Swinging the Konzerthaus

For many fans, jazz should be enjoyed at four in the morning, in a badly ventilated place together with eight other fans, accompanied by a slightly alcoholized beverage… Well maybe…

Other musicians will admit that they prefer the ‘good old’ concert hall where people do listen to their music with due respect. Despite the fact that many of us continue to associate Vienna Konzerthaus with classical music only, almost every big name in the history of jazz has played at the Konzerthaus: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Stéphane Grappelli, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey, and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1928 when jazz was still a novelty, the Konzerthaus was already swinging!

Two are not to be missed.

Quick, name a woman active in the jazz scene who isn’t a singer… Not so easy, huh? Until recently, that is. Since the 1990s, several talented women have joined the scene. One of the most brilliant is Maria Schneider who, just last year, took top Down Beat honors as a composer, arranger and big band conductor.

Despite the financial challenges of mounting a big band, she’s been leading her own for almost 20 years. Yet, the music she and her band produce has little to do with the big bands of the thirties. Classically trained, she also studied with the masters of jazz arranging, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, before developing a style of her own which owes as much to the jazz tradition as to the classical world.

“I love trying to make my big band sound like an orchestra, getting all these subtle colors out of the group,” she said in 2008 in an interview for jazz.com. Rooted in the jazz tradition – importance given to the rhythmical impulse and to improvisation – Schneider’s music appears as one of the most original and personal in today’s jazz: swingin’ but profound, loose in its execution but tightly constructed. In three words: jazzy but classical.

Today her big band includes some of today’s best musicians: trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Frank Kimbrough, she has managed to produce a music which transcends labels and puts her among the ranks of America’s best composers.

Limiting jazz to its African-American components in 2011 contracts what this music has always stood for: “You gotta play who you are.” Since its beginnings, jazz innovators have always added their own voices, constantly widening the definition of what jazz is – sometimes to the chagrin of jazz purists want to keep it the way it was.

Jerusalem-born bassist, singer, composer and band-leader Avishai Cohen did a lot of wood-shedding to learn what he knows about jazz. After playing electric bass as a teenager, he switched to acoustic bass at 20 and went – where else? – to New York to cut his teeth in the vibrant but tough jazz scene there.

“I was very hungry when I arrived there,” Cohen says. “I was open, and I’ve learnt from many different influences … I touched almost anything that was interesting and exciting to me.” At the beginning of the 1990s, Chick Corea gave him his first steady gig, where he stayed for six years, “the strongest building point of my career.” He then felt ready to lead his own band where he’d be able to let his own voice be heard.

“I’m a sucker for a strong melody … something that’s got simplicity in that sense that’s not trying to be anything too much but has an innocence to it,” he said to the magazine Bass Guitar in 2001.

After 11 albums under his name, plus dozens as a sideman, Seven Seas is one of his most accomplished to date, revealing his drive to keep on expanding what jazz is, blending it with melodies from the Middle-East, Andalusian and Arabic flavors without losing the power of rhythm. As the great Charlie Parker said: “If you haven’t lived it, it won’t come out of your horn”.

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