Belgrade Jazz Festival 2014

Nenad Georgievski By

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Belgrade Jazz Festival 2014
Dom Omladine, Dom Sindikata
Belgrade, Serbia
October 24-27, 2014

When back in 2005, the Dom Omladine Beograda decided to revive the Belgrade Jazz Festival, which was abruptly discontinued due to happenings in the Balkan's region, the organization faced with two mounting tasks—in a very short time it had to create a festival that had to live up to the dizzying heights and reputation that the festival had in the past and to create a modern festival which selection reflected not only the present state of the jazz world, but also pointed to the future. In a very short time, the festival set the blueprint for what was to happen in the next 10 years by inviting stellar and diverse artists from different generations and backgrounds which music often crossed not only classical jazz but also fringes of jazz, experimental, improvised, and world music acts. Equally important was promoting the local music scene and domestic jazz artists with their releases shoulder to shoulder with legendary artists coming from abroad.

It's been 9 years since the festival was revived and this year the festival celebrated its 30th anniversary. Prior to the festival's overall concerts and activities which was happening mainly at the premises of Dom Omladine, there was a flurry of promotional activities with concerts at different avenues in the city with concerts by Josetxo Goia-Aribe at the Casino and by Vojislav Simic and the RTS Big Band at the Kolarac. Another activity was the small exhibition which awaited the people at the main entrance of the DOB with posters of past editions and at the lavatory, at the entrance of Dance Hall, there were photographs of concerts chiefly from the last 9 years and other memorabilia.

Max Kochetov Quartet, Danilo Perez's Children of the Light Trio and Nils Petter Molvaer/Laurens Von Oswald duo

The opening evening began with opening speeches by city's officials and a short film about the festival's storied history. It was saxophonist Max Kochetov, a Ukrainian born, but Belgrade resident, who had the honor to open the festival with his quartet consisting of a stellar crew and popular acts on the Serbian jazz scene, drummer Pedja Milutinovic and bassist Pera Krstajic. The quartet presented the material from its debut 13.30 and it just blasted on the stage. The material on 13.30 (Self-published, 2014) was used as a playground and template on which individual talents shined and with a killer rhythm section such as this one the music was constantly shifting and dynamic. The band leader, Kochetov is well studied and honestly expressive in the ways of American jazz, as a versatile sax player and sturdy penner of tunes in acknowledged jazz idioms from the New York side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, The Danilo Perez's Children of Light trio, consisting of drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattituci, was a totally different affair of the heart. Since the interest for this concert was enormous, the organizers have pulled the seats from the hall so more audience could get in and the place was packed in quickly. This brought memories of the opening night at the first concert back in 2005 when Al Foster shared the bill with Dave Holland's Quintet. As then, the crowed was restless but Perez and his band quickly won them over. Blurring the lines between the dreamy and the edgy, this trio joined chamber music, folkloric motifs and quick-thinking group improvisations. The whole two hour performance resembled a classical recital with Brian Blade's intricate drumming served as a foil that hold it all together. This suite was very intriguing as the ending motifs from one composition provided the central theme for the next. Towards the end the music became more accessible and the whole set ended unexpectedly with "Guantanamera."

The same evening, the Americana hall, hosted the latest Nils Petter Molvaer's endeavor, the presentation of the duet record with Moritz Von Oswald 1/1 (EmArcy, 2013). Unfortunately, Moritz could join in so Laurens Von Oswald (also featured on the record) took his place. In a lowly lit room, Von Oswald presented rich tapestries of industrialized sounds with a predominantly slow paced heavy bass that at moments obscured the whole sound picture. As always, Molvaer was concentrating on the sound without any flashes of virtuosity, just contributing to the overall picture which more and more moved towards the dance arena with its beats.

Serbia Jazz, Bre, Vasil Hadzimanov Trio, Vasil Hadzimanov Band featuring David Binney

The second day at the festival gave more emphasis on domestic artists such as pianist/keyboardist Vasil Hadzimanov and Serbian Jazz Bre. Serbian Jazz, Bre is a multimedia project that combines visuals with dynamic music, much inspired by Weather Report kind of cross over between jazz rock and melodies inspired equally from Serbian folk music and jazz. When I first saw the band two years ago at the Barutana, on the outskirts of Kalemegdan fortress, the band played the music from its debut in front of a screen that rolled the photographs by Ivan Grlic, the initiator of the project and an author of a book with photographs by the same title. The book features photographs of Serbian jazz musicians from various generations and while the band played, the photographs were projected onto the screen. This time he took the visuals further and he stepped on the stage next to the band while providing live footage of prerecorded video material and photographs that he operated and improvised on the spot.

The band has been honing its mixture of rock beats and cross cultural rhythms into its unique blend of folk jazz for a while and the concert was a culmination of it. Compared to its first incarnation this one featured a saxophone instead of a violin which contributed to an overall change of sound. Among the songs that were performed was a song by Lala Kovachev that this band made a tribute to recently. Kovachev was one of the pioneers of Balkan jazz music which mixed various folk musics into a jazz idiom of its own. On the other hand, while the band excelled at its own compositions or the inclusion of Serbian folk melodies, when it came to a Macedonian folk tune "Oj devojce, devojce" it revealed a plasticity in the approach, where the saxophonist played the melody and was true to the form, but the burning and contrasting emotions were missing and that was the necessary ingredient for a folk tune beyond these skies to work.

What Hadzimanov has been known for is his keyboard playing with the Band and less for his acoustic endeavors. This evening, both the program and the different bands portrayed both sides of his creative output, the acoustic trio and his VH band. Interestingly, the Trio and the material that he premiered at the Belgrade Jazz festival's 30th anniversary were also premiered at the Skopje Jazz Festival's 30th anniversary but with a different crew. When it comes to his acoustic piano playing, it reveals more about the riskiness in his playing.

He plays the piano with a lot more excitement setting notes on fire with each movement. It is pure joy to hear him playing so excited and fired up. While the album and the original trio featured high caliber players, like drummer Alek Sekulovski and bassist Martin Djakonovski, this time he was joined by the young rhythm section that played with Max Kochetov, the evening before. The trio performed tracks such as "Ana Maria," "Adis Abeba," "Blues Connotation" and for the track "Ahmed the Terrible" it was joined by saxophonist David Binney with whom at the time around the festival Vasil Hadzimanov Band was touring Serbia. The duet they did before changing bands and gears on the Bosnian sevdalinka "Razbolje se shimshir list" was simply mesmerizing. It was a deeply intimate offering with a unique give-and-take between the saxophonist and the pianist.

When VH Band stepped it things went moving in the faster lane. The band was performing new material which was recorded by Alan Hadzi-Stefanov for the band's forthcoming record. The arrangements for the new compositions didn't differ much from the band's previous opus. It provided rhythmically diverse high octane fusion inspired music and they ripped the place apart.

Paolo Fresu Quintet, RED Trio

This year the Italian trumpeter's quintet is celebrating its 30th anniversary and it released a record to celebrate the occasion. Fresu's music with this quartet is much under the influence of Chet Baker's music and sound. Obviously in good spirits he entertained the audience with introductions and stories about each composition. Fresu's trumpet playing was nice and gentle, and sometimes they sounded funky. The music was like saccharine-sweet and maybe too sweet for my own taste. Maybe if the drummer pounded the drums louder it would have provoked a more dynamic interaction. While entertaining, the music lacked that spark and a healthy dose of quirkiness that would have made these compositions and performance something worthwhile.

On the other hand, the Portuguese RED Trio provided that quirkiness is huge doses. This free improve trio acted like a chamber orchestra and throughout its performance resembled a chamber recital. With its adventurous spirit and high improvisation skills, the Trio used its instruments beyond the usual palette of sounds in order to create different moods and movements.

Charles Lloyd Quartet, Michelle Camilo

The closing night was special as it hosted two giants of music. All of the performances prior to this one were held at the DOB and this one took place at Dom Sindikata, which is an excellent place for staging concerts of this kind in Belgrade. Actually, it is my favorite, as I've witnessed some truly great artists here even beyond the jazz realm. The first to perform on the closing night was saxophonist Charles Lloyd with his new quartet which apart from regular drummer extraordinaire Erik Harland also featured two new members: pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Joe Sanders. The festival also screened the Arrows into Infinity documentary about Lloyd with Dorothy Darr , Lloyd's wife, manager and director, in attendance. The Wild Man Suite was one continuous composition which dynamics shifted constantly and flowed like a river. This gave the quartet the looks and the dynamics of a big band. What is impressive about Lloyd is that he can still find novelty and innovation with each new project or performance. It was also joy to witness this latest endeavor where the musicians were finding new shades of expression from their palettes. The band seamlessly blended, with Lloyd dancing and shuffling his feet, and playing fluid solos. It was a triumphal and emotional performance. Both emotionally and musically it was definitely the highlight of the festival.

Michelle Camilo's performance was truly astounding. Backed by the dynamic band, his frenzied performance resembled a fighting match. Camilo's style of expression live is like having a fistfight with the piano. It's a bombastic technique that he uses and he pounded the keyboards with such force it was a miracle the piano could stand so long in one piece after the heavyweight workout. But Camilo didn't just bash the keyboards -he was balancing between the euphoric dynamics and rollicking piano with gentle touches of Latin, classical and jazz melodies. It was exciting all along with his stride technique of playing that left the audience astonished and delighted. Camilo's explosive cocktail inspired a long and explosive response from the people in attendance.

Afterwards, the party moved to a downtown jazz club "Jazzbuka" where there were jam sessions happening each night, and were are part of the festival's tradition. The night before the Lloyd's concert his band jammed at the club until 5 am, and on the last evening the club was crowded with people as an army of youngsters took part in the jam session. The kids were amazing. Those were 18, 19 year old kids with impressive chops on their instruments. Listening to them was an utter enjoyment as they were playing their hearts out.

The 30th Belgrade Jazz Festival was a remarkable celebration of good jazz music and its diversity. There were simply too many great musical moments during a short period of time that it felt like an avalanche. There are plenty of jazz festivals around the world but rarely any celebrates music in such a manner. But such is the city of Belgrade. It's a dynamic and beautiful city with plenty to offer, and it always feels like a hometown whenever there. Belgrade and its people are beautiful, but with the jazz festival the city is beautiful even more.

Photo Credits: Dragan Таsić

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