Belgrade Jazz Festival
Dom Omladine/MTS Dvorana
October 26-30, 2022
There are now early signs that some festivals might be set to struggle during 2023, but even if certain aspects are reduced, much of the damage can be cosmetically screened. So far. Perhaps it depends on the economic state of a particular country, or how far advanced the support of a national or local government might be committed to its arts- crutch provision. Regardless, the folks that run festivals are almost universally hardcore music enthusiasts, and they will transcend the future empty-rattling of the coffers. Just like all we (now literally) culture vultures did in 2008, when The Man discovered that he didn't have to pay such lowly creatures.
If the Belgrade Jazz Festival hadn't publicly revealed that its working budget had been decimated only a few weeks prior, front-of-the-scenes folks might not have noticed, quite frankly, given that its five days still featured a mass of international and local Serbian acts, from two up to five each day. The BJF remained energised, but your scribe saw the original list, and its programme was indeed slashed, with chief venue Dom Omladine's upstairs, after-hours Amerikana suite gigs virtually annihilated (some of those artists were moved down to the main theatre, transferring adventurous sounds onto a more commercial platform, thereby saving on heating costs, as well as technical crew and equipment hire).
The programme-cutting was partly due to the removal of touring support from certain other European lands, whose cultural foundations were set to sponsor gigs by key artists. Even so, compared to many other festivals, the BJF still ended up with a mighty schedule that included Sexmob
, (trumpeter) Avishai Cohen, Lars Danielsson
, Immanuel Wilkins
, Omar Sosa
, Nubya Garcia
, the (French) Orchestre National de Jazz, and the trio of Ken Vandermark
, Nate Wooley
and Paul Lytton
. That's a pretty impressive line-up for most festivals, even during the 'good' times...
This 38th edition pulled in a bigger audience than the 37th, now that most folks have returned to socialising. Themed as Jazzbeats
, the five days likened rhythm to heart-pulse, as signified by the entangled musical-organic organ-melding used as its merchandising logo for 2022. The consolidation of the two performing spaces had a positive effect of combining jazz styles in democratic fashion. Some of the renegade acts that would usually storm the upstairs barricades until well past the Witching Hour now got to disperse their sounds at 7pm, around the main concert hall. For instance, the trio of Ken Vandermark (reeds), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Paul Lytton (drums) played in a completely free fashion, even though not averse to instantaneous construction of patterns and progressions. The Chicago, New York and London scenes united, this trio spanning three generations, and representing different schools of freedom, stylistically bonded through regular meetings.
A sudden busyness suddenly cut to sparse activity, Lytton favouring a flat, muted sound, barren of ring, with the three players running fast-switching solo emphatics, leaning forward rather than rising above their colleagues. The three are all concerned with their innate percussiveness, as breath control facilitates stutter-putters or isolated hits from the horns. Wooley looks more like a perturbed woodsman with each passing year, nervous that one of his trees is about to be chainsawed. His playing is tightly wired. Vandermark becomes prominent in the throaty free fashion, intersecting with Wooley as the pair find a common hum. Lytton provides gentle underpinning, and the subtlety is maintained as Vandermark chooses high siren clarinet and Wooley mutes with a slight wah-wah action, in a rubberised morse code. Even when the music is spacious there's a tautness stretched between the three players. The mood sinks to an ember-ripple. Lytton probes his crumpled tin can, draping thin chains, friction caused. Wooley holds up a thin metal sheet to his bell, buzzing its surface while circular breathing. As your scribe sits on the front row, he's hoping that these micro-moves will swoop right up to the circle. Vandermark's fulsome tenor saxophone returns for the final piece, prompting Lytton to adopt a jazz drummer tumble. It's a fine experience to hear such intimate sonics re-framed on the main stage, and being mostly welcomed by the large crowd.
This evening was one of the festival's best, as Sexmob took the same stage afterwards, celebrating 25 years with the stable line-up of Steven Bernstein
(slide trumpet), Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone), Tony Scherr
(bass) and Kenny Wollesen
(drums). Or should that be unstable, when considering their ignited musical stance? For much of that 25 years, BJF artistic director Voja Pantić has been trying hard to book this NYC bunch, and now the spheres have at last aligned.
It takes some time to recognise Prince's "Kiss," but Sexmob has interpreted this song many times, always boldly deconstructing. It's the bass line that's telling. Well- sprung, and topped by sharp horn riffs, with Wollesen adding soft electro-drumbeats. This addition of peripheral effects was the one contentious element of the set, tending to be merely distracting, and not sonically aggressive to be a creatively disruptive device. Usually, Sexmob's horners can provide their own abundance of acoustic effects that leap way beyond what's expected of their instruments. Bernstein uses three microphones, depending on whether he's talking or playing, or in search of a more garbled slide-sound. He and Krauss often twin their themes very closely, in contrast to the wayward scooting that ensues when they break off running in their own individual directions. The theme of a tune might manifest itself only faintly, until a clearer line is eventually picked out, following some elaborate foreplay. Such is "Goldfinger," first performed by Shirley Bassey in 1964.
Wollesen takes a sensitive mallet solo on Duke Ellington
's "Don't You Know I Care?," with Krauss steadily accelerating his baritone saxophone line, saving this big horn until last, for a slowcoach ballad crawl, riddled with meaningful vibrato. Bernstein gives one of his most eloquent slide solos during "Hit The Dirt," (presumably a new Mobsong) alternating with Krauss, bringing a slightly distorting edge, which ends up as a head-funk slam. For their short encore, Sexmob give Talking Heads a new arrangement, with "Heaven" reincarnated as a funeral dirge. This is the band that presaged The Bad Plus in the disguised cover song arena, and there are signs that Sexmob is similarly moving along towards a greater ratio of original material.
In recent years, the Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen has been concentrating on his electrified Big Vicious outfit, which features twinned drums and guitars, with his own horn coated by effects-wash. The Avishai Cohen Quartet lies at the far end of that street, completely acoustic, and concentrating on a slower, more spacious form of atmospheric jazz. It's difficult to avoid comparisons with the tonal shift from Kind Of Blue
to Bitches Brew
. Cohen has judged just right, particularly for those of us who have caught Big Vicious on two tours, pre-and post-lockdowns.
Here he's operating on an exquisitely sensitised level, the trumpet right back in the spotlight, soloing at length, in a purified state. Cohen heats up even during the course of the set's opening number, building up to a softly spitting, blustery solo, before switching to flugelhorn for the second tune, "Will I Die, Miss, Will I Die?." After this point, Cohen concentrates on his new Naked Truth
suite, establishing an aura of crisp attentiveness. After the introduction, he reverts to trumpet, supported by a mallets section from drummer Ziv Ravitz, and some bowed bass introspection, courtesy of Barak Mori
. Lastly, the delicately chiming piano of Yonathan Avishai
leads into the enchanting journey ahead. Cohen is undeniably in thrall to the music of Miles Davis
, but this new work still sounds like a modern manifestation of such classic, crystalline mood-painting. This Friday appearance of such a mainline jazz vocabulary was almost radically shocking, not only so soon after Cohen's Big Vicious, but also in the context of the BJF's wildly improvising Thursday night sets. Sometimes such coolness can sound revolutionary too, depending upon what it's gliding beside in temporal space.
Again, charting a more mainline trajectory, Lars Danielsson & Liberetto played next, evolving within a later period of the music. Their themes are melodic, but their delivery is dynamic, operating not quite within the fusion realm, although being quite prog rock influenced for a jazz combo. Their Swedish leader Danielsson pivots the compositions around his rooted bass, assisted by compadres that arrive from differing musical homes. Drummer Magnus Ostrom
made his reputation with e.s.t., and is a master of complex big-boom patterns that often step down into a detailed exploration of caressed metal and transforming electronics. The electric guitarist John Parricelli
frequently sounds as soft and subtle as an acoustic practitioner, and is a significant presence on the UK scene. Liberetto's wild card discovery is the Paris-dwelling pianist Grégory Privat
(from Martinique), who plays full-on in the Cuban style, often distracting attention from his more subtle bandmates. It's only Öström who can match Privat's intensity. This curious mélange of players interlocks perfectly, creating a volatile balance of states, from aroused to contemplative. Sharp changes are made between soft space and hard propulsion, lyrical stepped up to driving. During "The Fifth Grade," Privat's piano goes staccato crazy, goaded on by Öström's drums. Danielsson takes a fleet solo, as Privat continues his two-handed spider-pounce splay technique, in an intensified salsa-jazz frenzy.
Despite your scribe's voracious festival appetite, the Saturday headline 9pm set offered a first opportunity. The Immanuel Wilkins Quartet took to the main stage, proceeding to fly at speed throughout most of their performance. The Philadelphian Wilkins wore a long camouflage-patterned jacket, brandishing his alto saxophone almost constantly, mostly playing in a post-John Coltrane
fashion, but frequently teasing with free jazz licks. In fact, the finest section of the set erupted when pianist MicahThomas took a break and the band became a trio with bassist Rick Rosato
and drummer Kweku Sumbry
. The extended rush sounded very much like the closing track of The 7th Hand
, the long "Lift" blow-out, triphammer drumming below harmonic overtone honking, to climax the set, the piano eventually coming back in, then out, the foursome fulfilling all potential to close.
Nubya Garcia required a larger venue, so the British tenor saxophonist appeared at MTS Dvorana, a concert hall that regularly changes its name, as fresh sponsors arrive. She opened with "Source," a dub reggae number that often seems to find itself in this introductory position at Garcia's gigs. The band remains a tight quartet, though Deschanel Gordon
now sits at the keyboards, with Max Luthert
(bass) and Sam Jones (drums) completing the line-up. Every member is important to the full sound, but Jones has an extroverted nature, in speech and sticks, while Garcia has magnified her projecting confidence during the last few years. Gordon constructed a rolling keyboard vamp, as Jones tumbled drum-echo fills, Garcia searing and scorching, with tightly squealing darts. "The Message Continues" emphasised funk vibrations, then "Stand With Each Other" cut to just tenor and drums creating a dub-like space within a jazz sphere. Jones eventually got Garcia to admit that she penned new tune "Six Foot" with him in mind, revealing a slinking acoustic piano line, with smoky tenor striations and cracking-whip drums.
This last night was the only time this year that Dom Omladine's smaller Amerikana upstairs suite was used, a fine, more loosely relaxing location to finish the festival. The Luís Vicente Trio arrived from Lisbon, to play in a relatively interior fashion, taking the festival down in a thoughtful manner. It was another occasion where the relationship between composition and free improvisation wasn't so defined, an increasing tendency among certain performers. We dig it this way, though. There's not always a need to rigidly define the methods on show. Gonçalo Almeida played acoustic upright bass, for a change. All of his recent festival appearances witnessed by your scribe have featured him on heavily amplified electric. Bass bowing, colourful cymbals and Mexican wedding trumpet pursued an abstraction goal, making intuitive pauses, then lashing out collectively.
Almeida's singing strings lift Vicente's flaming horn, with bass and drums hurtling after their leader. They're looking at sheet music, but their outpourings still sound free on "Why No Is No." Pedro Melo Alves
's drumming can become immensely detailed, while the trumpet buzzes overhead, and the bass pounds out its territory. This set flitted from sensitised minimalism right up to battle-charge excess.
Dom Omladine is very centrally-placed in the city of Belgrade. In its immediate environs lie several trusty speed-grub joints, to seek out replenishment in the moments between sets. There's the seemingly all-nighter takeaway, Pizza Kod Mašinca, just across the street, busy as it continually fires up around ten meat or vegetarian varieties available as either slices or complete entities. For sausages, particularly Bavarian-style, just around the corner lies Skadarlijske Kobasice, stacked up on the grill, then rolled in buns, heavy on the onions and chilli. The new place on the block actually has room to sit inside, Yalla Yalla offering excellent shawarma or falafel, with attention to quality and detail in its durum fillings, plus the deployment of its unusual garlic paste.
Also, a few streets further there are a pair of bars worth hanging out in, both of them around 10 minutes walk away. Pub Brod has a seafaring theme, with a couple of local craft beers on tap, plus their own special homebrew. Even better than that is their music policy, which grinds around garage rock, gritty blues and post punk, with sonic selectors offering specialist nights, especially at the weekend. A more physically conventional joint is the Black Turtle Pub IV, one of that brewery's several homes in the city, with a pleasing multi-beer selection on the taps. Unfortunately, their piped music taste was totally awful, revolving around the worst kind of 1980s pop-pap disco-drip, so problematic that it actually forced your scribe to leave the premises. Another day, another playlist?
The best after-hours festival experience involved two nights at the new BAM Club, which is owned by the New Zealand jazz saxophonist Hayden Chisholm
, who has been mostly living in Belgrade in recent years. BAM means Belgrade Academy of Music, after the Brooklyn BAM, we suppose. It's situated in the lower Dorćol quarter, an established bohemian zone that's close to the banks of the Danube. Finding this joint is a challenge, as it's just a doorway down a building's darkened side, but once down the steps we discover a den of thronging Bacchanalia. Chisholm used to run a small kafana (tavern), hidden behind a carwash, where he booked hundreds of bands. Now, this BAM opened near the beginning of '22. The Goethe Institute recently gave them a Steinway piano on a long term loan, which has certainly helped the jazz side of the club bookings. BAM usually has five nights of live music.
Those two sessions couldn't have been more contrasting, the club emanating completely different auras on its Balkan folk and jazz jam session nights. D.K. Heroes was playing on the first night, Friday, led by the extreme virtuosic scythings of fiddler Paganini, along with a singer and accordionist. The main room was so crammed with dancers that it was a challenge to even squeeze through the short-cut side-door that's right next to the stage. Once inside the fray, there was a tad more space to breathe. Who knows how far into the night they played, seemingly without a break? It was 3am when your scribe headed off into the fog, but the Heroes were still in full flight.
Speaking of fog, this is a smoking venue, an increasing trend nowadays, even in Berlin, where we would expect a stricter attitude. Belgrade was many years late with its banning of indoor smokestacks, and no one here observes the rules anyway. Chisholm mentions that the club has quite an efficient air-circulation process, and indeed, it didn't seem to be an overly fugged situation, down in the basement.
The altoman host led a trio jam session the next night, a Saturday, and the feel of the club was completely altered. Tables and chairs were set out, and there was room to circulate. It was also possible to notice the actual design ambiance, now that the space had cleared. Mask artwork lined the back wall, and retro furniture dotted the sides, along with paintings and flashing fairy lights. Along the concrete honeycomb ceiling, a dominant industrial hum signalled the evacuation of fumes, while jazz platters spun from down the front. The toilets have a Wild West feel, with their swingin' saloon doors, and there are hanging tassels to secrete the urinals.
As the hours sped on, there was no shortage of young players waiting for their chance to shine. Even after a lengthy pause in the music, Chisholm returned for one more set, once again post-3am. He strolled around, serenading the audience, as he warmed up, sounding quite Johnny Hodges in style, at times. A pianist joined for a few numbers, followed by a trombonist and a tenor player. They played "Bye Bye Blackbird," but we forgot this, during its course, as it hopped in all directions.
These were long nights, right at the climax of a triumphant Belgrade Jazz Festival, which battled adversity once again, so soon after the lockdown years. Even when challenged by a late-stage budget cut, the BJF transcended its difficulties, with a programme so artistically strong that it withstood the scything losses. The organisers, musicians and audience persevered in their many-minded Jazzbeats