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Alfa Jazz Fest 2017

Thomas Conrad By

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Alfa Jazz Fest 2017
Lviv, Ukraine
June 23-27, 2017

Jazz festivals are different in Europe. There are more of them, and they are crucial to the economic viability, social solidarity and creative evolution of the jazz art form. Many European towns that host their own annual jazz events seem like unlikely sites for festivals. They are small, and/or industrial, and/or off the beaten path. In the case of Alfa Jazz Fest, in Lviv, Ukraine, there is a jazz festival in a country at war.

No Eastern European country has gotten more media air time and ink in the United States over the last four years than Ukraine. The attention is all because of politics. In 2013, a wave of protests in Kiev's Independence Square (the "Euromaidan revolution") deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia's lackey. In 2014 Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. A proxy armed conflict with Russia broke out in the eastern part of Ukraine, which borders Russia. Ukraine has also made the news in the United States because it is one of the places where people associated with President Donald Trump (e.g. one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort) have had their fingers. (The extent of these shadowy dealings with once-powerful people like Yanukovych has yet to be fully revealed.)

The war is in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions, almost 1500 kilometers from Liviv, which is in the west of the country, near Poland. The whole world knows that Russia is sending arms and fighters to support the Ukrainian secessionists. Vladimir Putin even winks when he denies it. The violence has continued at a lower intensity in recent months, but soldiers and some civilians are still dying, and the conflict still creates a flow of "IDP's" (internally displaced persons).

Lviv is the Ukrainian city most strongly oriented to the West, toward Europe. Ukrainian, not Russian, is the first language spoken. Not only because of recent events, but because of 100 years of bitter history, there is profound antipathy toward Russia in Lviv. (Shops sell rolls of toilet paper with Putin's face printed on each square—a fine Ukrainian souvenir.) A question might legitimately be raised about whether an American journalist would be fully welcome there, given the current U.S. President's avowed admiration for Putin. But there was no cause for concern. The people of Lviv are warmly hospitable to Americans. In their long and often tragic history, they have lived under both Nazis and Soviet communists. They know better than to hold individuals responsible for the sins of their governments.

The old center of Lviv has a look all its own. The Nazis regarded the city has more Austrian than Russian (it was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and did not bomb it in World War II. Many of the buildings, a mix of Austrian, Slavic and Italian architectures, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. The fact that much of the cityscape looks just slightly gone to seed gives Lviv a certain decadent charm. There are rough cobblestone lanes and houses with thick, mysterious wooden doors. There are also black-domed cathedrals, large public squares, many parks and one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe.

The most important of those public squares is Rynok, in the heart of old Lviv. It has been the center of the city's communal life for 500 years. One of the three stages for Alfa Jazz Fest was set up in Rynok. Another smaller stage was a few blocks away, behind the Potocki Palace, built as a nobleman's residence in the 1880's, now an art museum. The main stage for the evening concerts was on a hill a couple of kilometers from the center, in a venue that held 3200. It was called the "Eddie Rosner Stage," in tribute to a legendary trumpet player, "the Polish Louis Armstrong." Outside the stadium there were three "free fan zones," with big screens and piped-in sound, that could expand the total audience by upwards of 10,000. The main stage and the one in Rynok Square were tent-covered. Alfa Jazz is not a festival of intimate musical spaces. It is a huge outdoor party. The two stages in the city center were free, and were overrun all five days of the festival. Tickets for concerts at the main stage went on sale in April and sold out immediately. Such a response is unusual for a jazz festival, even in Europe. It is only partly explained by the fact that Alpha Bank, a major sponsor, acquired a large block of tickets to provide to their management and guests. The Alpha Bank connection may, however, explain the dress code. Whereas the standard attire for summer festivals in Europe is an old T-shirt from a prior year's festival and shorts or jeans, in Lviv high fashion was the order of the day. Every night, the main stage venue and its grounds were swarmed over with men in suits and women in designer dresses and high heels. (Those, like foreign journalists, who had no choice but to follow typical jazz festival casual standards, were under-dressed.)

It is natural to assume that a jazz festival is characterized, and its artistic impact mostly determined, by its headliners. It is a natural assumption but untrue. In Lviv, most of the best music came from the two free stages. For example, Igor Osypov, not a household name, gave a very strong concert at the Potocki stage. He is a Ukrainian guitarist currently based in Berlin. He studied at Jazz Institute Berlin with Kurt Rosenwinkel, but unlike many Rosenwinkel students, he does not sound like his teacher. His bassist, Maks Mucha, is Polish and his drummer, Ivars Arutjunjans, is from Latvia. The fourth member of Osypov's quartet was a surprise: alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. One of the many rewards of European jazz festivals is that people like Richardson, who got major attention for his Blue Note album Shift, in 2016, can turn up in the fine print of festival program. (Actually Richardson should not have been a surprise. He played on Osypov's excellent 2015 album on the Unit label, Quintet I. )

Osypov is a guitarist with a fresh, complete concept. Sometimes he reminds you of Bill Frisell when his glistening notes fall like intermittent raindrops. His set, with no breaks between songs, was like a suite, a single (elaborated) atmosphere. Movements of the suite hovered, sometimes leveled out into drones, then moved forward episodically. Within harmonically ambivalent sonorities lurked actual (mysterious) melodies. The priority in Osypov's band is the edgy treble-dominant group blend, but the melodies triggered vivid solos that never entirely separated themselves from the ensemble. No wonder there has been a buzz on the street about Richardson. He functions on the margins of established precedents but, with his piercing, singing alto tone, he finds beauty there. Osypov is also a stimulating soloist. This was mostly dark jazz whose natural habitat was midnight, presented, undiluted, on a partly cloudy early afternoon.

The best thing that happened in Rynok Square, and one of the best things that happened at the festival, was the Criss Cross All-Stars. Gerry Teekens, founder of the Criss Cross label of the Netherlands, was on a panel at the festival. He explained that he only records music that he likes. What he likes is latter-day hard bop. For over 30 years, his label has been a keeper of the flame for this genre. In Lviv the band was led by pianist Misha Tsiganov, and included trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, alto saxophonist Will Vinson, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Donald Edwards. Because hard bop is such an open art form, musicians as adventurous as these can play in the style that Teekens likes, even as their ideas create new vistas within it.

They started with Tsiganov's arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No." This band kicks off every song in a brash announcement, then engulfs the song in flames. Tsiganov, born and educated in St. Petersburg, Russia, now residing in Brooklyn, is one of the best kept secrets in jazz piano. He combines the classical erudition of the Russian conservatory with merciless New York jazz chops. His solos typically begin formally, then spill free and arrive at fiercely percussive iterations of lyricism. His comping is distinctive. He does not offer the conventional chordal content but challenges and prods the soloist with sneaky dissonance and displaced hard punctuations. Vinson and Rodríguez are also special players. Vinson has a sensuous alto tone that can sound as sly and seductive as Paul Desmond's, but never for long, because his eccentric thought processes always intrude on the reverie. Vinson is an outcat with an asset rare among outcats: charm. Rodríguez also combines qualities not normally found together: risk and precision. Other than "Yes or No" all the tunes were originals from the band. The best were by Brewer. "Juno" and "Joya" were the mellowest pieces, but mellowness is relative. Rodriguez approached both with a measured, plaintive fervor. Tsiganov stuck an explosive solo into the middle of "Joya" which, until he attacked, had been almost ethereal.

There were two sets on the main stage that will be long remembered, especially by those of us who had never heard Avishai Cohen with a symphony orchestra, and those of us who had been asleep on Chucho Valdes.

You knew that the Cohen concert was going to be a formidable occasion when the members of the INSO-Lviv Orchestra began to file on stage. They just kept coming, all 60 of them. They played an overture by themselves, then Cohen walked to center stage and picked up his bass. He has something more jazz musicians could use: an instinct for showmanship. He is a natural diva. Even before he played a note, he responded to the orchestra when it began, his eyes closed, wincing, swaying to the music.

It is not uncommon for a jazz musician to be a featured soloist with a symphony orchestra. But it was striking to witness 60 musicians all assembled to serve one acoustic bassist. Of course, in Cohen's hands, an acoustic bass becomes a fully articulate vehicle for expression. There have been many versions of Thad Jones's "A Child Is Born," but none more majestic. The orchestra, with Omri Mor, Cohen's talented young Israeli pianist, first rendered it en masse, then cleared the way for Cohen's rapt solo, then returned to absorb Cohen into their vastness. The orchestra, under the direction of Myroslav Skoryk (billed as a "legendary composer" and a "People's Artist of Ukraine"), played beautifully. They sounded like on enormous sighing voice. The program of Cohen arrangements included old Hebrew songs, "a Spanish-Jewish song from 500 years ago," Cohen hits like "Remembering" and "Seven Seas," and standards like "Nature Boy." Cohen often sang. His soft, haunting voice is not quite of this world. When he sang in Hebrew, with the orchestra whispering behind him, he turned the Eddie Rosner Stage into a silent setting for a liturgical ceremony. With his bass, he sometimes created a headlong momentum similar to the infectious grooves he generates with his trio, but on a symphonic scale. These pieces kept bearing down upon you, like trains.

In the last couple of years Cohen has played around 16 concerts with almost that many different symphony orchestras in Europe. None of these projects have yet been recorded and none have come to the United States. Based on the evidence of Lviv, they are the optimal formal for Cohen. With a symphony orchestra around him, his flair for the dramatic finds its ideal aesthetic environment.

As a jazz fan, you think you know drumming. Then you hear Chucho Valdés and realize that there are realms of percussive energy that you never knew about. The quartet in Lviv included Yelsy Heredia on bass, Georvis Pio Milian on drums and Pedro Pablo Rodríguez on percussion. What this band drummed up together was so powerful it took you out of yourself. When they did a familiar standard like "Summertime," they drowned Gershwin almost beyond recognition, in a wild extravagance of syncopation and decoration. The rhythmic onslaughts began with Valdés, who uses the piano as a drum even as he unleashes torrential melody. He is one of the most percussive pianists on earth, but the final purpose of his energy is melodic beauty. His set included original tangos, Cuban classics ("La Comparsa"), Chopin (in Valdés's description, "Preludio Numero Cuatro"), Miles Davis ("Solar"), some Rachmaninoff and a medley of North American standards. It was stunning to hear him do "My Foolish Heart" and "Waltz for Debby," songs Bill Evans played. Evans's iconic versions were delicate. Valdés's versions in Lviv were hard and bright as stainless steel. All versions dealt with the same universal domain of human experience, the pain and the joy.

The audiences at the main stage were always appreciative, but something different happened for the Valdés concert. It was apparent that the crowd was moved. They seemed to sense that they were in the presence of a living master of his genre, in a period when we have recently lost so many masters. One other nice set at the Eddie Rosner Stage was by two thirds of Mare Nostrum. Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren was taken ill in Budapest right before the band was scheduled to play Lviv, which left Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and French accordionist Richard Galliano to fill a huge performance space by themselves. They were up to it. Both are exponents of unabashed postmodern romanticism, but in contrasting sonorities: Fresu's luminous and soaring, Galliano's drawn out like a lush fabric made of yearning. They played originals, Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Monteverdi aria and a French pop love song.

The Alfa Jazz Fest started in 2011. In only seven years it has become an important stop on the Eastern European festival circuit. Like all jazz festivals, it requires a team of sponsors, staff and volunteers. But like most jazz festivals, it is the brainchild of one person. (Examples of this syndrome include Carlo Pagnotta of Umbria, Anne Erm of Jazzkaar and Klaus Widmann of Südtirol.) For Alfa Jazz the man is Alexey Kogan. He has been at the center of the Ukrainian jazz scene for at least 20 years, during which time he has hosted a daily radio program on Ukraine State Broadcasting, Jazz Collectors Hour. He also has a two-hour show on Friday nights, Theme With Variations. He is the artistic director of the Jazz in Kiev festival as well as Alfa Jazz. He was an omnipresent, harried figure at the festival, rushing by, shouting into his cell phone, sometimes pausing for a quick jazz handshake/chest bump.

Rynok Square was the largest and most impressive of the city stages. The crowd filled all the chairs and overflowed the sides and spilled far down Shevska Street. A cool group who played there was ManSound, the opening act of the festival. A six-man Ukrainian a capella vocal ensemble might not sound promising. They rocked. With their voices covering all ranges from contrabass to alto, they were a full-on little big band, with a rhythm section, brass, reeds, intricate section work, counterpoint and, of course, solos. They swung their butts off in several languages, including English for a manic "It Don't Mean a Thing" and an improbably syncopated "You Don't Know What Love Is."

Probably even Alexey Kogan did not expect that the smaller, more modest set-up on the lawn behind Potocki Palace would have a disproportionate number of the festival's hottest bands, but it worked out that way. Kompost 3, from Austria, is one of the world's most interesting fusion bands, perhaps because they are so much more than a fusion band. The earmarks of fusion are there, in the whiplashing of Manu Mayr's electric bass and the shrieking of Benny Omerzell's keyboards. But within that amplitude lurked many unfamiliar ideas. The walls of sound were shot through with stabs and spatterings from trumpet player Martin Eberle, who is as free as Wadada Leo Smith but louder (from electronic processing) and wittier (from the use of slide trumpet). Drummer Lukas König generated random explosions until he settled into wicked grooves. This quartet can go in many directions, including tight arrangements of whimsical forms. They can even arrive at slow-burn ballads like "Sequential Circuit Bender, " an actual sustained brooding atmosphere (except for occasional brief tantrums) containing real solos. It was exciting when Omerzell's streamings became oscillations that intensified until the dam broke, loudly. Kompost 3 is four intellectual ass-kickers.

Ilhan Ersahin Istanbul Sessions gave a riveting performance at the Potocki Palace stage. Ersahin plays tenor saxophone in a clarion tone of commanding power. Imagine middle-period Coltrane (those awe-inducing calls) set to a seething maelstrom of Middle Eastern rhythms. Bassist Ozan Musluoglu, drummer Turgut Alp Bekoglu and percussionist Izzet Kizil whipped up energy both hypnotic and visceral, and Ersahin rode it like he was driving a chariot. The most affecting piece was "Freedom," which Ersahin said was "a song for all the people in Turkey who are jailed for no reason."

A band very different from Kompost 3 and Ersahin's, but equally impressive in the strength of its fully developed concept, was Get the Blessing, from the UK. They played tight, ironic little ditties in crisp trumpet/tenor saxophone unisons by Peter Judge and Jake McMurchie. Everything felt calibrated, even their slightly demented, cacophonous interludes. The dry, deadpan song introductions by bassist Jim Barr were classically British. For example: "So many people in the UK are now allergic to something. This next piece is for those who are allergic to music, because it contains no music." Of course, it did contain music. Get the Blessing is an uncommonly elegant avant-garde jazz band. Disparate elements (skronk, notated formalism, theater of the absurd, electronic technology, punk anarchism) are somehow reconciled into a balanced whole. They are often listed as a fusion band, but they fuse sensibilities more than genres. They do get their rock 'n roll groove on, but they do it backwards: The hammering riffs of the two horns make the beat and bass and drums (Matt Brown) play the melody.

The secondary headliners were the Yellowjackets, whose music was programmatic and unattractive, and Gregory Porter, who seemed a little off his game. Perhaps he was tired, or perhaps the extreme repetitiveness of his original songs is beginning to bore even him. Porter has a rich, powerful vocal instrument and an appealing stage personality. That his songcraft is undistinguished is irrelevant. With Porter it is all about the message. His message of peace and compassion and love is sincere. A Porter concert is a communal experience. He creates a community in order to uplift it.

The primary headliners of Alfa Jazz Fest were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Hancock appeared with a new project: guitarist Lionel Loueke; bassist James Genus; drummer Vinnie Colaiuta; alto/saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist Terrace Martin. Corea appeared with his Elektric Band: saxophonist Eric Marienthal; guitarist Frank Gambale; bassist John Patitucci; drummer Dave Weckl. In a festival that was mostly about art, these two concerts were about monetizing a marketing plan. Hancock and Corea, two of the most important piano players in the history of jazz, no longer choose to play jazz. They choose to play toy jazz. Both concerts contained monotonous, head- banging, body-slamming electro-funk. Of course, given the personnel of these two bands, the deafening drivel was always skillfully executed. But no risks were taken and no surprises were sparked. (A shrieking crescendo is not the same thing as a surprise.) Both bands stayed with their shtick and kept every musician in a box. The only relief from the hammerings and raspings came from electronic gimmickry. Loueke took not one but three solos in which his guitar was run through a processor to make it sound like an organ. Martin, who has a substantial resumé as a producer in the hip-hop world (Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes), took ugly, braying, grating saxophone solos disconnected from their contexts. He sang in a silly falsetto, then ran it through a Roland VP-770 "Vocal Designer." Hancock sometimes chose to stand and grin and noodle on a Roland AX7 "keytar" as the crowd egged him on. Such embarrassing moments are best deleted from memory, so that one can dwell on all the good stuff that went down this year in Lviv.
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