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Alfa Jazz Fest 2017

Thomas Conrad By

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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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