On a Sunday afternoon, in Berlin’s clubbing district of Kreuzberg, a different type of party was taking place. The twelve-hour Free Spirits music event was a jazzier affair than the usual night out in the rave capital of Europe. Free Spirits was different, not only because house and techno weren’t the main music choice of the event.
The clue was in a stellar line-up that included live performances by Dwight Trible with the Horace Tapscott Ensemble and Astral Travel as well as deejay sets from Gilles Peterson, Four Tet and Floating Points. It was different because rather than a rave that people went to in order to escape, this was a party where people came to feel present – with the knowledge and understanding that Free Spirits was an opportunity to celebrate music, their makers, and to give back to them.
Organised by cross-border promoters J.A.W, the aim of the event was to raise money for the Steve Reid Foundation, a charity started by BBC broadcaster Gilles Peterson. Money raised also went towards rebuilding the Berlin club Festsaal Kreuzberg, which had been recently destroyed in a fire.
The Foundation formed two years ago in honour of American jazz drummer Steve Reid, who had died of throat cancer unable to afford the treatment that could’ve saved his life. Since then the Foundation and its supporters have hosted a variety of events to raise money for musicians in crisis, especially those with life-threatening illnesses. Peterson said, “Money raised from Free Spirits will help saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who underwent a serious kidney operation and is struggling with Alzheimer’s.”
One member of J.A.W, Thomas Vermynck, explained their reasons for putting on the event. He said, “I found out about the stories of how the Foundation came about, the story of Steve Reid, and I was touched by these stories. We decided to do something different than just throwing another party; something that would give back to what the music has been giving us.”
As soon as the Prince Charles venue opened its doors at 3pm, punters steadily trickled in. There were clearly some who were continuing their weekend out from other clubs, and others who were starting their weekend clubbing afresh. Among the early arrivals were Berlin-based, Spanish deejay and producer duo Kyodai. Some people had traveled from afar for Free Spirits, coming in from Poland, France, Italy and the UK.
The afternoon kicked off with the jazzy, funky, Latin and soulful selection from Gilles Peterson and subsequently Alex Barck of Jazzanova fame, dropping classics from the likes of Pharoah Saunders and Herbie Hancock.
A late but significant addition to the line-up was the formidable Rabih Beaini (aka DJ Morphosis), who started at 6pm to an already half-full dance floor of revelers who were mesmerized by his cosmic set, rife with percussive tribal sounds hailing from the distant corners of Africa, India and the Far East.
Born in Lebanon, DJ Morphosis has a good grasp of spiritual jazz and the role it plays in expressing the want of freedom. In an interview with Resident Advisor he identifies Sun Ra as one of his main inspirations. DJ Morphosis says, “When I saw the movie Space Is the Place five years ago, suddenly I understood everything. The improvisation, all the weird sounds, the sax madness, the free jazz. It’s all a language. He screams against the system but he never says it in words or, if he does, it seems more like a complicated thing. But it’s simple. The whole movie is about freeing black people from a state of mind.”
The Italian cosmic jazz-funk band, Astral Travel, skilfully led by drummer Tomasso Cappellato, started the live element of the evening, quickly enrapturing the audience. A female Irish producer who recently moved to Berlin commented, “Quite unique for Berlin. There’s more soul. Real music by real musicians.”
When Dwight Trible and the Horace Tapscott Tribute Ensemble took the stage, they brought us all to church. Trible’s vocals were otherworldly, with an outpour of human emotion that called out to the heavens as though to pave the way for our spirits to be released from their physical anchors and to be lifted to a higher realm. One audience member said, “You don’t see many of the great masters in Berlin that often.”
This ensemble, whose leader Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq currently resides in Berlin, was formed to commemorate another jazz great whom we’ve sadly lost: Horace Tapscott – an American jazz pianist, composer and community activist who founded the Pan African People’s Arkestra in Los Angeles in 1961, of which Arthur Blythe was once a member. The Arkestra was known to have ‘pushed the boundaries of the avant-garde’ through to the nineties.
As the music switched back to the decks, Peterson, Fourtet and Floating Points dropped tunes back-to-back taking the party-goers into the early hours of the morning with their diverse selections of old an new.
The crowd had high praises for Free Spirits. Giussepe, an Italian who moved to Berlin two years ago remarked, “I came here for Four Tet and Floating Points because they have an empathic style of electronic music. Most Berliners listen to techno, which is great for some time, but after a while you want something different. And it’s unique to come to an event that is raising money for charity.”
Another party-goer said, “A day, an evening, a night for the history books. Free Spirits has shown what is still possible in Berlin.”
Hearing the reactions of Berliners, one can’t help but be reminded of the city’s uniquely historical and tumultuous relationship with freedom. Even with Berlin’s current reputation of being one of the most liberal and progressive capitals in Western Europe – a place where artists, musicians, producers and deejays from around the world have flocked to take residence, there clearly was still something they were pining for: diversity.
Free Spirits was by every means an event that paid homage to beloved jazz greats, both still with us and who’ve passed on – to see, to hear, to acknowledge the inspiration that devoted musicians like Steve Reid, Horace Tapscott and Arthur Blythe have given and continue to give so indiscriminately.
Those present would all agree that a musical and spiritual awakening had transpired, making Free Spirits a poignant reminder of the artistic expression and liberal aspirations that many music-loving Berliners are still searching for.