Search The Line of Best Fit
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XJAZZ Orchestra Baobab Akim Karpach

XJAZZ! perfectly embodies the counter-cultural spirit of Berlin

17 May 2024, 12:00
Words by Grace Easton

Original photography by Frankie Casillo and Akim Karpach

For 10 years, XJAZZ! Festival has set Kreuzberg aglow, offering a platform for artists to express themselves without restraint and expanding the definition of 'jazz', writes Grace Easton.

Walking into Kreuzberg over the river Spree, yellow trains pass through the turrets of the Oberbaum Bridge. An advertisement that reads 'DILDO KING' slowly rotates overhead. Against the wall of the East Side Gallery, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker share a kiss.

Few neighbourhoods illustrate Berlin's revolutionary streak with such vividness as Kreuzberg, and the independent, counter-cultural spirit of its landscape runs through the heart of XJAZZ!.

“The idea was to develop a jazz festival format which represents a clear antithesis to the established German jazz culture,” states founder and artistic director, Sebastian Studnitzky – also a celebrated jazz musician in his own right.

With over sixty acts spread across eight venues, the tenth edition of XJAZZ! takes place over a full week and plays host to an eclectic mix of international acts and protagonists of the Berlin scene. Swim Good, Expressions, Oshu Records, Cassette Heads, Zig Zag Jazz Club, and the Ukrainian exchange project Jazz Kontakt all host entire evenings as part of the festival. Veteran figures like Bill Frisell and Lonnie Holley also find space in the lineup.

Best Fit was invited to attend the Friday and Saturday of the festival, where thrilling ensembles like Orchestra Baobab (pictured above by Akim Karpach), Nubiyan Twist and Portico Quartet rub shoulders with acclaimed solo artists Shabaka Hutchings, Bex Burch and Sasha Berliner.

XJAZZ aden Frankie Casillo
Aden photographed by Frankie Casillo

The eclecticism of the XJAZZ! curation creates an inclusive and diverse atmosphere. Audiences stretch beyond your prototypical jazz fan (man-with-ponytail count is refreshingly low). We overhear older people say, “Isn’t it nice that there are young people here?” Then we overhear younger people say, “Isn’t it nice that there are old people here?”

As a completely independent festival with no big brand sponsors, XJAZZ! has been able to retain a local, low-key atmosphere. Each venue is dotted within strolling distance from one another, making it an easy festival to navigate for Berlin newcomers. Despite the local feel, there are luxe touches throughout: an oyster bar, natural wine tasting, and highly covetable merch illustrated by local artist Hans Berger.

Outside on the open-air stage, Ghanaian artist Florence Adooni, queen of Frafra gospel, bursts with charm and soul. Raised in Kumasi, the central locus of high-life music, Adooni sings her praises on a very personal Frafra groove. “This music is for your soul,” she tells the crowd, her band clad in tiger-print satin. Polyrhythmic percussion, delicate brass, psychedelic funk guitar, synths and Adooni's gospel voice gets even the most austere jazz heads dancing.

XJAZZ Shabaka Akim Karpach
Shabaka Hutchings photographed by Akim Karpach

Over on the main stage we find UK instrumentalists Portico Quartet, whose set possesses a distinctive Berliner lilt. Duncan Bellamy’s impossibly quick percussion makes for a kind of jazz that wouldn’t feel out of place at a club. Improvisational elements blister against the formal structure of electronic beats. Next door, Ricardo Villalobos’ jazz project, Gang of Wolves, closes out the evening, with collaborator Wolfgang Haffner beating his xylophone with dizzying abandon. It's experimental, liberated, Lynchian. In other words, exactly what you want to listen to as Berlin falls dark.

Stumbling back to the hotel, wandering through the inebriated masses gnawing on döner, Berlin feels wide awake. Nestled against the riverbank, ÆDEN plays host to those who don’t want the party to end. On every corner it seems there is another party, another club, another reason not to go to bed. For those with the stamina, the magical Berliner decadence can go on forever. But for slumbersome writers in desperate need of bed, the Michelberger hotel is the perfect refuge. Offering its own programme of music, yoga and a cinema, it’s a retreat for the musically minded looking to share in the local scene.

XJAZZ2024 11 05 Nubiyan Twist by Akim Karpach 165
Nubiyan Twist photographed by Akim Karpach

Saturday sees nine-piece Nubiyan Twist introduce the audience to their latest album Find Your Flame. They’re the perfect fit for the spirit of XJAZZ!, deftly pivoting between soul, hip hop, funk and garage. The horn-led melodies accompanied by Aziza Jaye’s vocals make for a sunshine-drenched, good-vibes-only performance radiating unapologetic positivity

It’s a short walk to Emmaus Church at dusk. The belfry towers over the trees, and Norwegian saxophonist Bendik Giske looks like he could live there. A lone figure on the stage, he wears a black leather trenchcoat that falls slightly off his exposed right shoulder, a black halterneck dress and platform heels. Every part of the performance seems considered and intentional. The darkness of the nave is punctured by lights that scan Giske’s body.

XJAZZ Bendik Giske Frankie Casillo
Bendik Giske photographed by Frankie Casillo

In contrast to so much of the lineup, Giske’s work feels defiantly spartan: a solitary moving figure with a saxophone, and that's it. There’s something deeply intimate about his use of the instrument, almost as though we are listening to him breathe. The saxophone repeats itself, lulling the audience into a trance-like bliss – tactile, visceral and transcendent.

For decades now, Berlin has been a place that draws outsiders in, offering refuge and a call to imagination for artists who exist in liminal spaces, and XJAZZ!'s pluralistic approach perfectly embodies that. Even as it grows, both in reputation and size, the festival maintains its core mission to live in the idea of jazz as an attitude and a mindset. Long may it continue.

Visit the XJAZZ! Festival website for more information.

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