Belgrade Jazz Festival: Belgrade, Serbia, October 25-28, 2012
The informal launch of this year's festival took place one day before the official opening, with a jam session in Jazz Klub Čekaonica. The setting was quintessentially Belgrade-esque. You entered the gray, littered, creepy ground floor of an abandoned building near the Sava River, formerly a printing factory. The weak florescent lighting revealed cement walls covered in graffiti in Cyrillic. The elevator was broken. But Jazz Klub Čekaonica was worth the climb up nine flights of stairs, past empty dark floors. It is a cozy room with views of the river and the city. The jam session was led by an excellent international ensemble, Blazin' Quartet. Tenor saxophonist Joao Driessen, from the Netherlands, and trombonist Michael Rörby, from Sweden, played fresh, forceful neo- bop, driven hard by Bulgarian bassist Mihail Ivanov and Serbian drummer Srdan Ivanović. Vladimir Maričić, one of Serbia's best pianists, sat in. His public appearances have been infrequent in the past year because of the birth of his first child. Maričić is a powerful player. He instantly lit a fire under the evening. (Blazin' Quartet did a killing set in Sala Americana the following night.)
The next night, the opening concert by Miles Smiles, was out of keeping with the rest of the festival. First, it took place not in Dom Omladine but in Sava Centar, a cavernous 4000-seat arena across the Sava River from the old town, in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). Second, the opening act was a competent but boring Balkan rock band, Darkwood Dub. Third, Miles Smiles, unlike every band that followed them over the festival's four days, phoned it in. The personnel was trumpeter Wallace Roney, tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza, guitarist Larry Coryell, organist Joey DeFrancesco, bassist Ralphe Armstrong, and drummer Omar Hakim. They can all claim legitimate, if sometimes brief, affiliations with various bands of Miles Davis. They are all skilled. But, oddly, they sounded less modern than the 40- year- old Miles Davis bands to which they paid tribute. They made no attempt to find fresh perspectives on pieces like Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Cyndi Lauper;'s "Time After Time." It was all head-solos-head, over the rigid, heavy-handed funk of Armstrong and Hakim. To be sure, with so much expertise on hand, some of those solos were entertaining, especially Margitza's and DeFrancesco's. And, to be fair, the crowd seemed to like it.
The night in Sava Centar was the festival's major concession to the demands of commerce and popular taste. As such, it was a success. The main floor of Sava Centar looked quite full. And it should be pointed out that, while many jazz festivals nowadays find it necessary to book pop acts, Belgrade's compromise was a real jazz band, even if it was one on auto-pilot.
Once the big public event in Sava Centar was out of the way, the real festival could begin in earnest. The second night started with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas. Sound Prints is one of the most intelligent, articulate iterations of the new millennium jazz art form. They played original compositions by the co-leaders, all connected, in various subtle ways, to the distinctive aesthetic of Wayne Shorter.