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Friday, 15 November 2019

Julia Hülsmann Quartet at Cambridge International Jazz Festival 2019 : A collective with its own convictions

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 November

This is a review of Julia Hülsmann Quartet, who played at The Bateman Auditorium at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as part of Cambridge International Jazz Festival 2019, on Friday 15 November 2019 at 8.30 p.m.

This performance, on the third day of Cambridge International Jazz Festival 2019 and at the start of its first weekend (as it runs from Wednesday 13 to Sunday 24 November 2019 - this was #UCFF's first gig in the 2019 Festival), was part of a celebration of 50 years of ECM Records (for whom Julia Hülsmann records) - and ahead of her quartet's appearing at EFG London Jazz Festival 2019 :

The Purcell Room in The Southbank Centre
on Sunday 17 November 2019 at 2.30 p.m.

Personnel (alphabetically) :

* Julia Hülsmann ~ pf
* Uli Kempendorff ~ tnr
* Heinrich Köbberling ~ perc
* Marc Muellbauer ~ db

First set :

The set began with a (1) laid-back samba¹ (?), after Julia Hülsmann (on piano) had syncopated and sub-divided the rhythmic-pattern of the opening material, and we had accommodated to the discord of its note-sequences. Although Hülsmann is nominally the leader of the quartet, this collective of player / composers dispenses largely with the notion of someone who determines tempi, the order of solos*, and whether and when they shall be cut short.

So we were arguably to hear as much from Uli Kempendorff during the evening, which we first did as he played a floaty and gently breathy tenor over a firm bass-line, and then moved into one characteristic of, especially, the opening set : runs of a somewhat nervy (not to say Angst-ridden) character. With the return of the initial statement, and its disrupted format, this opening number concluded.

Hülsmann introduced the members of the ensemble, and also (2) ‘Streiflicht’, the next piece (its origins in light, coming from varying directions on a speeding train), but generally not interrupting the playing with an announcement every time – which seemed to work well for everyone in The Bateman Auditorium's near-capacity audience. ‘Streiflicht’, once started, was not to be alone in feeling to evoke an atmosphere that was haunted by the spirit of film noir. By now, one had already realized that these were going to be ensemble works², perhaps seeming sometimes fairly pre-composed (with performers quite attentive to their charts), and therefore not always with such an emphasis on an individual voice and / or individuality, but on timbres and textures.

A segue with (3) some phlegmatic piano material (‘If I had a heart’, whose chord-sequences and their progression might have resembled those of a spiritual ?) led to the first moment when, in (4) ‘Mistral’, Kempendorff ‘broke free’ on sax, and into further restless figurations. (5) Next came ‘Open up’, where the tenor runs were more free and more vigorous, and there was a long solo (still, with no applause) : again, one contrasted the approach with that of many a trio, quartet, etc., where a leader might pass over to a side player for that person to count in a composition or arrangement, but control would mainly rest in one person.

One concession to the usual was ‘a closer’, to leave the set finishing with a climax (though not in the very final bars) : (6) Bowie and Metheny’s ‘This is not America’, which only emerged, first as the melody-line from Muellbauer (on bass), after some tangential harmonizations³. Hülsmann had alluded to the fact that there might be political aspects to the relevance of the song’s title, and Kempendorff’s edgy tones became a very direct and hard-edged assertion, raucous and riotous at times, before the item slipped away into quiet again.

Second set :

This set began with (7) 'The art of failing' – a dreamy sea-scape (as #UCFF reckoned), and then a sort of stasis evoked by the piano. All of which was as a contrast, with Kempendorff to the fore, to the piece’s first tumbling over itself, and then becoming wacky (as well as seeming to resemble at least the nonchalance of Mancini's classic theme for The Pink Panther). The one small peril (except for a reviewer) of ‘two pieces for the price of one’ is that, at some indeterminate point, we had also started hearing (8) 'No gain' : it may not have been as late on as what sounded largely like an Étude for piano, with Shostakovian⁴ turns, but, in any event, we were to end this pair of numbers with tumbling, again, and the spirit of Mancini.

Hülsmann announced two more pieces, by Kempendorff, which were 'You don't have to win me over', and 'Einschub'⁴ : reduced initially to sax and drums, (9) this first piece sounded much more experimental and free, but then changed so that one became aware of another South- or Latin-American¹ influence. Kempendorff’s sax became driving and energetic, and then, at the end, resided in playing a repeated motif. Another repeated motif then opened (10) 'Einschub', with Hülsmann tremulous and obsessive with a tremolo, until turning to laying down a funky groove for the quartet to work with.

Next came (11) 'Wrong song', with a sort of inward type of tenor-tone (such as that with which he had opened the gig) - and as if scoring another unprojected noir (perhaps the stuff of suspicion and confusion ?) : after a build, in volume, and in the vigorous and intense nature of repeated sequences, it eventually culminated.

In the first set, when Köbberling found that he did not have, out front, the chart for the next number, and – pleading eyesight – declined the offer of Kempendorff’s, he went back stage to get his own : to inter-band banter about the regularity of such happenings… When Hülsmann told us that the final number in the set, (12) 'Kolibri 65', was a composition of Köbberling’s, he light-heartedly sought to object to her anecdote why it was named so (Kolibri is German for ‘hummingbird’) :

It had been after Köbberling’s mis-reading (ahem !) the label that gave the make and model of the espresso-machine at the recording-venue for the new album (which had, apparently, been a life-saver (caffeine ?) !). A name as good as any, since the world of music (and track-listings for recordings) probably accommodates less well the name ‘Untitled [and, maybe, a date]’, by which so many an art-work has deliberately been allowed to go, for more than a century ? [Maybe mistakenly, but one imagines nightmarish scenarios for curators, and how they can be sure of safely procuring the loan of the right Untitled by the time when their exhibitions have to be set up ! ?]

This was an up-beat number, with a high crotchet-rate, and also the very rare exception (which proved the rule) where a glance was shared and returned about where a solo might be going, and for how long, but, with a shrug, was accepted. An enjoyable Friday night of jazz ended with one encore (taking us to the blessed number of 13 items⁵), which was 'The Water', by Canadian singer / songwriter Leslie Feist - its treatment echoed the maybe languorous tones with which it had all begun – full circle ?


¹ It may not have been a samba-beat as such, but just to denote a dance rhythm of that kind : please see the comment for 'You don't have to win me over', in the second set (at 9, below).

² This was a gig with neither of the obligatory drum or bass solos, and where the respectful Cambridge audience did not applaud distinct solos on piano and tenor – although there were no run-on into the succeeding matter to preclude it, as is the case with those groups [one thinks of Phronesis last year at Cambridge International Jazz Festival 2018] who might wish to play two or three songs into one piece, and not have applause intervene.

³ Of the kind where, in a conventional gig, there might have been a hint at what came next, and such an emergence would be applauded – as if both to greet it and to demonstrate one’s recognition or approval ?

⁴ As we have 'Shavian', for matters that relate to GBS (or his œuvre), we do not see why not... (Whilst on word creation or conjuring, which – obeying a few rules – the German language famously allows with exceptional facility, we had had another example in the first set, with the compound noun ‘Streiflicht’, which is formed from a combination of ‘Licht’ (‘light’) plus ‘Streif’ (‘roaming’), as described by Hülsmann for 2 (above).)

⁵ A feature of gigs that those who do not try to note, in review-notes, the constituent elements of set-lists may not have had apt occasion to remark upon...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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