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Belgrade Jazz Festival 2019

Martin Longley By

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Belgrade Jazz Festival
Dom Omladine / Kombank Dvorana
Belgrade
Serbia
October 22-28, 2019

Reaching its 35th edition, the Belgrade Jazz Festival added extra shows at the beginning and end of its run, making up a full week, or eight days, if the opening dj night is included. The organisers also hyperventilated on the booking front, with a few more starry acts than usual, including Stanley Clarke, Dianne Reeves, Steve Coleman, Charles Lloyd, Ketil Bjørnstad, Jazzmeia Horn (an almost fully risen star, now!) and the Mingus Big Band. As ever, most of the sets happened in the Dom Omladine (Belgrade Youth Centre), upstairs and downstairs, on two different stages, and in the voluminous theatre, Kombank Dvorana (the old 1957 trade union hall, now fully modernised).

Started in 1971, the festival ran until 1990, when the break-up of Yugoslavia began. Following a period of heavy turmoil, the Belgrade jazzfest returned in 2005, and has continued to regain its former reputation, building up again to be one of Europe's prime jazz events. There is a special marriage between guaranteed ticket-sellers and more wayward, chance-taking selections, this contrast ensuring the vital dynamism of the BJF. The successful programming culprits are Dragan Ambrozić, Vojislav Pantić and Milica Ševarlić

With their Frame And Curiosity album now available on the MoonJune label, the Nikolov-Ivanović Undectet debuted their new material, written alongside the guesting French flautist Magic Malik. The set was introduced by the founder of the original festival, Aleksandar Živković, who was frequently sighted during the course of 2019's edition. Even without your scribe comprehending Serbian, it was clear that Živković was liberally unloading anecdotes about the old days with Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, and Dexter Gordon, sounding mostly as though they were heavy drinkin' tales.

The Undectet, now together for around 15 years, are co-led by keyboardist Vladimir Nikolov and drummer Srdan Ivanović, and its pan-European line-up includes a liberal horn dosage, including low-slung tuba and baritone saxophone. Noé Clerc's accordion also provided a highly distinctive, and well-employed voice, and Malik made his mark early with an overloaded vocalisation into his flute, but seemingly split, possibly by electronic means, into a separated co-existence. The accordion also matched well with the co-leader's Fender Rhodes, when hardened staccato violence was done, and when Nikolov switched to acoustic guitar on the third number. The baritone saxophonist swapped for bass clarinet, and the deep explorations continued, as Malik magically transformed wood into metal, just by the way he played and articulated, tonally.

The second part of the opening night's double bill involved French bassman Henri Texier, leading a quintet that has undergone a reed line-up change since the beginning of 2019, with soprano-and-tenor saxophonist Vincent Le Quang replacing the baritone thrilling of Francois Corneloup. Texier has been on the road quite actively in recent years, and his sets are usually urgent and exciting.

A powered up beginning had Gautier Garrigue's drums at full racket-strength, Manu Codja's guitar crying wildly and Quang on soprano, making us miss Corneloup. Codja continued to howl and bend his strings, with a 1980s Miles pomp to the general soundspread. Concentrating on the latest Sand Woman album, Texier offered "Hungry Man," and then zoomed back to 1975 with "Amir," featuring a buoyant drum solo, skimmed and tinkering, whilst Codja's lines revealed a vocal quality, when aligned with Texier's phrases, in singing unison.

Already, on the second evening, we are sitting in the large Kombank concert hall, for a curious pairing of Stanley Clarke and the Flat Earth Society. Here's a perfect example of the way BJF whizzes together the extremes of this jazz genre thing.

This was the third time that your scribe has witnessed various versions of the Stanley Clarke Band in recent years, and for a player of his revered stature, the bassist always delivers an on-the-edge show, putting the audience directly in touch with his improvisational process. It always seems like he's diving into the rushing cascade for the very first time. Clarke began on electric bass, as a crew member moved his acoustic axe out of harm's way, thus proving that only Clarke knows which strings will be plucked first, and even then, maybe that's a spontaneous decision. Off into a big thumbin' clump, with fervid bass and tabla exchanges, Salar Nader contributing a massive sonic presence on the percussive front. Clarke found his upright very quickly, bowing resonantly as he began to pick out partners for a series of duo engagements. This was a favoured strategy, to spotlight other players, as well as himself, of course..!

Manic drummer Jeremiah Collier knocked over his cymbal stand, but continued to thresh relentlessly, imbued with surplus youthful energies, and dedicating much of the Clarke set to deconstructing parts of his kit as an element of his destructive soloing strategy. Keyboardist Cameron Graves continued making soundless key-shapes, even when he wasn't actually playing, imagining how he might sound during Nader's elaborate tabla solo. When Graves did actually make physical contact with his keyboards, the results were invariably magnetic. Nader and Collier entered the danger zone of a percussion face-off, but each of them was well-equipped for full combat situations. This is the sort of extended activity that gives fusion a bad name! But we lapped it up, unable to resist. Graves darkened the mood for "Black Narcissus," his own tune, aided by some nimble fingering from Clarke. Swirling keys opened "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," with the leader introducing the Mingus melody growth on electric bass. The number climaxed via an expanded warble-dexterity solo, tilted notes joined by a Graves Moog emphasis at the peak, as Clarke reacted to Collier's gunshot drum solo.

Making a slinking, slow start, Flat Earth Society crept in to follow the Stanley Clarke flash, somewhat suffering from having to follow him, as well as needing to spend some time on setting up their big band spread, and cramming in a soundcheck. They hit hard with "Monkey Wrench," biking into "Rich Man's Blues," with its smoking guitar solo from Frederik Leroux, then a triangle/drumkit arrhythmia to close. Both of those works were lifted from 2018's Untitled #0 double album. A number that sounded like it was called "Zunk" was enlivened by a Bart Maris trumpet solo, most of which was conducted from the aisles, as he leapt off the stage and into the audience, the tune a burst of chaos that leader Peter Vermeersch valiantly tried to conduct.

That concert had an early 7pm start, so come 10.30pm, it was time to head a few blocks to Dom Omladine's upstairs Sala Amerikana for the triple late show of Serbian artists. Dragon's Fuel had a twin tenor saxophone team of Predrag Okiljević and Vojislav Savkov, the latter doubling on soprano. Drums and electric bass completed this quartet from Novi Sad, working together to form fast and intricate forms, which would frequently fragment and scuttle off in different directions. Another tune might have a folksy circulation, but by the time they closed out the set, there was a definite sensation of London bounce, with a nod to Sons of Kemet.

Saxophonist Rastko Obradovic has already revealed himself as one of Serbia's rising runners, during previous BJF editions, so this time he presented his own quartet, plus a guesting Ivan Radivojević on trumpet and flugelhorn. Warming tenor and bowing bass depth opened up the set, slowly and steadily building towards intensity. The trumpet guest spot began with the second number, adding a significant pouring of gasoline, assisting in the creation of a fast-flowing tension, flames licking high.

Closing this late-night triple bill, keyboardist Milan Stanisavljević led his quintet of trumpet, tenor saxophone, bass and drums. Within the combo, a trouncing piano trio emerged during "Eastern Star" (the new album's title track), forming a bedrock for an impending horn entry, but the opportunity wasn't really grasped, and the tune cooled down towards an introverted interlude. Soon, though, the horns leapt in again, this time for an anthemic tussle, with traded solos surprisingly entering a fleeting free-zone of abstraction. As their sound was increasingly getting into Robert Glasper-ish funkin,' this came as a welcome respite. Trumpeter Igor Matković contributed some blistering outbursts, then Boštjan Simon's tenor saxophone followed suit, as the entire crew capitalised on the energising ascendancy of the frontline horns.

The following night, Detroit-born singer Dianne Reeves was better than might have been expected, at Kombank Dvorana. Straight-off, she capitalises on a band that shares an ongoing bond, with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, keyboardist Peter Martin, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Terreon Gully. Lubambo's debt to the sounds of his homeland is unavoidably audible, but he also clearly digs Stateside country pickin,' which occasionally rises to the discernible surface. Indeed, all four bandmates were already showing off their facets during an opening instrumental, setting the scene for Reeves to make her entrance. As with the Stanley Clarke Band, these players emanate a visible collective joy in playing together, familiar enough with each other to risk spontaneous changes.

Reeves has a completely commanding voice, transmitted via precise microphone control. The ballad softness of "Stella By Starlight" floated softly at a level of highly subtle expression. Reeves digs Joni Mitchell, so included her "River," followed by "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," in a typical flit from song-penning decade-to-decade, but perhaps including more than the usual ratio of standards on this particular night. Her scatting interludes were casually laid-back, making them sound more organic, and loosened up for adventure. Reeves sang a duet with Lubambo, his dancing string-spume flowing around "Our Love Is Here To Stay," her phonetics lightly skipping through and around the verses. Reeves has far projection, as with her climactic a capella spotlight. Her band has poise, as with their final Cuban climax.

A swift walk around the corner, for Dom Omladine's upstairs late shift: a combination of Polish and Italian outfits. Saxophonist Maciej Obara has been receiving heightened attention recently, due to his release of Unloved on the ECM label. His on-the-road quartet is three-quarters Polish, with bassist Ole Morten Vågan being the odd Norwegian out, although the relevant album is fifty-fifty between the two nationalities.

Vågan sullied the emerging sonic purity early on, with a hardass, wiry tensioned solo, then Obara opened the lid on a wriggling silverfish alto feature. His fleet issuance of breath led to a hyperactive piano solo from Dominik Wania. The quartet's set sounded like a single extended composition, but they'd only played a pair of tunes in extended succession. The accumulation of willowy flutter was too much, in the end, with none of the band members leaving much space in-between their interactions, in an unceasing stream of complication. Thankfully, Vågan's harder edge roughened the field somewhat, and then drummer Michal Miskiewicz revealed his metal and polystyrene potential during a climactic solo.

Next, Yellow Squeeds were imported all the way from Italy. This is a quintet led by guitarist Francesco Diodati, featuring drums, tuba, keys and trumpet, beginning the excitement when they fragmented into fuzz-woozed feedback axe-work, bass whooming and metal micro-scraping, skillet-shattering drums. With "Simple Lights," the leader and his trumpeter began to freak out, a strut peppered with horn shrapnel, keyboards on their marimba setting, tuba funkin' rubbery, Diodati chopping mutated chillies. Enrico Zanisi moved from keyboards to acoustic piano, further widening the vocabulary, jangling into "Entanglement," a guitar miasma, subject to trumpet stutter. This number had an almost cartoonish impatience, with its twitchy, melodic spurting. The Squeeds certainly provided a very suitable late night soundtrack.

Another evening, back on the main Dom Omladine stage. Israeli New Yorker Gilad Hekselman has often produced bland sonic paintings, in the so-called classic jazz guitar manner, but this field has always been overcrowded with would-be smooth contenders. Leading his bass/drums trio, Hekselman unusually started to reveal a rockier nature by his second number, even rearing up to near-behemoth scale through his amplifier. He smashed through with rapid power-rotations, his axe almost sounding like an abused Hammond organ. Hekselman was negotiating his own "Scoville," picking up some meaty John Scofield vibrations. The soft ballad of "Breathless" returned to the mellowness that's previously been found in Hekselman's performances, but the following "This Just In," from back in 2013, employed a cascade of looped pedal parts, along Steve Reich lines of repetition. Hekselman kept bringing this back, as he alternated with some more conventional fluidity, crafting a very moody, subdued "'Round Midnight," then weaving towards "Eyes Of The World" (Grateful Dead, 1973), as the stage backdrop had its festival logo peepers all lit up in sympathy.

Jazzmeia Horn is the fastest rising star of song in jazz, more like unto a shooting star in her progress. She arrests the attention of music acolytes in diverse zones, given that she moves within the traditional body of classic material, while simultaneously investing that songbook with rebel performance tactics that are sometimes out-there in the abstract improvising sphere. Clad in a clinging burgundy velour dress, an anchor-sized necklace, Ankh bracelet and silver jewel shoes, with her now signature Afro-headwrap, she's a scatter-shooter of frightening repute, syllables sounding like they're only sure of their place when Horn rallies them a nanosecond before emitting them, streams swerving in complete accord with her enmeshed trio of players. Her rhythm is complexity, her split-toned voicings and sudden gear-shifts of tone have the value of seeming completely and organically spontaneous, natural even if she's taken multiple gigs in multiple towns to hone these phrasing pathways. We're talking on-the-hoof invention. A fresh genre of avant-scat is born!

Horn took it down with "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me," from the 42nd Street movie (1933), with an epic reading, then bounded towards "You're My Guy," as popularised by Sarah Vaughan, in a fairly straight-ahead interpretation. Horn removed her weighty bracelet, stalked to the wings, and returned with a tall stool, placing it beside Keith Brown's piano, perfectly in time for the opening verse of a succulent "Skylark."

Upstairs, the line of voice continued its strange curve, concentrating on the works of another idiosyncratic singer of greater vintage. Robert Wyatt is now 73, whereas Jazzmeia Horn is a mere 28. Wyatt doesn't sing in public nowadays, so we always have to rely of ensemble projects that address his output, usually with players who are themselves unusual characters, thereby drawn to his deeply subjective ditties. Here, it was the turn of Hütte, a band conceived by German drummer Max Andrzejewski, also a member of the Abacaxi trio.

The first observation was that singer Cansu Tannkulu's interpretation of "The Duchess" was delivered in a strongly North American accent, which sounded unpleasantly jarring for a Wyatt song. Fierce keyboard and tenor saxophone solos led the way into a very sparse "Cuckoo Madame," with acoustic guitar and chittering electronics, diving back to the heady classic period of Rock Bottom, for 1974's "Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road." They played "Grass," the Ivor Cutler song that appeared on Wyatt's Nothing Can Stop Us album, in 1982. These older works, placed nearer the set's conclusion, were more successful in evoking the spirit of Wyatt.

The second act on the late double bill arrived in identical boiler suits, running onstage from the rear of the room. Shake Stew are Austria's masters of fused jazz groove, an unruly group who are just about corralled by Lukas Kranzelbinder, one of the band's two bassists. There are also doubled drummers and a three-part horn front-line. There were several chances to observe Shake Stew's ongoing heat-up during their autumn festival tour, popping up several times on the Euro-calendar. They steamed straight into a perambulating groove, tenor saxophone burning up, basses driving in tandem, "No More Silence" inviting alto in to skate, then a biting tenor return, buoyed by liquid electric bass-licking (both low end specialists often swapped between acoustic upright and electric axes). An Ethiopian aura is a popular surround nowadays, and "Shake The Dust" benefited here, the paired sticksmen scuttling together tightly. The Stew are buddies with Hütte, so invited them all up for a large combo cataclysm finale, the Moroccan sintir bass axe coming out to play for "Grilling Crickets In A Straw Hut" (misheard by your scribe as 'straw hat,' which he kinda prefers), with copious guitar incontinence from Tobias Hoffmann, and a fried alto solo in the reverb-squall style. A well-compatible pair of bands this night, certainly..!

Matters reverted to solemn artistry at the beginning of the next evening's run, with German pianist Michael Wollny's trio, featuring guesting Japanese reedsman Kazutoki Umezu. Bjork and Hindemith were sitting together on his set-list, as an extreme susurrus of minimalism grew into Wollny and drummer Eric Schaefer making exactly simultaneous strikes. The pianist flat-handed at super speed, unloading density to prepare for the entrance of Umezu's rich bed of clarinet, shakuhachi flute frissons, and then bass clarinet.

Above, in the Amerikana room, the English trumpeter Henry Spencer led his Juncture quintet. Spencer is not even well-known in his own land, although his debut album, The Reasons Don't Change, was released by the Whirlwind label. Guitarist Ant Law was the highest profile player in the Juncture line-up, engaging in a Frippian escalation during "FU45," chased by a scalding solo from Spencer himself, cutting in almost before the guitar had climaxed. He showed off a new number of a gentler sort, "Perfect Hindrance," with a harmonising effect on his horn, eventually soloing with only the accompaniment of a frantic drumbeat from David Ingamells. Spencer switched to flugel for "Hopeless, Heartless," bassman Andrew Robb taking a solo whilst Law floated. A coasting funk lightness took over "The Survivor And The Descendant," a slowie with wah-wah pedal encroachment, topped by a crackling trumpet fx solo, across an intersecting theme, Law finding a low bass twang on his axe.

It may well have been growing late, but one of the entire festival's best sets was about to erupt, with Steve Coleman & Five Elements, highlighting the wordsmith skills and thrills of Kokayi, who is schizophrenically divided between rap, poetry and song, handling all with supreme energy. Coleman and band prefer their monitor speakers behind them. Kokayi started spurting syllables almost straight away, as trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson soloed, Coleman himself racing on his heels, all this action transpiring during the first few minutes. Kokayi's rapping verged on scatting, then he made a swerve and an acceleration into thrash-rap, pushed by the avant-bebop horn speedsters. The scat got up to amphetameth levels. This was becoming a festival of transmogrified vocal techniques. Coleman's alto saxophone began to sound like a melodica, Charlie Parker on a skateboard, a Bird graffiti artist. The traffic jam horns raced over automobile roofs, razor-switching to funk, as Anthony Tidd squeezed out no-wave basslines, black fed into white fed into black, Kokayi sing-rapping in a bold new style.

There was a return to the Kombank edifice on the penultimate night, for a sharing of the stage between Charles Lloyd and the Mingus Big Band. The latter would need to hurry home to NYC for the next day's weekly residency at the Jazz Standard club, but for now they were set to consume Belgrade's city centre. Although the roster has a certain malleability, week by week, most of the principle regulars were here in Serbia: Wayne Escoffery (tenor saxophone), Dave Kikoski (piano), Boris Kozlov (bass) and Steve Slagle (flute/saxophones), who'd arranged "Fables Of Faubus," getting the band to sing in unison, as this swinging march launched. Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre was also a marked presence on this evening. Escoffery opened "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" with an unaccompanied solo, joined by a bowing Kozlov, then the drumming of Donald Edwards. The tenor man remained the principal soloist throughout, receding then boosting forward periodically. Slagle offered tart alto contortions during his solo on "So Long, Eric."

Charles Lloyd has become a frequent tourer on the European festival scene, this time bringing out his Kindred Spirits crew, with Marvin Sewell (guitar), Gerald Clayton (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Lloyd savoured a ballad mood initially, slowly developing a tougher swinging motion, but at length an accumulation of slower pieces tended to impart a largely turgid mood, sounding too similar in nature. Close to the conclusion, Sewell dominated with a slide guitar solo, fresh out of the blues Delta, with Lloyd choosing flute, for one of the most lively portions of the set, sounding very much like a Donovan number.

Later, upstairs, the final pairing of youthful, brash bands: Axes, from Portugal, and Freaks, from France. Axes are heavily built, with two drummers, and four saxophonists, one of them a baritone bombardier in the shape of Rui Teixira. They are like a wedding band, running amok. The four horns scrabbled together, welcoming "Robot" for a heavy riffing development, drums a-thunder. This weightiness turned into a lighter-footed New Orleans parade derivation, with singalong spirituals an option. Freaks specialise in wild, shunting contrasts, with frontman violinist and leader Théo Ceccaldi veering from distorted strafing to pizzicato preening, sometimes existing in a calm space, like when drummer Etienne Ziemniak walked off to take a break.

The final night was a later extension, with just a single gig instead of the customary four sets. The Mingus/Lloyd blow-out would have been the festival climax, but then one of Norway's greatest veteran players became available for a more sensitive, contemplative conclusion. Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad offered a solo exploration, from a Mozart beginning that he took into a steadily increasing improvisatory development, finding a doomy interior, under his piano lid, making bass rumblings, then breaking into wild fragmentations, rolling into melodic strands that sounded derived from "Moon River," as Audrey Hepburn did Henry Mancini. ECM has always been Bjørnstad's natural home, and he dedicated "The Visitor" to Manfred Eicher, for 50 years of that label's profound achievements. Coincidentally, there have also been five decades of profound achievement from Bjørnstad himself. The mighty Belgrade Jazz Festival is a mere stripling by comparison (!), not celebrating 50 until 2021, even though they were interrupted and made dormant by the disintegrating war, over the 15 years from 1990 to 2005...

Photograph: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

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