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A to JazZ Festival 2019

Ian Patterson By

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As powerful as the music was, many will come away with Scott aTunde Adjuah's words resonating in their minds. "We make a lot of noise about jazz being an American form of music," he told the crowd. "This is inaccurate. Jazz is an American form of music in so far as it is an extension of West African music." More thought- provoking still, was his extended extolling of the need for gender equality when it comes to pay. Given the platforms available to musicians, it's perhaps surprising that more don't take a leaf out of Scott aTunde Adjuah's book, and don the robes of socio-political influencer.

A fine set drew to a close with "The Last Chieftan," a rhythmically vibrant, melodically sharp tune that saw saxophone and trumpet weave mesmeric overlapping lines. The crowd coaxed the band back for an encore of Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." This slow-walking version, steeped in the blues, drew cheers from the crowd after each solo.

As thought-provoking as it was musically stirring, Scott atunde Adjuah's performance will long be remembered in Sofia.

Day Two

A to JazZ KIDS Program

On the second and third days of A to JazZ Festival, a shaded corner of South Park II was set aside for a kids' jazz program. A small , kid-sized stage, kid-sized drums, a keyboard and other assorted jazz instruments offered children of all ages the chance to make some festive noise. Several adult tutors encouraged the children, showing them simple rhythms, or for the youngest, simply how to hold an instrument and conjure any sound. Their sound. The atmosphere was super-relaxed and the parents seemed delighted with the set-up.

A to JazZ Festival is a kid and family-friendly festival in more ways than one. On a couple of occasions, between songs, gigs were briefly interrupted to announce a lost child, separated from its parents. People come to A to JazZ Festival knowing that the environment is a safe one and that everybody's well-being is of primary concern to the festival organizers. Musicians too, were appreciative of this caring philosophy, where even the music comes second to reuniting a stray child with its parents, or stray parents with their child.

It is possible, too, that A to JazZ Festival is the cleanest outdoors jazz festival on the planet. At any time during the day, and even at the end of each day with the crowd dispersing fairly quickly, there was barely a trace of litter to be seen anywhere in the park. The company responsible for policing the litter, Antilopa Cleaning Services, did a marvellous job. Every festival in the world should have an Antilopa to keep the shared spaces clean, green and safe.

The spotless environment in which A to JazZ Festival was held contributed much to the relaxed atmosphere. It was possible to throw down a picnic rug, or simply stretch out, absolutely everywhere.

National Music Academy Big Band

Making its second appearance at A to JazZ Festival, the National Music Academy Big Band, a rousing twenty- piece ensemble led by trumpeter/composer Mihail Yossilov got the second day off to a cracking start. A swinging, Count Basie-esque blues number kicked things off, with guitar and alto saxophone to the fore. Vocal numbers from the standards book dominated, with the lush harmonies of Trinity Trio (Slavina Kalkandzhieva, Bozhana Spasova and Miglena Ruseva) on Natalie Cole's sunny "This Will Be" the pick of the bunch. Having risen to national prominence on a national TV talent show, Trinity Trio boasts the sort of star quality that could take it far.

The big band really came into its own on the set's few instrumentals, the collective swagger matched by fine solos on the Gershwins' "Fascinating Rhythm" and the grooving "Hip-Hop-Tropa"—the latter by renowned Bulgarian jazz drummer/composer Hristo Yostov. The Tower of Power's "Digging on James Brown," sung with gusto by Christian Grancharov, and Aretha Franklin's "Think," featuring the wonderful Trinity Trio once more, took the National Music Academy Big Band out on a high.

Dimitar Bodurov

One of Bulgaria's most revered jazz musicians, Amsterdam-based pianist/composer Dimitar Bodurov has gigged and recorded in a variety of settings, from solo piano to collaborations with Theodossi Spassov, Sandip Bhattacharya, Randy Brecker, Didier Lockwood and Michael Moore. This concert, however, featured Bodurov's main vehicle since 2004, a trio with bassist Mihail Ivanov and drummer Jens Dueppe.

This was an all-acoustic outing, though Bodurov's laptop conjured the choral intro to "Penyo Penyo," a striking track from the pianist's Stamp Around (Optomusic, 2015).The choral refrain provided the rhythmic framework for the trio's explorations. Over probing rhythms, Bodurov fashioned an exciting, rhythmically charged solo that revealed his hybrid jazz/classical background. There are more colors to Bodurov's pallete, however, as the baroque-cum-folkloric voicings of "Mamo" elegantly demonstrated.

The folk music of Bulgaria has long informed Bodurov, and his deconstructions of time-honoured tunes on the A to JazZ stage foregrounded melody, while using the same for explorations in rhythm and tempi. In a sense, Bodurov mines similar folkloric terrain to that of France-based, Serbian pianist Bojan Z, and if there were occasional similarities in Bodurov's vocabulary, it is perhaps due simply to the porousness of borders and the fluid, trans-national nature of culture.

Bodurov Trio might be better appreciated in a club environment or concert hall, as the constant chatter and banter of the festival crowd detracted to some degree from the trio's more nuanced interplay, particularly on a gorgeous, keening ballad, complete with pre-recorded vocals. The trio signed off with a flourish on a rhythmically dynamic number characterized by a cantering groove.

An engrossing performance from a pianist, and a trio, deserving of wider attention.

Preyah

Her star having risen via X Factor Bulgaria, Sofia singer Preyah has become one of Bulgaria's best-known pop stars. And this with her debut album still to see the light of day. Backed by bass, guitar, drums, saxophone, trombone, synthesizer and percussion, Preyah's sound was organic yet contemporary, and above all else, soulful.

Denis Popstoev's synthesizer was prominent throughout, but Preyah's music followed no obvious pop roadmap. R&B in essence, her voice lay somewhere between Tina Turner and Macy Gray. These were well crafted, radio-friendly compositions full of spirit, though perhaps just a little too one-paced, in the main. The South Park II crowd wasn't complaining, however, and gave the talented singer a loud send-off.

Ghost-Note

A party is the best way to close any festival night, and Ghost-Note certainly rocked the huge crowd with its high-energy, funk-fuelled jazz. This off-shoot of Snarky Puppy was founded by drummer Robert Sput Searight and percussionist Nate Werth, and draws in equal measure from James Brown, George Clinton, J-Dilla, Afrobeat, hip-hop, and jazz -a truly potent brew.

Looking like he meant business with his yellow hard-hat, Searight drove the seven-piece band with uncommon intensity, with rhythm partner, bassist Dwayne "MoonNeon" Thomas, playing deep, booty-shaking grooves. A three-pronged front line of alto saxophonist Jonathon Mones, tenor saxophonist Mike Jelani Brook—both doubling on flute— and guitarist Peter Knusden, all unleased bolts of lightning over the rhythmic storm brewing beneath.

The set drew from Fortified (RSVP, 2015,)-from which the slow grooving, flute-colored "Joshua Johnson" provided a set highlight—and the roof- raising double album, Swagism (RSVP, 2018). But in truth, Ghost-Note could easily have jammed on one its infectious grooves, say "Milkshake," for the whole ninety minutes, Fela Kuti style, and the crowd would have lapped it up.

There was tribute to djembe player Weedie Braimah—who lit up the stage the night before with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah—on "Weedie B. Goode," a slow- burning, funk workout crowned by Knudsen's smoking guitar solo, and an equally fiery improvisation from keyboardist Vaughan Henry. The ballad "Fragile," with its soft flute melody, brought a change in atmosphere, but like moths drawn to flame, Ghost-Note were soon chasing the funk grooves once more, saluting the crowd with yet another heady adrenaline rush.

Huge cheers and applause acknowledged a mighty performance from the world's premier funk dealers.

Jam Sessions

One of the unforgettable aspects of A to JazZ Festival was the nightly jam session held in Bar Caché, a hip venue with open-air area, conveniently located on a corner of South Park II. Bar Caché was a magnet for late-night revelers, hundreds of whom gathered outside on the grass where they continued to party, with the jam sessions raging just metres away.

And what sessions they were! Local musicians, both amateur and professional were of a uniformly high standard and there was a seemingly never-ending stream of them. They shared the bar's small stage with many of the stars who had performed on the main stage. Few who were there will forget witnessing the guys from Ghost-Note jamming on John Coltrane with the locals.

Drummer Robert Sput Searight took the piano stool and played like Don Pullen. At one time he comped for a good thirty minutes behind the soloists, never settling on a vamp for more than a few seconds, and never coasting. His constant invention as an accompanist, and his rhythmic power, were something to behold. The special atmosphere of the Bar Caché jam sessions had much to do with the close proximity of the crowd to the musicians, which created a heady, cauldron- like atmosphere.

Another special moment came the same evening when trumpeter Mihail Yossifov and pianist Angel Zaberski rendered homage to João Gilberto, who had died earlier in the day. Their version of "The Girl from Ipanema," played as a lament, was magical.

Plenty of jazz singers took to the stage. Trinity Trio, with stellar backing, gave a brilliant performance of "Sing Sing Sing." Improvising vocalists really cut loose, afforded just as much space as the instrumentalists. Of note was twenty-five-year old singer Simeon Zhelyazkov, a rather special talent, with a real feel for the music.

The excitement generated at these jam sessions was palpable, with the crowd inside and outside the bar cheering and whooping after each solo. Ulrich Beckerhoff, who has seen and participated in more than a few jam sessions during his illustrious, fifty-plus-year career, was prompted to comment: "I can't remember seeing a jam session like this for many years."

Day Three

The final day of A to JazZ Festival 2019 got underway with Dimitar Karamfilov's Ecology. The bassist/composer has collaborated with Bulgaria's finest jazz musicians in Milcho Leviev, Jivko Petrov Trio BG and Theodsii Spassov, but is making a name as a leader in his own right with the release of his debut album Ecology (2018).

Karamfilov's driving bass was the heartbeat of the quintet, with pianist Konstantin Kostov, drummer Hristo Yostov and guitarist Alexander Logozarov making up the lithe rhythm section. Trumpeter Mihail Iosifov and Spanish saxophonist Arnau Garrofé Farràs led the attack with snaking solos on post-bop fare, the music lent a contemporary edge by Logozarov's biting, rock-edge improvisations.

The music was Karamfilov's response to environmental degradation, and the energy and thrust of the music seemed to reflect the urgent need for a revaluation of our relationship with nature. The band was joined by vocalist Marina Gospodinova on "Bathe Me in Your Dew"; her caressing delivery of this Bulgarian folk song, delicately jazzed up, brought a beautiful change of tempo and mood.

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