Berlin big band blows folks out of their seats

B-FLAT JAZZ CLUB, BERLIN — When you can hear a band playing from a block away, you know you’re in for body-shaking evening.

And this band was playing in a basement! In the winter.

The Open Source Orchestra blows listeners away not only with their big sound but also with their joie de vivre — they are clearly having a terrific time playing together, and they share that sense of fun with the audience. Listeners leave with smiles on their faces.

IMG_0873The Open Source Orchestra in Berlin is an anomaly these days — a big band made up of nearly two dozen extraordinary musicians breaking the mould (in my experience, it’s hard to find big bands playing anything but weddings anywhere outside of major cities).

But two crazy musicians decided they wanted to buck the trend and bring back the fun that is a big band experience — fun for the band members and fun or the audience.

“When we play the first note, the audience flies back for half a meter because they don’t know what hit them,” said founder Bernhard Ullrich. “We love the energy and the rawness of the old school bands that hardly translates to today. Even on the recordings, you don’t get the energy that was there. We want to bring that back and to bring that back in a live setting.”

IMG_0915It’s true. Over and over again, before each piece, there is a gleam of anticipation in the band members’ eyes. They seem, and often act, almost giddy about the musical surprise they are about to spring on their audience.

“There are big bands, wonderful bands, but it’s almost like they are too busy reading, too busy playing neatly and perfectly and well and preening the music,” said David Beecroft, the other founder. “I love to do that stuff, but, boy, I certainly love it when the whole band starts to lift off the stage and the guys are excited to play. You do that by giving everybody a chance to do their thing and the spirit comes.

“We told the band before we went on that if the spirit moves you, just do it.,” said Berhard. “It doesn’t matter if something else is going on, whatever’s happening, if you get a musical idea that has to come out, play it! It doesn’t matter if it’s not written there. It doesn’t matter if it changes everything. It doesn’t matter if it screws the whole thing up. It’s even better because then out of that can come new stuff.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

You’ll see moments in the video when band members just take off, exploring all sorts of musical journeys and styles. And if you look at their colleagues’ faces, it’s clear everyone is enjoying that moment of musical expression.

Screen Shot 2017-07-08 at 10.02.52 AM 2“Most if not all of the musicians who play with us went through whatever education, studied their instruments, and can play really well, but what they really yearn for is an extremely long leash and a big band is a body that can give you that — it can give you the foundation from which you can take off,” said David Beecroft, the other founder.

Beyond the musical expressions, the Open Source Orchestra really wants to give the audience an experience they won’t soon forget. “We want them to walk out of there flying out, thinking ‘that was so cool, that was amazing,’” said David. “We want them to have an incredible evening, so that their day is finished really nicely or they go to the next day and still think back on it and feel good about it, because that’s what music is supposed to do.”

The pair came to jazz from two different directions. Bernhard had a father who had different musical plans for him. “For me, in hindsight, it was a fairly simple reason [that I went into jazz]: It was in opposition to my family — more specifically, my dad because I grew up on German folk music,” said Bernhard. “He wanted me to play a Bavarian folk instrument called the zither which could be a very beautiful instrument but it is very limited. So I needed to break out.

Screen Shot 2017-07-08 at 9.59.57 AM 2“I was very lucky to have an English teacher in my gymnasium [German high school] who was a sax player himself and he started a big band in the school. He got people with no previous jazz experience and made it into a really well-sounding big band the first year!  He did it out of his own energy. There was no funding for it. He did it on his own time. The very interesting thing is that out of this big band, and they were all beginners, seven members became professional jazz musicians. And it was not a music school; it was a math and physics school. I started when I was 16, so actually fairly late.”

David’s musical heritage is a bit more traditional: “I don’t even know when I started,” said David. “My dad is a saxophone player and a clarinet player; my brother is a trombone player. So there was always music in the house. Dad had his horn laying around. I would look at it and one day I just decided to try to play it. I had one lesson from dad — he told me where to put my thumb. That was it. He kinda left me alone with it. He just said if you want to do it, then you’ll do it. If you don’t, I’m not going to push you. It’s up to you.

IMG_0896“So I just started listening to the music, and I also inherited all the records his friends would give him that he didn’t like because he was more of a swing guy, so I got the Coltrane records and Eric Dolphy and Miles. My dad hated that stuff. At first, a lot of it was like Chinese music to me, being 12, but I just started listening to it and falling in love with the craziest stuff and then checking out Dexter Gordon. I just started that way, listening to this great music, this really swinging stuff, and loved that whole spirit, it just infected me.”

David and Bernhard and the rest of the Open Source Orchestra infect everyone who hears them play with that some spirit and swing and sense of unfettered fun. If you have a chance to hear them, don’t pass it up!

Members of the Open Source Orchestra:

    • Saxophones: Jan von Kleids, Markus Ehrlich, Nie Leiste, David Beecroft, Bernhard Ullrich, Dirk Steglich
    • Trumpets: Christoph Titz, Achim Rothe, Christian Grabandt, Alan Sommer, JothamBleiberg, Martin Gerwig, Yulio Gonzales, Florian Menzel
    • Trombones/Tubas: Sören Fischer, Gerhard Gschlössl, Friedrich Milz, Ralf Zickerick, Petra Krumphuber, Jörg Bücheler, Nils Marquardt
    • Rhythm group: Roland Schneider, Matthias Trippner (dr), David Hagen, Andreas Henze, Lars Gühlcke (b), Peer Neumann, Wolfgang Köhler Matti Klein

THE VENUE

IMG_0835B-FLAT JAZZ CLUB, BERLIN

This is one very cool joint. You walk in at street level and immediately descend into a surprisingly open, grotto-like basement space with room for dozens of patrons and, obviously, bands of all sizes.

The acoustics are fantastic and they have arranged the tables in such a way that you don’t feel smashed like sardines in a can and, due to the raised stage, you have a good view of the band from every table.

The beer is good (it is Germany, after all), and the service is prompt and friendly. I highly recommend it as a fantastic place to hear great jazz.

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