Jazz really sounds great after 15 years of abstinence. It sounds too unbelievable, but sadly it is true. It's been 15 years since the last jazz festival in Belgrade has been held, until it was revived last year. During the Milosevic era (who passed away during the writing of this article) the last thing that his regime needed and wanted to sustain and finance was a jazz festival or any semblance of meaningful popular culture. Instead a cancer-like music and culture was produced and supported, which totally screwed up what was built culturally up to that moment. Not many people know this, but jazz is deeply rooted in the cultures of the Balkans region. It began with dixieland bands and jazz fans' societies in the beginning of the century and it grew from there. During the last century cities like Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Skopje, and these days including Sarajevo, developed strong and popular jazz festivals. Those festivals have provided unforgettable moments that people still talk about and hang on to as something special. Not many people (as told by saxophonist Gary Bartz the previous summer) know this, but Miles Davis played his electronic music live outside of the US for the very first time on the first issue of this festival in Belgrade. Of course, the audience booed him, but to Bartz's astonishment no one left the concert before the performance was over. There are plenty occurrences such as these that make good foundation for legends and myths like Metheny's performance just two days before the dissolution of former Yugoslavia (which made him the last musician to ever play there). The festival in Belgrade was founded in 1971 as "The Newport Jazz Festival" and the second year it was promoted into "The Newport Belgrade Jazz festival, and eventually it was named "The Belgrade Jazz Festival" in 1974. Even though the jazz musicians association began organizing concerts in the 50's, it wasn't until 1971 when it was promoted into an international jazz festival. And the musicians who have played there are the same artists that people these days talk about in awe. In order to remind people about the golden days of the jazz festival and its tradition, the festival began with an impressive exhibition of posters, newspaper articles and photographies of people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis with Keith Jarrett, Dave Liebman, Freddie Hubbard, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, BB King, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Muddy Waters, Chick Corea, Buddy Rich, Pat Metheny and many, many more. The festival was divided into several parts opening with Charlie Haden's Liberation orchestra and Billy Cobham's World Party. They were part of the festival's special program and their performance took place at the Sava Centar, a prestigious concert hall. These two acts gave different performances when compared together. Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra was very quiet; theirs was an intimate performance sounding like chamber orchestra that was influenced by jazz rather than vice versa. Interestingly, they set Charlie on a raised platform behind the other playersquite an unique arrangement. The band played a repertoire of covers, like a reggae version of Metheny's "This is Not America, Coleman's "Skies Of America, "America The Beautiful, Frisell's "Throughout, Samuel Barber's "Adagio. But, the real star was Carla Bley, who has arranged the numbers alongside writing several of them, and contributed typically brilliant piano work. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and pleasant. Haden began reminiscing about playing in Belgrade with Ornette Coleman some 30 years ago. Even backstage, he was in high spirits and in the mood for discussing his music and history.
Billy Cobham's performance was more upbeat and dynamic, and naturally, it was a more groove oriented music. The band played with vibrant energy guided by the delicate and precise licks provided by Cobham. Even though he has a reputation of having a thundering blast on the drums, he nevertheless showed he is capable of playing subtle, funky grooves on one hand and awe inspiring solo improvisations on the other.
But Dom Omladine was the place where all major events took place ( and they are the formal organizers of the festival since the 70's). The program at the Dom Omladine was divided in 2 parts with performances at the main hall and performances by Balkan jazz artists that took place at the facility's club upstairs.
The first night was opened by Al Foster, who played his set with an enormous grin on his face. Joined by Doug Weiss on bass, Kevin Hayes on piano and Eli Degibri on saxophone, the band went through a couple of standards, like Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, he dedicated a tune of his to Miles. He even played a tune that he played on when it was recorded in mid 60s by a young and promising pianist named Chick Corea. What began as a shaky and unsteady performance, soon turned into something nice and good.
On the other hand, Dave Holland's band put on a creative and entertaining show full of power. What I witnessed was an awe-inspiring and electrifying performance. Simply, they were in top form and whatever expectations I had beforehand, the Quintet easily surpassed that. The band's members were at the same time exciting accompanists and galvanizing soloists doing wonders with their bold and challenging phrases and blasts of power. It even seemed that all four musicians could have easily been the headliner. In retrospect, this was the best performance at the festival by far.
The second night offered a concert by Dushko Gojkovi' and his Trumpets and Rhythm Unit 2. This unit, or project, was first presented back in 1979 together with Lala Kovachev. Just like with the first band the members represent the cream of the local jazz scene, but this time it was a meeting of players from the younger generation with the elder ones. Basically, they used the same formation of instruments (four trumpets, bass trumpet and a rhythm section). Add these musicians to Gojkovic's flawless flights and you have a good performance. My only objection to this would be that it was a textbook example of hard bop jazz without much stepping out of the confines of tradition.
But Denys Baptiste's reinterpretation of Love Surpreme was the night's highlight. Supported by Andrew McCormack, Larry Bartley and Tom Skinner, Baptiste did a fantastic reinterpretation of Coltrane's work. Baptiste's phrasing, swing and the band's imaginative improvisation, brought something unique. Even though they initially planned to do just the first suite of Love Surpreme, the band went into an hour-long performance of Love Surpreme. That was powerful and at moments I forgot that I wasn't listening to the real thing but a cover. Their dedication and prowess were astonishing as they litterally froze the audience.
The third night featured a set by Charlie Hunter and Nicola Conte. Hunter's performance was a standard bluesy, soul, funky that left me aloof. Apart from his special technique on the guitar, I was expecting much more from someone like him. Their set sounded primarily like a band jamming slow bluesy tunes and having fun together and nothing much more than that.
On the other hand, Nicola Conte's performance was a revelation. Performances like these indicate of a festival that is capable of not only delivering the expected, but is also providing great surprises along the way. Conte is primarily known as a DJ who mixed house/lounge music with jazz sounds. This time he was supported by a full band that turned the house up side down. It is obvious that Conte draws a lot on modal jazz and the likes of Miles, Coltrane, Silver, Blakey. Each of the musicians rose to the occasion and gave their all on this set. The spotlights were shared, the solos were passed around with generosity and none was wasted. Just like with Dave Holland's performance few nights back, all of this was forged with the sacred give-and-take between the artists and the audience.
The 4th night was dedicated to Brazil and it featured 2 groups of artists from different generations. Domenico + 2, is another offshoot of a trio consisting of Moreno Veloso, Domenico Lancellotti and Alexandre Kassin. They can be seen performing either under the name of Moreno + 2 or Kassin +2. This time they expanded the basic trio featuring Pedro Sa on guitars and Stephan San Juan on drums. The band's material shifted between nice acoustic songs backed with electronic beats or with noisy guitars again backed with beats. But it was full of good fun and their performance was very noisy and entertaining.
On the other hand, the performance of Vinicius Cantuaria was very gentle and the audience sat there in front of the stage listening, spellbound by the gentle sounds of Cantuaria's band. Vinicius went through a bunch of beautiful songs such as Gilberto Gil's "Procisao, "Cubanos Postizos," where Cuban son and funky samba entwined together, then Jobim tunes such as "Este Seu Olhar" and "Ligia." It was an enchanting and delightful performance.
The closing night was a special night. The star of the night was definitely World Saxophone Quartet's drummer Lee Pearson. Apparently, Liebman's drummer Billy Hart lost his passport somewhere in Italy, so Pearson jumped in and blended with the band perfectly. The complexity and clarity of Liebman's work and the band's unity were compelling, nearly mesmerizing. But to me the best part were Richie Beirach's own compositions (2) that were played in the middle of the set.
The World Saxophone Quartet did their own viewing of Jimi Hendrix's music and they scorched from start to finish. The repertoar consisted of tracks such as Hey Joe, Machine Gun, If 6 was 9 the memorable version of The Wind Cries Mary and many more. Definitely, the stars of the evening were drummer Lee Pearson and the legendary bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Pearson had a special part within the programme with his rolicking solo performance that didn't stop at the drums, but went beyond, producing sounds with his sticks from objects all over the stage. He operated his drum sticks ecstatically, brightening the room with a beatific grin that may have reflected the satisfaction the band's performance was giving its listeners.
The ambitions for expanding the concept of the festival beyond the usuall parameters were reflected in the organizing of midnight concerts, where for 5 nights different band played on the bandstand. Plus, there were screenings of Scorseze's Blues series of films, video recordings from the past issues of the festival and promotion of 2 jazz books, Book of Jazz by Jeff Dyer and The Voyage Of the Guitar in Jazz Music, by Svetolik Jakovljevi.'
And this is not all, as after the midnight performances there were all night jam sessions. In fact, the best "jam session moment came on the last night of the festival, when Dave Murray stepped in with his saxophone. Suddenly, something magical happened, a spark, when they began playing brilliantly, a jam session that went on until the morning came.
In the end I can say that it is fantastic to see this jazz festival being revived again. The number of visitors was enormous (at moments one had an impression of visiting a stadium concert). I'm sure the organizers were surprised by the numbers. Probably it was something that they hoped for, but never anticipated to happen.
The Belgrade Jazz Festival's program is merely a good example of what any good festival should be about: a celebration of jazz's natural plurality. By seeing what was done for this issue I can only say that this jazz festival will again be one of the region's cultural and jazz centers for days to come.
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