As I reach Sebastian Studnitzky over Zoom a few weeks before the event will kick off, it seems I have caught him on the edge of maximum pressure. It is not that he comes across as rushed or anything, but his whole appearance sparks agitation and restlessness. In quite the best way, no question about it. But he is on the edge of his seat, as far as I can tell. Well, I cannot blame the man, as he is not only in charge of one of Berlin’s most buzzing jazz happenings all year, the end of April also marks the release of his new record Nocturnal, a soothing collection of meditative pieces, breathing the confined spirit of early Covid home office and social isolation feels.
“On the one hand it’s a good timing, you know, to do both the festival and releasing the record. On the other hand, the workload, especially for the festival in the last weeks is just crazy”.
“Yeah, it’s quite a mess, everything. To do both [the festival and releasing the record] at the same time, is a bit crazy”, he laughs. Of course, I can only imagine. And yet it seems, that the tough ride has paid out eventually. His record has just been released the other week and the festival is off to a great start, freshly awarded as Festival Of The Year by the GERMAN JAZZ AWARD. If that isn’t a great boost to kick the thing off already, right?
Jazz For The New Generation
The XJAZZ! Festival goes back to 2014 and as Sebastian rewinds to the beginnings of the project, it does feel like he is talking of a different era of the scene altogether, and that actually might just describe the state of jazz in Germany, as he is not short to underline:
“Back in 2014, the situation with jazz in Germany was quite old school, you know? Most festivals were run by old men, and the audience was mainly old men. It was like, you wouldn’t see young bands on stage… We thought it really needed a festival which was much younger, with younger bands, much more open-minded style-wise and that we do a big crossover between jazz, electronic and all kind of styles that are around jazz somehow… we include styles that are influenced by jazz and that influence jazz.”
Located all around the “very urban and very rough” Berlin-Kreuzberg with its vibrant club sites, this year’s XJAZZ! will feature more than 80 concerts in just a couple of days and thousands of visitors, shuffling between selected venues such as the Lido, SO36, Privatclub or Festsaal Kreuzberg. It is making good use of the club culture of the district, which serves the festival’s ethos to showcase the genre-bending diversity of the jazz genre, hence also the approach “not do that in jazz clubs but in electronic clubs and off-locations”, the musician and organiser remarks.
“The young jazz musicians nowadays they do not only play jazz. They may play in a jazz club and afterwards they go partying in an electronic club. Or they play in a jazz club but they also play in a pop band. This diversity is really part of the scene.”
And what was a bold pioneer move eight years ago, still serves as a good guideline to stay true to the young and the restless spirit of jazz music and its subscribers:
“When we started the festival, we were there just in the right moment, the right time, the right place… we were the first festival who did such kind of programme and then we had such huge success that changed a lot in other festivals.”
As we talk about Berlin as a jazz space, Sebastian is getting to the edge of excitement and it is so refreshing, seeing someone as invested and dedicated to his subject – and to the city. “Berlin is so full of jazz musicians”, he inserts, “it is kind of like the capital of jazz. It is so full of international jazz musicians, and we found it really important to show that potential of the city”.
“There is so much jazz around. You just needed a new way to communicate it. We kind of found a way to communicate it, that we have a hip and young audience. We started digging and found out there’s really a young audience and there is still no end in sight in that development.”
“The Audience Is Curating The Line-Up”
With more than 80 concerts during the first week of May and featuring, among more than 250 acts in total, the likes of Avishai Cohen, Emma-Jean Thackray, Leona Berlin, Pip Millett, Wanubalé or Jemba Groove, just to name a few. The mindset of expanding and liberating jazz music from its dusty and elitist connotation reflects in the variety of styles that are present on this year’s stages: From Afro-Caribbean sounds, avant-garde hip-hop groups up to expressions of gospel and poetry, the revolutionary power of jazz is coming back to life in ever so multiple shapes and variations.
In that regard, also the actual timetable, with its multiple collisions of shows, mirrors that excess, as Sebastian remarks:
“It is interesting, because we have a complete line-up overkill. Every night there are like 20 concerts and you have to miss shows. We are not that kind of festival, where we as curators are telling the audience what to listen, but we are just giving a collection… actually the audience is curating the line-up, because they can choose.”
And how does the selection process go about in the first place? Well, quite democratic, it seems:
“Some people go for the jazz stuff, some go for the Afrobeat, some go for the experimental. We are presenting a super diverse collection. Our line-up is a teamwork, we are about six people who are taking care of the line-up. So it really comes from all sides. We like each other, we trust each other, and it is a good balance. Somebody in our team knows a lot about Afro-Jazz, another is deep in the UK-hipster-jazz, I am teaching at some universities, so I know the young students, somebody else is dealing with the labels and the big booking agencies… so it’s a very nice, super diverse thing. Usually, if somebody presents a band, we respect each other, it’s not this super intellectual discussion. We are basically showing the diversity of our team, which in a way fits really good to the diversity of the audience.”
Covid, the Ultimate Enemy
As nice it would be to leave the pandemic out of the account just yet, Covid still is one major factor when it comes to planning this whole thing, needless to say obviously. With two digital-only editions since 2020, it was nowhere near certain, that 2022 would mark the live comeback of the XJAZZ! festival. “Two months ago, we didn’t know if we could go hundred percent live, or if it would be a hybrid streaming. That made the planning process really difficult”, Sebastian states. And as happy as that occasion is now, there are some doubts left about how it is all going to roll down, once the doors open.
“There are a lot of question marks still in the air. I really have no idea how the audience will react in the next two weeks, the risk is a bit bigger than in the last years. On the other hand, we can smell there is quite a chance that we are in the right place at the right moment. The situation is like that. Yet, if you are organising a festival, there is a certain point of no return really. At one point, you just have to pull through. Then it’s too late to pull the brakes.”
And what are the hopes from a directing position of the whole thing?
“To be honest, I have no idea how it’s going to be. The only thing I really see is, that it can be a good period for newcomers. Because the old, established are shaken around. I have the feeling that if you do something new, or if you’re a young artist, it is quite a great time now. Because the established also have to start from zero. Maybe the audience will be a bit more interested in smaller things, not super big, not super commercial, a bit more sensitive and quality-oriented, I hope so at least. We started doing Yoga, and cooking, being out of this crazy fast commercial business for a while. So maybe people are a bit more mindful, which could help music like jazz, which is handmade… I have the feeling that the live scene will be back very soon. I was also travelling a bit, playing concerts abroad, it will be back soon. I’m not in the mood for party and super large crowds, I still have to adjust being social after this period of social distance. So I prefer smaller set-ups, like a jazz club, a jazz concert which is not as crowded. That’s my feeling.”
As we turn to his musical output, the release of his record Nocturnal, hitting the shelves and streaming platforms on April 29, the trumpeter and pianist reveals the longterm dedication out of which the eleven tracks arose. “The album was kind of overdue, you know?”, he starts, “I started composing the songs in the beginning of the pandemic, and then there was not really a tour, or a deadline”. Yet somehow, after several delays, Nocturnal was set to be finished before the summer, and why not just in time to present them at the XJAZZ!?
“It feels good to have an album, a finished story in the end. It feels really good.”
Stylistically an incredibly soothing and meditative affair, with the jazzy-electronic tracks flowing about like meditative isles in the storm of time, the whole affair is mostly a lockdown project, as the musician remarks:
“Shortly before the lockdown I started experimenting with playing solo, so it was kind of a perfect match. Just before the lockdown I invested in my home studio, so I could record. So I was completely independent. Of course, after two years of being at home and practicing, playing, composing and streaming, circling around yourself… a solo album is a very logical output.”
After all, despite his XJAZZ! role of artistic director, “it is absolutely the performance side”, that remains his true dedication.
“The festival became a very big possibility to lead it on the right track. Especially in these last two difficult years. My main job is performing and playing though. I really need it. When we are doing this festival, it is a lot about excel sheets and meetings and organising, all that crap. I really need to play some concerts to know why I’m doing all that.”
And to see that kind of dedication to his art, is not only refreshing, it is reassuring and fascinating.
“Right now, the festival is still in a critical situation, we have to make sure that everything runs according to plan and after that I can breathe a bit. My advantage is usually when I play music on stage, I forget everything else. I don’t have a problem switching between the roles. When I play, I play. And then I am completely in it. Even when the times get crazy and stressed, I really enjoy just a piece of freedom on stage. These two hours with no phone calls, not being afraid of forgetting something, forgetting to call someone… just playing piano or trumpet, that feels great. It is a beautiful inspiration. Then I remember why I do all that.”
The XJAZZ! Festival is happening from May 4 to 8 in Berlin-Kreuzberg across several locations.
Sebastian Studnitzky’s record Nocturnal is out from April 29 via the XJAZZ! Music label and there will also be a show happening on May 3 at Emmauskirche from 19:30 on.