Origin has an impressive catalog of CDs, primarily by Pacific Northwest musicians. In the case of Folk Songs, the geography is very different, although the consistent high quality remains the same. Bassist Vasilic Nenad was born in 1975 in the South Serbian city of Nis (a region formerly part of Yugoslavia.) He studied classical doublebass, theory, and choral arranging in high school before moving to Austria in 1994, where he was mentored by Wayne Darling in the jazz department of MusicUniversity-Graz, concentrating his attention on jazz acoustic and electric basses. He is based in Austria, and in addition to two previous CDs as a leader, has worked as a sideman with a number of well-known artists: Dusko Goykovich, Alvin Queen, Sheila Jordan, and Mark Murphy among them.
The Vasilic Nenad Balkan Band combines the haunting Serbian ethnic folk songs of Nenad's now splintered homeland with decidedly modern jazz instrumentation and techniques in an emotionally compelling fashion, with all but one of the arrangements contributed by Nenad ("Biljana Platno Belese" was arranged by Zoran Scekic.) "This album is dedicated to all of the Yugoslavianpeople who died, suffered, and cried during the past ten years of war," as the liner annotation states. There's a palpable sense of joy in the face of great sorrow, optimism despite a series of crushing defeats, and a real beauty that can be terrible and magnificent simultaneously. The central feeling that permeates and infuses this music is similar to the creative improvised music that came out of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And, of course, one should remember that jazz itself was born as a positive force in the face of oppression.
Tenor and soprano saxophonist Klemens Pliem and pianist Stefan Heckel are Austrian, drummer Andjelko Stupar and percussionist Pradrag Peric are - like Nenad - from the former Yugoslavia. All five men are accomplished players, very fluid and expressive in their blending of modern improvisational jazz with Balkan folk traditions. Nenad is a canny and creative arranger, quite adept at bringing a wide variety of tone colors and structures to the quintet's music. You won't find any pat "head-solos-head" tunes with everyone soloing in the same order from piece to piece here; there's a delightfully broad palette of sounds from a relatively small group on this CD, due at least in part to Nenad's fully developed arranging skills. "Sesir Midj" has a mellow solo piano opening, then joined by bass, and finally by the full group with Pliem on soprano. "Ima Jedna Krcma U Planini" begins with drums, then bass, then piano, and then soprano, and has a fine Heckel solo. "Eleno Kerko" commences as an almost Romantic chamber-sounding piano/bass duo before the other three musicians enter, Pliem again on soprano. "Seidefu Majka Budjase" has a very subtle drums/percussion intro, then piano, followed by Nenad's potent bowed bass and impassioned tenor saxophone, setting the stage for a powerfully spiritual performance that is sometimes reminiscent of the Don Pullen/George Adams quartet. "Biljana Platno Belese" is a lyrical waltz stated first by Nenad and Heckel, before Pliem's gritty tenor joins in to draw the lyricism in an upward spiral, with Stupar's brushwork almost more felt than heard. Keith Jarrett's quartets of the 1970s appear to have strongly impacted Nenad's concepts as well; it's as if the spirituals and blues meet avant-garde gestalt of the American quartet has been grafted onto the airy, elegant, ECM-icy ponderings of the European quartet. The best of both worlds? "Ajde Jano" has bass, then piano, and eventually soprano and subdued percussion in a measured, solemn piece that suddenly erupts with a snare snap or two about two-and-half minutes in to the performance, Stupar applying a Blakey boot to the proceedings, and the energy level suddenly rockets into the kind of territory inhabited by Ivo Papasov and His Bulgarian Wedding Band. "Kad Ja Podjoh Na Bembasu" has soprano, bass, then piano, with drums again barely audible at first, providing a floating, limber pulse; there are lovely bass and piano solos here. "Zvijezda Tjera Mjeseca" begins as a piano trio, and Pliem returns to tenor on this slithering, earthy, tango-like piece; his solo here is one of the highlights of the disc, and makes one wish for at least one or two other selections featuring the larger horn. "Zajdi, Zajdi" closes the recording in an introspective, intimate, and emotional mood; Heckel begins unaccompanied, soon joined by Nenad's beautifully articulated col arco solo, then Nenad drops out, letting Heckel continue solo for a few moments, before returning on flute to close the plaintive theme (it sounds like some sort of an ethnic wood flute, but the liner notes do not provide any details.) Folk Songs is an enormously enjoyable recording by a group that has developed a truly distinctive and personal sound. Vasilic Nenad is a name to remember. We'll be hearing much more passionate, trenchant music from this gifted young bassist, arranger, and bandleader.