My backyard in Berlin: Jazz Focus Festival

This is the first blog entry I’ve written in a really, really long time, but today I feel compelled to do so, not just because it helps me put off doing my taxes that much longer, but also because I heard some extraordinary stuff last night. Following my friend Emanuel Hauptmann’s tip on Facebook, I went to the Grüner Salon of the Volksbühne, a hop and a skip from where I live, hoping to hear his band at 8pm last night. It turned out to be a concert of the Jazz Focus Festival and featured four bands, all of which were prepared to play a full set. I had made plans for later in the evening, thinking the show would be over by 10:30 at the latest, so I never got to hear Emanuel’s band Blofish, but I left promising him I’d be at his next gig in Berlin on February 14th.

The gem of the evening and the inspiration for this blog was the second act, the Michael Schiefel/Stoyan Yankoulov/Edvin Hazic trio. The combo consists of voice, iPad/Mac, acoustic bass, drums, and tupan, a drum found in the folk music of peoples from Bulgaria to Greece and Turkey. Jazz singer Michael Schiefel is himself an entire orchestra of sounds even without the iPad he uses to add fourths and fifths above and below his voice or to adjust the reverb. Just looking at him, I would have taken him for one of the less successfully assimilated Berlin-Mitte types: short blond Tintin hair, not-quite-vintage brown jacket, ankle-length brown corduroys, striped sneakers, no chunky glasses, no full beard. As soon as he opened his mouth, however, I realized that this was not a case of failing to look the part; it was a case of not giving a damn because real artists don’t need an image.

It seems as if Schiefel’s voice is an instrument with endless possibilities that he disciplines in order to contain it within the esthetic of his style and this particular blend of jazz and eastern European folk influences. He dances through his performance, playing imaginary instruments in the air: bass, flute, piano, drums. Sometimes he blends into the rhythm section (which is so much more than that in this trio), other times he soars over them in long cantilena lines or speaks his own inimitable scat dialect that can sound like fragments of a Balkan language or the percussion of plucked strings or an ever-changing tongue twister.

As for Bulgarian percussionist Stoyan Yankoulov, virtuosic is not the word. More like effortlessly mind-blowing. Granted, I had never seen anyone play a tupan before, which looks like the kind of drum children draw, just a plain old drum-shaped drum to non-percussionist eyes. It has two skins and two different mallets for hitting each one, a thicker one shaped like a pipe with a sharp u-turn for the upper skin and a thin stick like a long cylindrical chopstick for the lower skin. Standing there straight as an Irish dancer from the waist up, he produces an incredible variety of polyrhythms between his two hands. He plays the upper skin with both delicacy and force, bringing out at least three different pitches, while the lower skin goes off like a tap dancer with a thousand feet. At the end of the solo number he wrote for himself, he held the drum with both hands, letting the top stick bounce up and down like popping corn kernels in perfect rhythm. Almost shameless, this display of superhuman skill.

Bosnian bassist Edwin Hazic was also no slacker in the trio, although he admittedly played more of a supporting role. It is nevertheless a role he plays exceedingly well, switching smoothly from rhythm/harmony to flowing melody, making his pizzicato sing, speak, and cry in an impressive and lengthy solo, a Bosnian folk tune whose title I didn’t catch.

The singer admitted to me afterwards that they didn’t rehearse very much for this program, which testifies to the sensitivity and spontaneity of each of these great musicians. This is a trio I’d like to hear again. And again. And again. It’s also an example of inventiveness, flexibility, fantasy, and raw musical passion I wish we had in classical concerts more often, but that’s another blog. In the meantime, look up these three and go hear them, wherever they play.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *