It’s 7pm on Friday 2nd March 2018: fifteen centimetres of snow, a bomb scare at Bern station and a votation to suppress the TV and radio licence fee the day after tomorrow. The atmosphere is tense as we head towards Berne's Turnhalle where Jazzwerkstatt has set up headquarters for a short week. The programme of festivities includes South African guitarist and composer Carlo Mombelli, head of the Euregio Jazzwerkstatt big band ; Shane Cooper and Kujua, an ensemble that includes his favorite musicians of the northern hemisphere ; the Synthetic Quartet from Austria who navigate somewhere between hip hop, electronics and jazz.
A festival for musicians by musicians
Warm atmosphere and young audience. As soon as we enter the Turnhalle, there’s no question of finding a conventional jazz club atmosphere here. The PROGR building which houses the Turnhalle (a two-storey performance hall) is an arts centre, a ‘cultural hub’ that also houses artists' studios, cultural offices and cafés. At reception, we find saxophonist Benedikt Reising, one of the three founding members of the Jazzwerkstatt association with his alter ego and fellow saxophonist, Marc Stucki. Later we meet the third founder, singer/vocalist Andreas Schaerer, who is absent from today’s festival organization because of an over-busy schedule. All three are musicians and this is one of the event’s main features: a festival for musicians by musicians.
Originally, it was the Austrian trumpet player, Martin Eberle, who put them in touch with Vienna Jazzwerkstatt, an event launched by local musicians in 2004 to create encounters based on loosely prepared musical exchanges, how to set up a musical label, in short how to collectively take in hand the destiny of a lot of improvisational artists. In 2008, Jazzwerkstatt Bern was born. Eleven years later, it has become an unmissable event for musicians from Switzerland and beyond, enamoured with crazy projects whether big band or solo, acoustic or electronic. Meanwhile, others have joined the constellation of this new kind of ‘jazz workshops’. The latest is the Südtirol Jazzfestival, which has created a collective with a variable geometry, ‘The Euroregio Jazzwerkstatt’, where musicians from Switzerland, Austria, Tyrol, Trentino and Holland can mingle.
A big band like no other
It is precisely this Euroregio ensemble which is the first on the line-up on Friday night in Bern, performing compositions of Carlo Mombelli who also directs the orchestra. From the start we are propelled into a bubbling, powerful world. Carlo Mombelli pays tribute to Joni Mitchell as well as performs a great ode to religions. He is surrounded by twelve musicians in an unusual configuration: two drums, shambolic saxophones and clarinets, an electric and acoustic bass, plus a vibraphone. He directs them with his fingertips and his whole body, stamping, trampling and dancing. The intensity is crazy, really giving the impression that Mombelli conjures up both telluric and cosmic forces. His music defies all stylistic categorization and acts as a catalyst for his musicians. They play with eager, for example the Italo-English Ruth Goller who launches into an astonishing electric bass solo.
South Africain connection
Later on that evening, Mombelli confirms : "I don’t usually reach such intensity when I play in Europe. Whereas in South Africa we always play as if it were our last concert. I am a self-taught musician, I’ve composed hundreds of songs without ever sitting at my desk. I connect with my experiences, with the earth. I want to create an atmosphere, touch the spirits. Music is a magical experience, a miracle."
This South African connection is particularly present in this edition. South African bassist, songwriter and producer Shane Cooper, also co-programmer of the festival, offers a rereading of his latest compositions with a European supergroup ‘met on youtube’. The formation includes, among others, Swiss drummer Domi Chansorn, impressive by his metronomic regularity juxtaposed with virtuoso rhythmic digressions which seem nevertheless quite simple.
An ever-growing community
"I find that there’s a particular type of fever and ardor in this South African jazz scene" explains Benedikt Reising. "The music of Benjamin Jephta, Shane Cooper, Thandi Ntuli, Bokani Dyer and Mandla Mlangeni, as well as that of a maestro like Herbie Tsoaeli, radiates warmth and authenticity. This dazzles me particularly through the meaning of melody. Carlo Mombelli is a special case who speaks his own language, but for whom the melody is also a central element. I like sounds, I look for melodies."
The South African connection between Swiss and South African jazz is not new. Several Swiss-African groups are now enjoying careers because of it. Marc Stucki is a member of the Skyjack group alongside Andreas Tschopp, Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper and Kesivan Naidoo. The Rainmakers is a quartet formed by the Swiss bassist, Bänz Oester, with two South African musicians met at the Grahamstones National Arts Festival, plus a saxophonist. In June, Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, the mad sextet in which Andreas Schaerer meets Benedikt Reising, will fly to South Africa to participate in the same National Arts Festival and collaborate with local musicians. In September, Benedikt Reising, is due to return for three months to work more intensively with many of the musicians from this scene thanks to a grant from Pro Helvetia.
Jazzwerkstatt this year wasn’t just about Europe and South Africa. Co-programmer, Shane Cooper, invited a rare group of Moroccan Gnawa women led by guembri player Asmaa Hamzaoui. The latter collaborated with three Swedish musicians from the Cinémascope group for a moment of magical creation. Lastly, the god of the American double bass, William Parker, was also in the game. But how far can these jazzwerkstatts go? Who knows? "It's all a matter of community" concludes South African trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni."