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Garana Jazz Festival 2017

Nenad Georgievski By

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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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