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Ears Germany: Jazzahead 2014

As music gatherings go, Bremen Germany's Jazzahead is proving itself the international conference for all things jazz. It is an annual confab that spotlights the music and mechanics of the industry, attracting artists, labels, programmers, agents and media; in total, it represents the guts and infrastructure of the genre.

Jazzahead's steady growth owes much to the demise of the International Association of Jazz Education. The sudden and unexpected end of IAJE - the fat lady sang in Toronto in 2008 - signaled a serious blow to the business, which was already wobbly from outdated sales practices and a slow-footed approach to new technologies. No one, it seemed, knew how to modernize. 

Jazzahead began showing what it could do, actuated by Euro gatekeepers possessing an egalitarian approach to jazz - that is, the all of jazz, with myriad sub-genres worth celebrating, without any of the parochialism or condescension often heard in American diatribes. That alone made for a refreshing change. Coupled with Europe's prevailing view that jazz's professionals are part of an ecosystem reliant on cooperation and interdependence, we saw a galvanizing new expo in progress.

This year's Jazzahead was the biggest of its nine-year history. It attracted nearly 3000 industry participants and 16,000 paid visitors, while presenting 100-plus showcase performances.

Among the visitors was JAZZ.FM91 station head Ross Porter, who travelled to Jazzahead for the first time. He and I served as jurors, auditioning bands for a select number of those showcases in the Overseas category; other guest judges handled submissions from territories within Europe, including Denmark, this year's partner country.

Of the bands I heard - no, it's not possible to take everything in - two Canadians stood out:  Christine Jensen and Marianne Trudel. Jensen, whose big band was at turns punchy and poignant, is emerging as a leader and writer deserving much wider recognition. I assume her appearance at Jazzahead will help with that. And Trudel, whose pianistic landscapes evince unbridled enthusiasm and wrenching melancholy, lingered with me even after I returned to New York.

Listeners of JAZZ.FM91 will get the chance to hear many of these artists for themselves. A 13-week series highlighting the music of Jazzahead '14 is planned for the summer. It will be a cost-effective way to experience the conference, though it doesn't include the killer sausages and beer you'll find if you cross the pond on your own.

Though Jazzahead's schedule did not include an “official” performance by pianist Fred Hersch, he opened the conference with an unusual performance at the city's Sendesaal, a decades-old radio hall saved from the wrecking ball by Jazzahead director, Peter Schulze. Hersch played a two-hour set in complete darkness. (I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust; they never did.) The room offered nothing but blackness and the sound of Fred. Remarkably, time flew. Compelled to approach the act of listening differently, I sensed that each note suddenly had a shape and dimension not easily accessed in ordinary settings. The experience had everything to do with the redistribution of the senses and it felt profound.

Given the success of the evening, expect other innovative presentations from the folks at Jazzahead. Next year's schedule might already be in the works. Stay tuned.

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Lee Konitz, Savion Glover, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.

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