Despite difficult conditions, communication between musicians from London and Berlin has been going strong for decades.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club © Photographer unknown

Given the international flair that music scenes in European metropoles like to claim for themselves, one could easily assume that Europe’s capitals feature regularly in the touring calendars of bands who have acquired fame and reputation among colleagues, critics and music enthusiasts. But networking initiatives, new creative collaborations and bold event formats often occur far from the established jazz clubs and are mainly owed to the musicians’ readiness to take risks and to travel far and wide to practise their art. For jazz musicians from Germany, conditions for performances in London are particularly difficult, because the fees are in no reasonable proportion to the expenses of a stay in the English capital. All the more reason to welcome the initiative of Richard Williams, artistic director of Jazzfest Berlin, who programmed three evenings of encounters between musicians from London and Berlin as part of the festival. All three quartets will come together for the first time in these constellations, giving insights to musical procedures that are currently being created in London and Berlin for this specific band format. These ensemble formations will demonstrate the manifold interconnections between the jazz scenes of both cities. A perfect occasion to take a closer look at the work of British musicians in Berlin.

Berlin-London Conversations 1

The first encounter on 2 November will represent basic styles of playing free improvisation that have been heard on both sides of the English Channel since the late 1980s. London-based vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, his compatriot, pianist Pat Thomas and the US-American, Berliner-by-choice and guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly were all born in 1960; saxophonist Frank Gratkowski was born in 1963. He played concerts with artists like British saxophonist Iain Ballamy or avant-garde vocalist Phil Minton, and performed with the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO). Thomas and Robinson were among the first members of the LIO, which was founded in 1998 and dedicated itself to free improvisation and the “conduction” method created by the US-American composer and musician Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. Based on the LIO’s model, violinist Alison Blunt, saxophonist Ricardo Tejero and the Berlin saxophonist Anna Kaluza founded the Berlin Improvisers Orchestra (BerIO) in 2010, which counts Frank Gratkowski among his members. Other members of LIO are tuba player Robin Hayward, who has been living in Berlin since 1998, and French horn player Abigail Sanders, who moved to Berlin in 2013 and is also a member of the BerIO. Kaluza and Blunt both play together as part of the Hanam Quintet, along with Berlin musicians Manuel Miethe, soprano saxophone, Horst Nonnenmacher, bass, and Niko Meinhold, piano. Their performances are few and far between, because Alison Blunt only rarely manages to travel from London to Berlin.

While Pat Thomas’ most recent Berlin concert was in 2016, Orphy Robinson last performed here in 2011, at the festival “Just Not Cricket!” At the former Hungarian cultural centre on Alexanderplatz, audiences experienced a packed three-day programme of improvised music from Great Britain, initiated by Tony Bevan, Helma Schleif and Antoine Prum. There were 22 encounters between musicians like Lol Coxhill (1932-2012), Steve Beresford (*1950), Gail Brand (*1971) and Shabaka Hutchings (*1984), who will be a guest at this year’s Jazzfest Berlin. The only Berlin-based musician at “Just Not Cricket!” was British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, who has been living in the German capital since 2008. As a winner of the BBC’s New Generation Artists Award, he was able to commute between London and Berlin. He composed for orchestra and string quartet and had the opportunity to present musicians from Berlin in London.

For his PhD at Edinburgh University in 2012/13, Tom Arthurs investigated the improvised music scene of Berlin. His aim was to designate the established paradoxical perceptions of this music and to show the different styles, conventions, structures and expectations existing in this field and how they determine the relationship between personal freedom and successful collective playing, or between musicians and their audience. By the way, Arthur puts the proportion of women in the scene at 23 percent, which is higher than the 20 percent established in the “Study on the living and working conditions of male and female jazz musicians”, conducted by the Union of German Jazz Musicians in 2016. In 2017, London-born and Berlin-based baritone saxophonist Simon Rose, who also gained a PhD in the field of improvisation, published his book “The lived experience of improvisation: In music, learning and life”. As yet, comparable writings by German-speaking musicians are nowhere to be found.


„This wonderfull corner“ © Jan Oellermann

Berlin-London Conversations 2

Musicians from Berlin’s Echtzeitmusik-scene have been in communication with London’s free improvisation scene since the late 1990s. Guitarists John Bisset (London) and Michael Renkel (Berlin) as well as percussionist Burkhard Beins (Berlin) performed and recorded together. In his Trio Sowari, Beins still plays together with the British electronic musician Phil Durrant; their next concerts will take place in London in November. Composer and sound artist Kaffe Matthews has been actively involved in both cities’ Echtzeitmusik-scenes since the late 1990s. She was Edgard Varése Guest Professor at Berlin’s Technische Universität in 2016 and decided to move to Berlin in 2017. Cellist Lucy Railton, who will be onstage on the second night of the Jazzfest’s Berlin-London Conversations, has also moved to this city. Her duo Tricko, which features pianist Kit Downes, was established in 2013, whereas saxophonist Philipp Gropper’s band Philm was founded in 2011. Railton, Downes and Gropper first met in London in 2014 and Gropper then invited his British colleagues to Berlin to take part in concerts by the Berliner Jazzkollektiv, of which he is a member. Gropper’s band mate from Philm, drummer Oliver Steidle, on the other hand, plays together with Downes in his band Killing Popes, which also features British bassist Dan Nicholls, who lives in both places. Young British bass-player Hayden Prosser, who has been living in Berlin since 2015, invited Gropper to play in his quartet Tether; their album was released in May 2017. Prosser’s contemporary, compatriot and fellow instrumentalist James Banner came to Berlin in the same year and has since become a regular fixture of the scene.

Berlin-London Conversations 3

While Downes and Railton have already acquired an audience beyond Britain, pianist Sarah Tandy will perform in Berlin for the first time. She will be joined by bass-player Daniel Casimir, who released his debut album as a bandleader in 2017. These two young Brits will encounter two musicians who have been playing together twice as long as they have – saxophonist Silke Eberhard and drummer Kay Lübke. Ten years ago, Eberhard released the first album of her trio with Lübke and bass-player Jan Roder; their latest album was released this year. Eberhard hasn’t been to London for a while, but as part of the trio I Am Three, which features trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser and drummer Christian Marien, she has been preparing a project on the music and eloquence of Charles Mingus. The lyrics will be intoned by Scottish jazz singer Maggie Nicols, born in 1948 and one of the first generation of free-minded improvisers in Britain. It remains to be seen whether younger British Berliners-by-choice like Mark Pringle, Phil Donkin or Stephen A.K. Moult will join this infectious spirit of the future or be inspired by the indefatigability of saxophonist Evan Parker (*1944), who will be performing in Germany this November and December as part of the Alexander von Schlippenback Trio. Berlin’s appeal to musicians from outside the city seems to be unabated. If Brexit should become reality, Berlin will be one of the best options for British expats to live on the European continent.

A-Trane Berlin © Berliner Festspiele / Camille Blake


Tom Arthurs: The Secret Gardeners: An ethnography of Improvised Music in Berlin (2012–13), via:

Book premiere Simon Rose: The lived experience of improvisation: in music, learning and life; followed by a discussion and solo baritone saxophone on 23 November, 20.00h at Exploratorium, Mehringdamm 55, (Sarotti-Höfe), Aufgang C, 10961 Berlin.

Translation by Elena Krüskemper

Berlin-London Conversations 1 on  Thu 02 Nov 2017, 21:00, Berlin-London Conversations 2 on Fri 03 Nov 2017, 21:00 and Berlin-London Conversations 3 on Sat 04 Nov 2017, 21:00. All concerts will take place at A-Trane.