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Kiefer, Alfa Mist and Masego: Jazz fusion comes to Berlin

This month, hip hop fusion acts from London and LA breathe life into Berlin's renowned jazz scene.

Photo: Benjamin Askinas

There’s little doubt that Berlin’s jazz scene is in good health. Its two major festivals, XJAZZ and JazzWoche, are staples of the cultural calendar. Renowned clubs like A-Trane, Zig Zag, and Quasimodo compete with smaller salons such as Yorckschlösschen, Donau115, and Au Topsi Pohl to put on an aural spread of free concerts that has seen the city dubbed “the jazz capital of Europe” on more than one occasion.

Yet, by and large, the kind of jazz that you might catch in one of these venues on any given night has little to do with the prevailing currents in the genre on the global scale. On the one hand, it’s an auspicious omen of a well-sustained musical ecosystem with its own endemic sounds, styles, tropes and quirks. On the other, it is a symbol of the insularity and high barrier of entry that is often levelled at a genre with its roots in emancipation. Wherever you stand in this equation, one thing is clear, jazz in Berlin deserves more fans.

So, while Berlin’s jazz scene is doing just fine by jazz club standards, it is perhaps telling that its most popular creators are rappers, whose jazz-infused beats bring the style, the technique and the feeling to an audience that is orders of magnitude larger.

Of the most popular and impressive jazz acts right now – names like Kamasi Washington, Emma-Jean Thackray, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Robert Glasper – none could ever be described as straight jazz. Of all the influences disassembling the ivory tower that has been built around jazz, hip hop is easily the most important.

So, for anyone looking for a more accessible entrance into the world of jazz, three terrific jazz hip hop fusion acts are coming to Berlin from hubs of style LA and London. Alfa Mist is one of the biggest stars of the new wave of British jazz that began around a decade ago and shows no signs of letting up yet. Antiphon broke the mold for contemporary British jazz back in 2017, and on 2021’s Bring Backs, the pianist and MC seems more at home than ever, while still offering fresh depth for the listener. While the influence of hip hop is everywhere across the album, tracks like Mind The Gap are the most successful blends and see Alfa in perfect company with rising star Lex Amor. This is the first chance to catch his new material live since it came out in the spring of last year and well worth the wait.

Then there’s Masego, an artist whose self-described brand of “trap house jazz” might seem like a bizarre communion, but has easily the most radio appeal of any of the acts mentioned here. An accomplished saxophonist – Masego says that he even took up swimming as a child to strengthen his lungs –, there is a minority consensus that places his career at a crossroads. One trajectory might be that of the breakout SoundCloud rapper, the other in pop R&B. But, if the success of similar artists like Thundercat and Anderson .Paak is anything to go by, it’s the ones who can do both that are making the step to the next level.

Kiefer is the final act to catch this month, and his new album When There’s Love Around marks a moment of transition for a musician that has been primarily known as a hip hop beat maker. His jazz leanings are no secret, though, and his presence on the label Stones Throw – once of J Dilla and MF Doom –, home to crossover artists like Madlib and Sudan Archives, gives an idea of his sheer talent. On this album, though, Kiefer is at full stretch and firmly locked into a jazz groove, and he wears it well. Fans of his usual brand of smoke-fuelled West Coast optimism will take a lot from this album, even as it moves in brand new directions.

In terms of the impact on live music here in Berlin, all three musicians do a great job opening up the genre to many more ears. However, while it’s true that serious fans of either jazz or hip hop will no doubt be familiar with all three of these artists, it’s also true that the crossover of fans is relatively small. With two such great traditions already here, the time is ripe for Berlin’s own crop to present itself.

Kiefer Feb 18 Gretchen.



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