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European Jazz Conference 2017

Ian Patterson By

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The EJN, inevitably, has evolved over its first thirty years. So too has jazz and so too the geo-political map of Europe. A lot of these changes were reflected in the discourses and dialogues of the EJC 2017, with the past casting almost as long a shadow over the three days as current events.

Day One

During the preliminary greetings to the 220-strong audience in the main sala of the Cankarjev dom EJN staff member Giambattista Tofoni explained the contents of the EJC shoulder bag gifted to everyone. Whist the eye-patch and the neck brace were clearly both sleeping aids Mr. Tofoni didn't clarify if a mass outbreak of snoozing was anticipated. The plastic container, however, was no mere water bottle. "You can put in it anything you want," Mr. Tofoni revealed.

This bold statement could also have served as a metaphor for jazz, for during the three days of the EJC, concert after concert underlined just how far-reaching jazz/improvised vocabulary has become.

Opening Gala Concert

Bojan Z

Since moving from the ex-Yugoslavia [Serbia] to France in the late 1988s, Bojan Z has carved out a niche as an exponent of Balkans folk-flavored jazz. For this concert, the pianist was joined by Slovenian musicians, though it was with an extended solo exhibition that Bojan Z began, launching off with the percussive intro of "Full Half Moon" from Soul Shelter (EmArcy, 2012). This thirteen-minute solo spot was laced with Balkan motifs and ornaments, alluding also to classical music and the influences of Don Cherry, Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett. Bojan Z's very own brand of world music was tender and dramatic in turn, his flowing narrative underpinned by dancing rhythms.

Goran Bojčevski on wooden flute (a kaval, widespread across the Balkans) then joined Bojan Z in a duo performance of one of Bojan Z's traditionally inspired tunes. The flute has a long history in Slovenia, for just a stone's throw away, the National Museum of Slovenia displays what is claimed to be the world's earliest flute, the holes carved into a bear's femur that dates back 43,000 years.

Bojčevski's quintet of Tadej Kampl (bass), Tomaž Marčič (accordion) and Ziga Kozar (drums) then swelled the ranks. Given that the musicians had first played together at the rehearsal earlier in the day, it was perhaps understandable that solos dominated, with the Slovenian leader's clarinet bringing a klezmer air to Bojan Z's dashing "Debacle Presidential." The brief, twenty-minute collaboration came to an end just when you felt the band was really warming to the task.

Rabih Abou Khalil

Lebanese-born, French based oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil has long straddled musical borders, with jazz, fado, French musette, blues and poetry just some of the threads entwined with his Arabic roots. Abou-Khalil was joined by Jared Cagwin on percussion and Luciano Biondini on accordion, a trio whose collaborations date back twenty years. The fiery "When Frankie Shot Lara" saw Biondini and Abou-Khalil deliver impassioned solos, with Cagwin's visceral rhythms stoking the flames.

Abou-Khalil has long enjoyed hanging comical titles on his compositions and "Crisp, Crap Coating"—a riveting number inspired by Finnish cuisine—was no exception. Yet the humour—and Abou Khalil could easily double as a stand-up comedian—could not mask the serious art in his compositions nor the mastery of his instrument; Abou Khalil is to the oud what Paco De Lucia was to the Spanish guitar.

The love song "If You Should Leave Me (Si Tu Me Quittes)" and the powerful lament "Dreams of a Dying City" highlighted the emotional depth in Abou-Khalil's pen. The latter, originally written for Beirut during the civil war, could today serve as a heartfelt cry for far too many cities throughout the Middle East.

Riffing oud and driving percussion colored the final number, with Biondini leaving his best to last with a wonderfully fluid solo. Abou-Khalil's ensembles small and large, however, have always been about the collective voice as this beautifully balanced concert, powerful yet elegant, amply demonstrated.

Day Two: Keynote Speech:

Rabih Abou Khalil: Music Across Borders

In a hugely entertaining and wide-ranging Keynote speech, Rabih Abou-Khalil touched on themes including early musical influences, migration, music as an expression of self, and reading copies of Das Spiegel in a Beirut basement for two years while the bombs fell. And, through medium of a simple, yet colorful parable, he suggested how better linguistic skills could potentially bring an end to all human conflict.

Growing up in Beirut, Abou-Khalil's first encounter with music from the West came in the shape of Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk and Tom Jones. How different About-Kahlil's path in life might have been had he been seduced by Welsh crooner Jones instead of Zappa and Monk.

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