Jazz and tim-tams: Australia at jazzahead! 2024

Each year in April, jazz industry representatives from around the world gather in Bremen (in northern Germany) for jazzahead! – a three-day international trade fair, showcase program and festival. I decided to head to Bremen for jazzahead! 2024 to see how the event has evolved since my first visit in 2014.

Back then, I remember being awed and slightly daunted by the scale of the event: a huge hall full of booths, over 100 performances, and several thousand delegates from Europe and beyond. Festival and venue bookers, musicians, managers, promoters and representatives from jazz labels, media and cultural organisations came together to share, learn, forge new connections, and cement existing relationships. There was one (excellent) Australian act among the showcase concerts that year – The Vampires – but no official Australian presence at the trade fair.

Tamara Murphy and Shannon Barnett at the jazzahead! Australian booth. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

Ten years on, that has changed. Sounds Australia and the Australian Music Centre now host a dedicated Australian booth at jazzahead!, and coordinate a range of activities for Australian delegates who make their way to Bremen. This year, the Aussie delegates were mostly musicians hoping to build connections within the European jazz scene, as well as a handful of managers, programmers and producers.

The indefatigable Larry Heath (associate producer with Sounds Australia) manned the Australian booth, which also served as a space for informal meetings and a networking reception. Many of the trade fair booths held receptions during the three-day event, often involving alcohol and snacks to entice people along. The Chilean reception offered wine and empanadas to accompany information on their thriving jazz scene; the Scandinavian reception provided akvavit and reindeer meat.

Jazz with a side of reindeer leg, at the Nordic delegation booth. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

The Australian reception offered… Tim Tams. To be honest, I think the lack of grog was a good thing, as it meant that people who turned up to the Australian booth were genuinely keen to connect with our artists and industry folk. I saw Brisbane composer-pianist Sean Foran chatting animatedly with Austrian reedsman Klaus Gesing (a former member of Norma Winstone’s outstanding European trio), perhaps planting the seeds for a future collaboration. Sydney tar player and bandleader Hamed Sadeghi met a festival programmer who expressed interest in offering Sadeghi a spot in his upcoming festival.

It was also great to catch up with several Aussie expats now living in Europe, like Shannon Barnett and Claire Cross (based in Cologne and Berlin, respectively) and UK-based singer Jo Lawry.

Larry Heath at the Meet the Australians dinner. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

On the Friday evening, Larry Heath and AMC board member Martel Ollerenshaw organised a ‘Meet the Australians’ dinner at a local restaurant, where our delegates were seated at tables alongside a curated mix of invited international guests (representing various festivals, venues and jazz organisations). The idea was for musicians to connect one-on-one with some of these industry people in a relaxed setting, rather than via an email exchange or hasty meeting.

I sat at a table with representatives from jazz festivals in Norway and Finland and a music venue in Hamburg, as well as Sydney musician and label owner Jeremy Rose, who has become a regular visitor to jazzahead! since his visit with The Vampires back in 2014. Judging by the enthusiastic conversations I witnessed during the evening, the dinner was a valuable initiative, offering time and space for proper conversations and tangible relationships to be formed.

Jazzahead! also features a number of discussion panels each day; I attended one called ‘The Future of Jazz on the (Public) Radio’. But for me, the main focus was the music — and there was plenty to be heard.

jazzahead! artistic advisor Gotz Buhler and director Sybille Kornitschky. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

The 40 showcase concerts were held in three venues: two rooms within the Messe Bremen conference centre (also the site of the trade fair), and the nearby Kulturzentrum Schlachthof. The latter is an old slaughterhouse converted into a music venue, and was by far the most atmospheric of the showcase venues — but also the hardest to get into if you didn’t arrive early. Many shows there were literally packed to the rafters, with people crammed into every nook and cranny on seats and bleachers on three sides of the stage. This was especially true on the Saturday, when delegates were joined by locals who’d purchased tickets to the showcase concerts. Most of the showcases were 30 minutes long, which meant you could get a feel for each act and still fit in plenty of music across the three days.

Each year, jazzahead! puts a spotlight on one European nation as the event’s ‘partner country’. This year the partner country was the Netherlands, which presented seven showcase concerts and other special events. The Dutch concerts I saw were incredibly varied in both style and scale, ranging from intimate duos to large ensembles.

Ben van Gelder and Reinier Baas demonstrated a wonderfully empathetic rapport in their duo performance, where van Gelder’s airy alto sax intertwined with Baas’ agile guitar lines. Dutch saxophonist Kika Sprangers led a 12-piece ensemble through a terrific set that highlighted her gifts as a player, composer and arranger. Her evocative and often elaborate tunes were brought to life by an unusual lineup that included four vocalists, singing wordlessly to add depth and contrast to the horns’ voicings.

I also saw some exceptional sets by artists from other parts of Europe and further afield. Austrian duo Sinfonia de Carnaval (Anna Lang on cello and Alois Eberl on trombone and accordion) fused jazz, classical and electronic sounds to create a fascinating array of sonic effects. From Germany, Sebastian Gramss‘ Meteors melded jazz with prog rock and sci-fi influences (with our own Shannon Barnett on trombone and vocals), providing an ironic commentary on how we might present our world — and humanity’s treatment of it — to inhabitants of other planets.

Poland’s O.N.E. is an all-female quartet with energy to burn; their playing was precise and cohesive at times, boisterous and free at others. Ariel Bart, a young harmonica player from Israel, gave a mesmerising performance with her trio, the unusual lineup (chromatic harmonica, piano and cello) creating ravishing textures that incorporated intense lyricism and rhythmic propulsion.

The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra teamed up with Marianna Sangita Roe for an enchanting concert where Balkan rhythms combined with Norwegian folk elements, and violin (played by Roe’s Greek father) featured alongside oud, organ, saxophones and ‘joik’, the vocal tradition of the Sami people.

AFRO4 performing at jazzahead! 2024. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

I only caught glimpses of Nigeria’s AFRO4 Band (as I was peering over audience members’ heads in the aforementioned Kulturzentrum Schlachthof), but the sound of their vibrant, Latin-tinged polyrhythms was irresistible.

Friday night was Clubnight, where jazzahead! spreads its tentacles across the city of Bremen to pull in local audiences as well as industry delegates. This year there were more than 70 performances to choose from. I spent the evening at the historic Sendesaal auditorium, built in the 1950s to host concerts and recordings for Radio Bremen. There I saw an excellent double bill from the Netherlands: Alto For Two (co-led by alto sax players Kika Sprangers and Irene Reig) followed by the legendary ICP Orchestra.

Drummer Han Bennink performing with the ICP Orchestra at jazzahead! 2024. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

Drummer Han Bennink — who co-founded the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) in 1967 — has just turned 82, but is still sounding marvellous. He beamed with impish delight as he switched constantly between sticks, brushes and bare hands on his kit, or created rhythms by beating cymbal stands and floorboards. Bennink and bassist Ernst Glerum underpinned much of the music’s direction and mood, which ranged from majestic Ellingtonian swing to playful free-form excursions.

I still remember seeing the ICP Orchestra at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 2006, so it was very nostalgic to see them in such fine form — even without their former leader Misha Mengelberg, who passed away in 2017.

The NNJO performing at the 2024 jazzahead! Gala Concert. | Photo: Jessica Nicholas

My final gig was the Gala Concert on the Saturday night, again focusing on the Netherlands. The theme was ‘jazzahead! Goes Mambo’, and the concert featured the youth jazz orchestra NJJO under the direction of flugelhorn player Maite Hontele. Hontele lived in Colombia for many years and is passionate about Latin music — a passion she conveyed through enthusiastic gestures and expert dance moves as she led the big band through mambos old and new. The young band members captured the spirit and energy of the music with verve and precision, and there were memorable guest appearances by Cuban pianist Ramon Valle and flautist Ronald Snijders.

The gala took place in a giant conference room that was distinctly lacking in charm and atmosphere; but with good acoustics, excellent playing and irrepressibly uplifting music, the concert served as an enjoyable and exuberant farewell to jazzahead! 2024.


The Australian Jazz playlist curated by Sounds Australia for the 2024 jazzahead!

Jessica Nicholas is a jazz journalist and broadcaster based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the jazz critic for The Age newspaper. She presented and produced a weekly national radio show on ABC Jazz, and before that on 3RRR, and is still a guest contributor to both stations.
She regularly serves on award and grant assessment panels for Creative Australia, Music Victoria Awards, Australian Art Music Awards, Australian Jazz Bell Awards and others.