03 November 2023

Euro kids today

I'd run into Lena and Jakob at the railway station a week before. Lena was the girl with the bass; Jakob had the cymbal bag. They said they were in town to play Ellington and invited me. An Ellington suite at the Koln Philharmonie done by a jazz orchestra was not one to miss. It was a Sunday matinee, 4pm, with the JugendJazzOrkester NRW (Youth Jazz Orchestra of North Rhine-Westphalia) and Kolner Korrende playing Michael Villmow Da pacem and Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts. The jazz orchestra was a standard jazz big band format; the Kolner Korende had me a little confused, but it turned out to be the choir of ~65 behind the band, presumably SATB. There was a conductor, Michale Reif, and two featured female singers, Lilith Marie Walkenhorst and Anna-Karina Barthel. This was not a meagre outing: it lasted over 2 hours with an interval. The first half was Da pacem. It reminded me of Carmina Burana, straight not swung, jazz tones and solos but seemingly a classical conception in a string of movements. Mostly bowed bass although introduced with solo drums, heavy on cymbals, and frequently featuring percussion. My guess is that all the bass was written, although there were featured solos from tenor, trumpet/flugel, trom. Time signatures were varied and counts could be a challenge. Ellington was drastically different. From the first notes, from the first vocal melody, you could feel the inventive melody, the jazz swing, the seriousness but joy of this genius. Swing, delays, feels, offbeat hits and accompaniment, that sweet, despairing sound of reeds, the grandiloquent brass, plenty of spots for solos with players coming up front, some glorious songs with stratospheric female harmonies against choral melodies or calls for freedom or other spiritual claims. I remember the first sung line with some close notes then long rising interval then a tritone drop to finish the line (if I heard right): just pure Ellington. Some beautiful solos from all manner of horns, effective piano and vibes, bass open to improvise and walk, rhythm section letting go a little. Surprisingly with ~65 singers, I felt the choir needed more volume and I would have enjoyed some more dirt on the solo vocals. I was surprised at some immensely mature soloing from these young performers. I spoke to a parent afterwards and the JJO is limited to age 21. In comparison, our classical Australian Youth Orchestra accepts to 27. I was touched by the beauty and the themes and even the humour of Ellington. There was a line in a song about Freedom that "[freedom] even sounds good in the cause of Freedom". Witty. The text was in English, of course, but then these Germans mostly know it anyway. At one spot Lena had a very prominent and significant, if musically short, solo entry; I didn't envy her that but she pulled it off. Then towards the end, the glorious Come Sunday, a tune from one of my fave albums, Archie Shepp Cry of my people, and the depth of Ellington's presence really cuts. My God what beauty and purpose and what an opportunity to be treasured to play this music. A deeply satisfying outing with young performers in a wonderful space. About as good as it gets.

The JugendJazzOrkester NRW and Kolner Korrende performed Michael Villmow and Duke Ellington in the Kolner Philharmonie, Cologne, under Michale Reif (conductor) with Lilith Marie Walkenhorst and Anna-Karina Barthel (vocals). Lena Lorgerg (bass) and Jakob Hein (drums) played in the rhythm section.

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