“I’m a trombonist. The instrument is incredibly important to me. Whenever I am composing, I’m always aware that it has to feel good when you’re playing it”, says Janning Trumann, delivering the kind of killer quote that event organisers love to print in their programme booklets.
Pithy soundbites aside, that was actually Trumann’s explanation of how he sees his role. He is a jazz composer and bandleader and, over the past five years, has put together an impressive series of productions and ensembles. The high point of his career so far was when he and his octet were filmed playing in the Kölner Philharmonie (Cologne Philharmonic Hall) at the end of December 2020. Even though lockdown measures meant that they were playing to an eerily empty concert hall, they still managed to turn the performance into an almost spiritual experience (which can be seen on philharmonie.tv). Trumann’s suite sounded warm yet haunting, rising up with solemn dignity to give the musicians plenty of room for improvisational flights of fancy. And then there was Trumann himself on trombone – deep in concentration, yet earthy to the core.
Trumann is also a label producer (Tangible Music), sits on the board of the Kölner Jazz Haus initiative, is active on behalf of the Kölner Jazzkonferenz (the political association for the local jazz scene) – and even represents political party CDU on the city council’s culture committee. His father and brothers are farmers so he helped out with their harvest for years. Oh yes, and he’s a semi-professional triathlete as well. He is 30 years old, speaks a mile a minute and, if he keeps up his current work rate, could well retire in five years’ time – were it not for the threat of boredom. “I know”, he sighs, “people keep telling me that I can’t sit still for five minutes”. If you ask him about his artistic mission and credo, he will tell you that he is a trombonist first and foremost. The musicians that work on his projects cover a very wide spectrum. While he sometimes enlists famous names like pianist Simon Nabatov or legendary drummer Joachim Rueckert, there are times when he plays in a piano-less quartet. And then there are his expansive compositions for large groups, such as the masterful “Rise Beyond” piece for sextet. But at the end of the day, it’s all about Trumann’s music. Ultimately rooted in the full tones of his trombone, it sounds anything but restless and hectic.
His music is a prime example of a kind of jazz that breaks with the traditional theme-improvisation-theme form, pushing together the composition elements like a telescope and letting them expand again coherently. That’s what makes it so fascinating: it is harmonically accessible yet unpredictable and refreshingly complex. “I really do see jazz as being part of high culture. And have no problem with it being academised. [Trumann studied in Cologne and New York]. Our society’s understanding of high culture is currently moving away from opera houses and symphony orchestras and becoming more open, more curious and more global – and jazz stands for this development.”
As one of the European jazz cities driving this movement, Cologne is right at the heart of it. “With established venues like Stadtgarten and Loft, and jazz having been taught at the University of Cologne for decades, Cologne has an amazing steadfastness that Berlin just doesn’t have. We can’t compete with the sheer number of musicians in Berlin, but those guys are envious of our infrastructure here. Quite a few musicians are moving to Cologne right now,” says Trumann.
The Cologne jazz scene is pretty much typical of the Rhineland region: modern, style-conscious, tradition-conscious, but neither iconoclastic nor rigidly dogmatic. “Allowing for improvisation within a structure and then giving that structure room to breathe – both of those things inspire one another,” says Trumann, outlining the methods that have also been adopted by many of his colleagues. The scene welcomes new musicians with tolerance, curiosity and the offer of a helping hand: anyone who comes up with new band concepts is sure to find like-minded musicians very quickly. There is only one constant: the boundless enthusiasm for the Miles Davis Quintet of the late 1950s and 1960s. “The Cologne scene is obsessed with that stuff!”, he laughs.
One key component missing in this development so far is that the city has no major jazz festival of its own. As Trumann admits: “You could probably say that the whole year is one big festival in Cologne, given the number of concerts taking place here. The Jazzkonferenz team came to the conclusion that it was madness for the huge Cologne scene to provide the music for pretty much all the festivals in our region but not being able to present itself on its home turf with all niches together in one package!” By 2019, we had managed to convince the city to give us €150,000 to help finance a Cologne Jazz Week for autumn 2021. This is how Trumann ended up with his next job: as the festival’s artistic director. “We want the festival to be people-friendly – an open invitation to everyone to come and get acquainted with today’s jazz.” The aim is to allow the Cologne scene to go head-to-head with international acts, to spotlight collaborations and allow people to connect. There is little doubt that the jazz musicians of Cologne will be able to rise to this challenge. And who knows – maybe they can work a little on their Miles Davis obsession while they’re at it?
(by Felix Klopotek )