz in a format as fresh and bold as the artists it presents. Established by the Improvised Music Company three years ago, the festival has a maturity of concept and organisation that turns what could be a risky venture into an accurate barometer of European jazz weather. Taking place at the Project Arts Centre in February, this year’s festival provided the by-now-familiar smorgasbord of pan-European musical fare: twelve bands or solo artists from twelve different countries, all young, all spotted and assessed by promoter Gerry Godley via MySpace and other electronic channels. This year’s verdict? Four nights of discovery, diversity and challenge.
As in the past, the Nordic countries were well represented: the quirky Paavo from Sweden and the rollicking Magnus Fra Gaarden from Copenhagen; the Finnish pianist Aki Rissanen, whose delicately measured and paced set of solo pieces was a festival highlight; and the striking and introspective duo Albatrosh from Oslo, who met the spare constraints of a piano and tenor saxophone line-up with an intelligence and verve that belied their youth.
The richness of Scandinavian jazz and its perennial flowering of exceptional new artists are a tribute to the careful fostering of education and performance support in that region. But this year’s 12 Points! line-up also demonstrated the continental sweep of Europe’s jazz activity. Bassist Giulia Valle, whose quintet is the first Spanish group to have appeared at the festival, brought carnivalesque flavours of tango and flamenco to a set that contrasted nicely with the cooler Nordic bands. The Zapp String Quartet from Amsterdam delighted its audience with tunes that swung, grooved and turned aggressively free as they applied a typically classical instrumental format to jazz material. And the Irish duo Morla, made up of saxophonist Seán Óg and guitarist Simon Jermyn, blended electronica and microtonality with shades of Armenia and Greece to create atmospheric soundscapes that surprised and delighted.
As you would expect from a festival that features emerging talent exclusively, there was occasionally a gap between ambition and execution, desire and experience. Today’s young musicians are technically advanced and open to non-traditional influences, but like youth of any era they can sometimes be over-earnest. The Berlin-based Hyperactive Kid and the Emile Parisien Quartet from France could have taken themselves a little less seriously – and thus allowed their imaginations more freedom to explore beyond the edges of their zealousness. The Polish piano quartet Audiofeeling and the Italian trumpeter Luca Aquino, on the other hand, suffered from the opposite: a lack of ambition and a retreat to the well-trod forms of post-bop and dance electronica respectively. They could have learned something from the English piano trio Curios, whose Brubeckian playfulness alongside a willingness to take risks delivered a set that was dynamic and satisfying.
These dozen acts reaffirmed the growing awareness that 12 Points! is one of the most engaging music festivals in Europe, with the added benefit for audiences of discovering performers near the start of their careers. One of the ongoing pleasures of the festival has been noting the progress of previous participants. To cite just two of many examples, the Bulgarian pianist Dimitar Bodurov, who appeared in 2007, has recently performed at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam following the release of his highly acclaimed CD, Stamps from Bulgaria; vibraphonist Paschal Schumacher, who charmed 12 Points! audiences at the 2008 festival, was signed last July by the prestigious Enja record label.
All twelve concerts were recorded by RTÉ Lyric FM and will be streamed to stations throughout the EU via the European Broadcast Union. Last year, this arrangement resulted in ninety transmissions, ensuring that not just Irish audiences got to enjoy the music. Further good news is that, in 2010, 12 Points!, while remaining an Irish-initiated event, will be held in Stavanger, on Norway’s west coast, home to the Mai:Jazz festival and an area rich in jazz awareness. In 2011, the festival will return to Dublin and then continue to alternate with other European cities. It promises to be a bright future, both for the festival and for European jazz.
Published on 1 April 2009
Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.