Chapter 1: Jazz on the farm
A small, almost unnoticeable, arrow-shaped sign marked JAZZ confirms that we are heading in the right direction. It’s comical in its candor, especially since we are in the heart of the Upper Austrian countryside and there is nothing around for miles but grassland, forest and a few scattered farms. One of these farms is of great interest to us because it hosts the INNtöne festival, arguably Europe’s best-kept secret when it comes to Jazz music of the highest caliber.
Every year since 2002, legendary musician, record producer and bio-farmer Paul Zauner turns his farm in the small village of Diersbach into the home of one of the most unique festivals in Europe (and probably the world). A giant barn becomes a concert hall where accomplished veterans and up-and-coming names from the international Jazz scene grace the stage over the course of three days (in this case June 6th to 8th), creating a colorful and fascinating musical tapestry.
By the time the first signs of life become visible – cars, trailers and RVs parked on the spacious meadow in front of the estate – we have already been driving through the woods for a while. The place has a surreal feeling, created by the contrast between the loose, unrestrained vibe of what is basically a giant camping spot and the very urban image of men in orange vests directing you to the nearest parking space. When we step out of the car and into the heat of early-June midday we are met by the distant sound of Daniel Nösig’s trumpet and Jure Puckl’s tenor sax. Unfortunately, our long drive prevented us from making the first evening of the festival, so we missed the Friday line-up of James Blood Ulmer with Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra, Mario Rom’s Interzone, Melvin Vines Harlem Jazz Machine ad Chicago Blues A Living History. With me are my wife and in-laws, all fellow jazz-enthusiasts and all excited about the plethora of concerts that await us (in total – including the ones we missed – there were eighteen, a generous offer for any festival). I’m especially excited about one gig in particular. The Music and Myth’s favorite Jazz guitarist, Paul Kogut, is playing later in the evening, accompanied by the incomparable George Mraz. In fact, Paul is the main reason I came to the festival, as I was looking forward to hearing him play and meeting him in person. We had been introduced via e-mail by a mutual friend (shout out to Lindsay Curcio of Brooklyn NY) about a year earlier, shortly before I reviewed his excellent record Turn of Phrase.
Once we pass through the gates we are treated to a picturesque view: to the right, the barn that houses the show and to the left a series of long tables under an enormous tent where people feast on roast pork and beer under the watchful gaze of Mansur Scott. Seated on a chair overlooking the yard, with his back against the wall of the so-called St. Pig’s Pub (which will host the after-party) and his walking staff in his right hand, the accomplished vocalist looks like the Patron Saint of Jazz, watching over the event. I have the honor of shaking his hand and telling him how much I respect and appreciate his work and that I’ve just reviewed his latest record, Great Voices of Harlem. I find out that this festival has “the best food, the best drinks and the best music”. Later in the day I get the opportunity to test and confirm his enthusiastic claims. Meanwhile, inside the barn, the Nösig Puckl Quintet grants the stage to Pablo Held Trio as I search for Paul Zauner to set up an interview.
Chapter 2: Saturday – Pablo Held, Nino Josele, Jazzmeia Horn and Kogut/Mraz
I find my family on the balcony (read haymow). The sound is surprisingly good and the view is really something else but sadly the heat quickly becomes unbearable and we have to look for seats at ground level. I tell my wife that I managed to locate Zauner, who told me that we can do the interview a bit later in the evening, at around six or seven.
Unfortunately, because it’s still early on in the day, people are moving about, either coming in and looking for seats or going out to get a refreshing beer so it’s a bit difficult to properly appreciate this talented young trio’s raw, haunting music. I plan on catching one of their gigs in the near future to immerse myself deeper in their work as their performance has left a good impression on me. I especially enjoy drummer Jonas Burgwinkel’s “controlled chaos” approach.
The change of pace is striking when the stage is occupied by Spanish flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, whose performance is forceful and uplifting. His impressive skill is enhanced by a very capable band: Julian Heredia on electric bass and Guillermo McGill on drums and percussion. The young bassist is a delight; his technique is impressive and his chemistry with Josele becomes immediately apparent. McGill is one of the revelations of the festival with an outstanding performance that makes me definitely want to check out some of his work as a leader.
Up next comes one of the gigs I’m looking forward to the most. Dallas-born vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, fresh out of the the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, has generated quite a bit of buzz, with many people comparing her to some of the great voices from the past. I’m interested in interviewing the young musician after her set and also finding out if all the hype is justified.
To say that Jazzmeia’s performance exceeded my expectations would be an unforgivable understatement. Before I start the praise for this powerful and charismatic singer, let me write about the band a little bit. On stage are the wonderful Kirk Lightsey on piano and the very talented Wolfram Derschmidt and Dusan Novakov on bass and drums respectively. I was excited about Derschmidt especially because his recent work on Great Voices of Harlem is slowly but surely turning him into one of my favorite bass-players (and he just looks like a genuinely nice guy). Needless to say, he did not disappoint.
Now on with the praise for Jazzmeia: She is absolutely delightful. Her stage presence exudes charisma and vitality, but also a deep-routed love not only for the music itself, but for the tradition and the cultural significance of Jazz. The balance between her old-school delivery and her youthful energy really make you feel like you are listening to something special. You can just feel how much she enjoys herself on stage. Her voice is powerful and educated enough to strike that emotional chord, while still maintaining a tiny drop of that rough, raw youthfulness, which goes away with age and experience but which I find particularly refreshing. When you watch Jazzmeia Horn perform you get a palpable sense of the wonderful future that no-doubt awaits this incredibly promising musician. I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to see her at this early stage in her career and in this intimate setting. I look forward to seeing her again.
When her set ends and she exits the building I follow her, leaving behind that distinctive sound of applause from an audience that has been very pleasantly surprised. I catch up with her and manage to get my interview, which you will be able to read on the Music and Myth in the following days. However, I’m not so lucky with Paul Zauner, who suggests we postpone it for the next day in what would for me become the recurring theme of the festival. As the beating heart of this animate event he is understandably busy, approached from all directions by artists, journalists, event staff and guests but I’m determined to talk to him and find out the workings of this one-of-a-kind festival.
I hurry back to my seat because a round of applause announces my good buddy Paul Kogut. When I reviewed Turn of Phrase (which also features George Mraz, who is doing double duty at INNtöne – but more on that later) I used the words “flawless construction and perfect symmetry”. That could easily be used to describe their set. The technique is absolutely flawless. Paul’s fingers barely seem to touch the chords and, in the parts where George is front-and-center, he accompanies him so gently it seems as though his fingers are merely levitating over the strings, producing the equivalent of a guitar whisper. George, of course, is fantastic and drummer Klemens Marktl (filling in for Vinnie Sperrazza who couldn’t make it) shows no signs of the short time he must have had to prepare (but then again, this is Jazz). The trio displays at once the cold, calculated craft of a scientist and the warm fluency of a master storyteller, to put on an immaculate show that the audience does not fail to reward with forceful ovations. My only regret is that it didn’t last longer than the roughly fifty minutes it was granted (the duration of the sets varies greatly).
After the gig I have the opportunity to hang out with Paul for a little while. We talk about a show we were trying to put together in my hometown and which unfortunately fell through, but I do find out that Paul plans to do “more of this” (which I assume means festivals and events in Europe) in the future. Unfortunately I can’t stick around for Raphael Wressnig and Soul Gumbo feat. Craig Handy & Johnny Vidacovich as I have to get back home – a comfortable bed and breakfast in the neighboring baroque town of Schärding – in order to prepare for my interview the following day.
Chapter 3: Sunday – Carlton Holmes, Raul Midon, George & Camilla Mraz
“After the Raul Midon concert, ok?”
Once again I approach Zauner in between gigs and once again he is restlessly running around, trying to juggle his many responsibilities. I nod and make my way back to my seat for the next performance. Unfortunately time constrains made us miss Unterbiberger Hofmusik & Matthias Schriefl and Mathisen-Robin-Borlai. We got here in time to see Carlton Holmes’ solo set. As the New York pianist tells his tuneful story he completely captivates the audience with his hypnotic playing that is as delicate as it is delectable. I have the opportunity to talk to him afterwards and I use the word “hypnotic” to describe his performance. “Good, that’s kind of what I was going for,” he says before he graciously signs his record You Me and I for me. You can read a review of the record on the Music and Myth sometime in the following weeks.
The next scheduled performer is Raul Midon. I’m very excited about Midon because of his spotless reputation as a live act. First of all, let me just say: you know a gig is going to be good when the sound-check guy gets a hearty round of applause. However, nothing could have prepared the audience for the inspiring performance of this incredible songwriter, vocalist and musical multi-tasker (he effortlessly plays his guitar with one hand, a pair of hand-drums with the other while using his lips as a makeshift trumpet when he is not regaling the audience with his angelic voice). This is more than just a fantastic set. The combination of the lyrical power of his music and the magnetism of his personality, which he displays through humorous anecdotes in between songs, turns his concert into a profoundly spiritual experience. Needless to say the standing ovation is so loud it nearly blows the roof off the barn. I’m pretty sure he is already in the dressing room by the time the audience stops cheering. After Midon’s excellent gig I walk over to Zauner, ready for the interview.
“We’re going to get something to eat right now,” he says, and I say “Sure, no problem,” though I’m actually starting to doubt that our interview is going to take place. Clearly, he is busy, and the last thing I want to do is distract him during these hectic moments. I grab something to eat myself and return to my seat. I know Midon will be a hard act to follow but I also know that veteran bass player George Mraz – back on stage with Pavel Zboril on percussions and the lovely Camilla Mraz on piano – will rise to the challenge. Indeed, they deliver a complex, cerebral performance characterized by great chemistry and intuition. The band’s regular set is followed by an original performance of live film scoring, where they provide the soundtrack for the short film “Dance of the Blue Angels” by Czech director Steve Lichtag. The motion picture was touching, if tad too predictably sentimental for my personal taste. Overall it was an interesting, novel experience and the performance was flawless.
The end of this concert also announced the end of the festival for us. Because of the long drive back the next day we have to get home early and sadly can’t stick around for the next acts: Raab/Godard/Heral/Hegdal, Sun Ra Arkestra and Hazmat Modine.
The concerts I did see made me realize the cultural phenomenon that is the INNtlöne festival. Paul Zauner managed to create a living entity, a musical gathering that has remained intimate and small in size in spite of its almost three decades of existence. It constantly showcases outstanding performances from legendary artists and young musicians on the brink of major breakthroughs. The audience itself is a very select, musically cultured crowd, and the bond between artists and audience is heavily emphasized. It is an event in which the myth certainly matches the music. It made me think of the Gărâna Jazz Festival (a similarly rural affair, held in the mountains of Western Romania) in its infant years, before word got out and it started attracting mobs of thousands, not all of whom are necessarily interested in attending a quality music event.
It’s interesting that this never happened to Zauner’s festival. I’m curious if perhaps the organizer is consciously keeping the event at this stage of development but, sadly, it doesn’t seem like I will get to find out this time. I comfort myself with the fact that I managed to take part in this amazing experience and I figure I will ask Zauner for a Skype-Interview sometime in the near future, after the hectic INNtöne days have passed. However, before I leave, I want to thank him for organizing this festival and for graciously providing me with a press pass. I ask my family to wait for me in the car, that I will be back in a few minutes, and I go looking for him. Predictably, I find him surrounded by people, one of whom is telling him about “this great festival in Russia, which I organize and which is exactly like this one”. When Zauner looks at me I take a step forward and shake his hand, prepared to say goodbye when he says “Two minutes, I’ll be with you in two minutes and we can do the interview.”
TO BE CONTINUED
by Andrei Cherascu