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Garana Jazz Festival 2017

Nenad Georgievski By

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Garana Jazz Festival
Garana, Romania
July 6-9, 2017

Running from the 6-9th of July, the 21st edition of the Garana Jazz Festival saw the jazz world descend on its location near the Garana village, high in the Semenic Mountains of Romania. Obviously, the artistic credibility and the creative energy were the hallmarks of this year's edition as the festival boasted enormous audience attendance during the four days. This year the festival presented a wide spectrum of artists from the jazz world and beyond, ranging from well-established artists or high voltage star power complemented with up-and-coming musicians and emerging local talents. As such, it was a stirring showcase of first class music where the selection of artists was diverse and of a caliber that is not often experienced elsewhere in the region.

Since its inception in 1997, through the years, Garana Festival's reputation has gained increasing visibility on an international scale which itself is a true achievement considering how distant it is from the country's biggest centers—Timisoara or Bucharest. Located in the remote area of the mountainous region of the western Carpathians, the festival's surroundings are truly magical with its endless woods and surrounding lakes. It's as if the locations were taken from a travel book by writer Mihail Sadoveanu. The surrounding hills and lakes are as important as the festival itself as the scenery also contributes to the overall feel of how the festival is perceived and enjoyed. Production wise it is very demanding but obviously adversity sometimes causes people to think outside the box and as a result, Garana festival has built a loyal and resilient audience who have been coming here for years from various corners of the country and from abroad. As the performances start the nights get chillier since the festival is happening on a higher altitude or a sudden rain might break but that doesn't make a difference as the audience is prepared for anything. The region is a popular tourist destination for native Romanians during the summer and festival's surroundings were filled with every kind of tent and camper.

But for me, the festival started even before I listened to the first notes. Some of the bands were traveling to Garana from Belgrade (Serbia) which is where I was picked up along with the festival's opening act Tonbruket. Tonbruket are a fabulous bunch of people and for the next several hours we had plenty of talks and jokes. Since all of the band members have played in various other projects we reminiscent of their past performances and projects at other festivals.

And the band was simply great during that opening night. Tonbruket truly defies any categorization when attempting to explain or describe its music as it draws from a plethora of other musics and experiences. Its music, which aesthetically has that roughness of a rock band, has been combined with the sensibility and the playfulness of jazz music and that is just a starting point for what they bring into their music. All throughout its set, it was obvious that the band boasts some very talented musicians. Drummer Andreas Werliin's propulsive and sometimes tribal beats drove the band forward and along with Martin Hederos's playful and bubbly vintage keyboards it did remind of early Pink Floyd and they even slightly referenced "Interstellar Overdrive" during the set. All of this was expanded by Dan Berglund's thick bass lines. Tonbruket seems to extract whole ecosystems of music from another era and bring them to life now. Guitarist Johan Lindström's melodic guitar lines easily electrified the music with an emotional intensity and he added a huge variety to its sound palette when he played the pedal steel guitar. But beyond that, its music sat in a slow-boil place between composed and improvised music. It was an assembly of weird and capable equals making great music and feel.

The performance of guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel was, for the most part, a low-key affair. Surrounded by a group of supreme musicians such as the Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, Gwilym Simcock on piano and Ralph Alessi on trumpet, most of his material was lyrical and emotional but the tempos were all even or at a sluggish pace with large passages with very little activity. While the dynamics slightly shifted at moments all of this sounded very unconvincing to my ears.

But what dominated in the festival's program were artists that are in any way related to the German label ECM where some of them were even performing material/projects that are still unrecorded. Such was the performance of guitarist David Torn, saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith under the banner of The Sun of Goldfinger. The trio's performance was one of the highlights of this festival as its music went far beyond the borders of either jazz, rock, electronic and improvised music and wowed everyone in the attendance.

As is known all of these musicians have played together in different configurations either with Torn's Prezens or Berne's Snakeoil. Torn's own discography indicates an artist whose vision is expansive and cross-genre music. He has stretched the sound of his guitar way beyond its conventional limits and has brought a completely different aesthetic to sonic layering and aural sound sculpturing. Torn is a master of looping, processing, and textures and it was this exploratory and colorful aesthetic that he brought into this trio. Throughout the lengthy sets, he created a constantly shifting network of dissonant and consonant textures. Berne's often powerful and dissonant sax lines and sounds had different roles. Sometimes he acted as an accompanist, sometimes he created minimalistic repetitive lines on the sax or would directly engage in a duel with the others.

The Sun of Goldfinger is a trio capable of great extremes, but it's equally capable of subtle beauty. The Trio easily shifted between pre-written and improvised parts and on the spot it created music with unexpected sonic colors that had to be seen and experienced to be believed. It was improv-heavy and sometimes it was obliquely beautiful music that obviously has stemmed from many sources. Together they ventured into uncharted territories of both shape and sound. Obviously, the pre-written parts were kept minimal so as to let the improvisations take a center stage. As a result, the trio responded with an appealing mix of textures, dark melodies and complex phrasing that appeared out of nowhere but were full of organic feeling. And it was these astonishingly beautiful and unheard sounds and textures and musical sensibilities that have managed to keep things creative all throughout their set.

The program of the festival also included morning concerts that took place at the Văliug Catholic Church where local Romanian bands such as Mircea Tiberian & Marta Hristea and Arcuș Trio performed.

Several rising stars delivered noteworthy performances, like the Vasil Hadžimanov band who gave a great performance. The band sounded as tight as always and it gave the audience their all. The band consists of extraordinary virtuoso players and there were chops abound throughout the performance, but the band has grown beyond superfluous displays of virtuosity and its early Weather Report template. The set list was a mixture of upbeat and slower songs as well as improvisations. Apart from playing selections like "Zulu" and "Dolazim" from their last record, Alive, and one of Hadzimanov's most renowned compositions "Ohrid" the set, for the most part, consisted of new compositions that will find their place in a new album hopefully next year. This is a habit that Hadzimanov has to road test his compositions before he records them and he delivered wonderful gems of songs titled as "Hadji," "Milkin Fun" and "Tunnel." The performance of Nguyen Le with Ngo Hong Quang that followed elevated the excitement and the dynamics even further during the third evening. Le's recent projects seem to be not only diverse and unpredictable, but they are reflecting a multicultural world where anything is possible. He is a French born artist of Vietnamese origins and yet this perfectly sums up his colorful and multifaceted music that in a way reflects the Paris' diverse global musical culture and his desire to reconnect with his own Vietnamese origins and culture. Actually, Le's entire career has been predicated on cross-genre boundary busting and in return, this has yielded some fascinating musical hybrids throughout the years in his oeuvre where one of them is the project Ha Noi, a duet with Vietnamese singer and multi-instrumentalist Ngô Hong Quang. At Garana they were joined by Stéphane Edouard, a master percussionist who not only worked with Le on this project but on the Saiyuki record as well.

Le, who is a virtuoso master of the electric guitar on the path of the great Jimi Hendrix showcased his mastery of the guitar with which he easily melted both modern and traditional sounds, melodies and harmonies. In his hand, the guitar is not just an ax for showing off, but a whole orchestra as he dig deep into the wellspring of Vietnamese traditional songbook. The set list consisted of songs from the record that ranged from both quiet folk songs and ballads to dynamic funky songs augmented by Edouard's powerful and unique percussion to great effect. This virtuosic percussionist engaged in dialogues with the other two and sometimes he combined various percussion instruments so seamlessly as to suggest two players, not just one. On the more dynamic songs, he energized the music with thundering grooves that inspired Le to provide some jaw dropping rapid fire deliveries.

The overall feel was that this music was a cultural mélange and good fun that combined unusual arrangements and extraordinary musicianship. The whole set was simultaneously forward looking and rooted in tradition. In the midst of it, rain began to fall, but none of the people in the audience moved from their seats. That's how good it was.

As befits it, the festival featured jazz from around the globe and it welcomed Cuban pianist Omar Sosa's Quarteto Afrocubano. Dressed in vivid white garb he walked on stage slowly and played slowly on the piano and was backed by a very able and versatile band. His music is evidently inspired by Cuba's rich musical traditions which he married with a varied number of sources within the jazz spectrum and beyond. Within his music, there are traces of various strands of African music and its diaspora which he juxtaposes into something unique where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but its heartbeat is definitely Cuban. The band gave a rollicking performance with its diverse and imaginative repertoire where they played their wonderful compositions and also sang.

Defining what jazz is, for many, is a doomed effort from the very start, but naming and bringing together some of its enlightened virtues is not. For many who attended the Garana Jazz Festival, they could sense what bridges these virtues that jazz possesses together regardless of the multiplicity of guises that jazz always appears in: spontaneity, close listening, the moments when the balance between the planned and the unplanned shift from one second to the next. One who obviously embodies these qualities undoubtedly is guitarist Bill Frisell who along with his accomplices, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen treated the audience with music that shifted across barely detectable splices between compositions and improvised moments. One sure sign that something important is about to happen on stage is when there is an abundance of musicians in the audience. That evening the festival boasted its biggest attendance.

As the band took to the stage rather discretely they just got closer together, formed a circle and with the first sounds of Monk's "Pannonica" they continuously watched each other all throughout the performance almost seemingly unaware of the several thousand people in the attendance. That is why I got closer to the stage to watch how the close dialogue between these three people can create a mesmerizing music that resembled a continuous web of musical conversation.

The set list showed how varied and eclectic their selection was as it featured several covers by Paul Motian "Mumbo Jumbo," and another Monk composition "Epystrophy" while other tracks showcased an emphasis being given to tracks from Frisell's duet with Thomas Morgan "Small Town" with songs such as the title track, "Song for Andrew," It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" (another Paul Motian Cover) and John Barry's "Goldfinger" among other tracks. Still, whatever they played it all sounded like Frisell as it spoke with his vocabulary. At the start, the music was seemingly gentle and fragile but soon it became warm and expansive and it permeated every corner of Poiana Lupului. The group has set a daring new model of creating innovative structures in the moment rather than just merely playing tunes and playing solos. Instead, it was all about feel and flow. Every note counted. Nearly all of the tracks had the quality of being a journey, with the players straying toward themes but rarely stating something with clarity.

Frisell has a seemingly simple sounding playing style where the melodies seem to disappear almost before they have been fully formed, just like a smoke that uncurls from a cigarette. There was very little flashy technical display in what he played and yet the wonder of fluidity and invention were all there, supported by Wollesen and Scherr. By the look on their faces it was obvious they were having fun and were enjoying themselves. Obviously, Frisell and his comrades have moved to a higher plane where they make music and art that are rarefied and deeply humanistic. In the end, the audience didn't want to let them go and demanded an encore as it is customary when an artist wows them.

The evening ended with an unusual performance by the Håkon Kornstad Quartet led by saxophonist Hakon Kornstad. It was light jazz but what impressed the people in attendance were his vocal abilities. Kornstad is a tenor and sang arias more than he played. It was impressive and the audience liked it, but pity the man who has to play after a winning performance by a musician of a Frisell caliber.

The opening act on the fourth and closing night was the duet of Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava, backed by members of Stanko's New York Quartet with Reuben Rogers on bass and Gerald Cleaver on the drums and a member of Rava's band, Giovanni Guidi on piano. These two artists are the elder statesmen of European jazz and are renowned soloists and bandleaders in their own right. In jazz, it has proven that the personnel that comes together in a special way can be a result either of second choices or just plain serendipity. This pairing obviously falls into the latter category. The program was beautifully balanced where the two meshed on stage, performing beautiful compositions where the distinct voices complemented each other. Their performance was a nice opening for what was arguably one of the best moments at Garana i.e. John Scofield's Uberjam band.

What John Scofield does in a studio setting is one thing, but I believe that performing live on stage is where his genius emerges and everything about him truly shines bright. I was transfixed by the sight and sounds of what he and his Uberjam band did on stage at Garana's closing night. Scofield was full of energy and sass. His adventurous improvisations and emotional horn-like phrasing left no doubt as to his capabilities as a guitarist. Propelled by Dennis Chambers on the drums, Andy Hess on bass and Avi Bortnick on rhythm guitar and samples, Sco was in full wild-man mode, playful and gregarious where every note he played emerged sharp and ringing as a trumpet. Bortnick is the special ingredient in the band adding his fills on the rhythm guitar and a myriad of samples. His invigorating and decisive sense of rhythm and colors were crucial for the band's overall feel and sounds as he acted as a musical director in the shade.

Scofield tends to look at familiar music horizons from different and unusual angles so his music consisted of a broad palette of sounds. Chambers was like a machine on the drums, making it look incredibly easy as he drove the band through a wide array of songs that were influenced by like Fela Kuti's Afrobeat, funk, breakbeat, blues and dub reggae. Scofield even addressed the audience and he singled out the first time he and Chambers have played together and he dived deeply into his catalog for the rendition of "Blue Matter."

The atmosphere at the Poiana Lupulu was one of empowering and celebratory joy and it had fans dancing everywhere, some of them rushing in front of the stage. Being a summer jazz festival that is he dedicated one the last songs "Endless Summer" to the dancing crowd. It was a unique and truly a riveting experience to be in the audience that night. The great compositions, the great playing, and the searing energy made this one of the festival's most memorable concerts. This was supposed to be the perfect ending to this extraordinary celebration of music happening at Garana but it was pianist Bobo Stenson's trio who had the honor to put down the festival's curtains. Even though it didn't really fit in exactly after Scofield's explosive performance, still his trio played an exhilarating set. Stenson has a sense of dramaturgy and his playing was clear, inventive, and each note had a purpose. Mats Eilertsen's bass playing provided a good foundation of support while Jon Falt's drumming was dynamic and at moments ecstatic as he tried to squeeze all kinds of sounds from various parts of his drum set.

During the festival, I could see that its audience was composed of people from different ages, but it also included lots of young families with children, a sight not often seen at other jazz festivals. Sometimes it felt like an annual outing for family recreation, but when the performances started the people always listened. In the end, I left the festival in the same manner as I arrived there but this time on my way back I traveled with Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava, Reuben Rogers and other members of the band in a terrible hurry to reach the airport in Belgrade in time. During the trip, I managed to interview Stanko who was turning 75 the next day. All in all, Garana was a magic and an exhilarating experience. It was four intense days full of music with plenty of discoveries in a beautiful setting that Garana is, along with meeting some nice people. The festival has a tight and devout community that truly supports it. Along the way, it also bonds people together apart from serving great music for everyone's taste. Garana Jazz Festival showed how jazz can connect with a wider audience. One cannot ask much more than that of a festival.

Photo Credit: Richard Wayne
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