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Jazz Festival Ljubljana 2019


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Cankarjev Dom
Jazz Festival Ljubljana
June 18-22, 2019

Ljubljana—capital of the Republic of Slovenia, member of the EU, neighbored by Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy—hosts a now six decades old jazz festival. The event is organized by Cankarjev House/Cankarjev Dom, a prestigious, state-run cultural center in midtown Ljubljana opposite the Slovenian parliament. The center resides in one of the impressive two neighboring towers, the other part being the National Bank of Slovenia.

Cankarjev Dom was created in the 1980s to foster collaboration between all art disciplines. Ivan Cankar (1876-1918) is held to be the most important writer to shape Slovenian identity: "Cankarjev Dom believes that cultural, artistic and scientific creativity meets the basic condition for attaining spiritual freedom and the richer spiritual lives of people and social development."

Billy Hart

Veteran master Billy Hart (1940) was the clearest link to the early pioneering days of the festival in the early 60s. In those days Hart was connected to the group of the Montgomery Brothers (Monk, Wes, Buddy), to Wes Montgomery, Buck Hill, Shirley Horn, Jimmy Smith and also new soul artists such as Otis Redding and Sam . At the end of the 60s, he moved into new territories with, amongst others, Herbie Hancock Sextet and Dave Liebman (Quest). He has been visible through the course of more than five decades. In Ljubljana this found its expression in his appearance in the trio of Slovenian musician of the youngest generation, pianist Marko Črnčec/Churnchetz (1986) together with Dutch bassist Joris Teepe /Joris Taipe/ (1962) from the middle generation. The trio played a magnificent, enjoyable set with wonderful dynamics and great finesse thereby drawing a line from the past to the height of the present.

While Joris Teepe has been running in the circuit for quite a while, active in Europe as well the in the US, New York resident Marko Churnchetz has already a notably number of albums under his belt, among which are Devotion with Mark Shim, Chris Tordini and Justin Brown and the latest one Ace To Live with Harish Raghavan, Justin Brown and Jonathan Hoard. The trio with Hart and Teepe celebrated its first album Brooklyn Sessions.

Bits of history

When going back to the time of the first Jazz Festivals in Europe it becomes clear that all came into being on the Eastern and North-Western periphery and not in Central Europe. Looking closer, it also becomes clear how it depended on politics on a macro and a micro level. These are a few landmarks of the history of jazz festivals (in Europe) taking the Newport Festival in the USA as point of departure:

Newport (USA) 1954, Sopot (Poland) 1956, Warsaw (Poland) 1958, Bled (Yugoslavia/Slovenia) 1960, Juan-Les-Pins (France) 1960, Molde (Norway) 1961, Berlin (Germany) 1964, Montreux (Switzerland) 1967, The Hague (1976).

Jazz Festival Ljubljana has an impressive history of six decades. It did not run in a straight line throughout but had a few crooked parts too. It started in 1960 as Yugoslavia Jazz Festival in Bled and 1967 moved to Ljubljana. Another significant turning point was 12 years later in 1979 when the festival organization was handed to the then newly established Cultural Center Cankarjev Dom, a state organization in former Yugoslavia. This caused a schism between Cankarjev Dom and the original organizer, Jazz Society Ljubljana, as well as an internal schism at Cankarjev Dom itself.

After the festival organization was given to Cankarjev dom, Jazz Society Ljubljana started again organizing a Yugoslavian jazz music focused festival held in Bled. Until the mid-1990s it also organized regular jazz concerts in Ljubljana, worked on the local jazz culture, managing, for example, to install a jazz course into Ljubljana Music and Ballet Conservatory curriculum. In 2003, the Festival of Slovenian Jazz was held at hotel Lev in Ljubljana and afterwards was moved to Ravne na Koroškem.

Internal controversies about the artistic direction of the Ljubljana Festival led to so much pressure that the people responsible for a more open musical programming of the festival left in 1984 and established the Druga Godba Festival. In practice, it means that there are now three different festivals as successors of the original festival founded in 1960.

In the '80s, Jazz Festival Ljubljana got a clear international perspective and direction. In 1982, Sun Ra Orchestra appeared there as well as Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron (1982), Irene Schweizer (1982), Lester Bowie Ensemble (1982), Vienna Art Orchestra (ca. 1985), Anthony Braxton Quartet (1985), Julius Hemphill Jah Band (1985), Dudu Pukwana & Zila (1986), McCoy Tyner Trio (1986), The Art Ensemble of Chicago (1987), and Henry Threadgill Sextet (1989). The 90s brought Steve Coleman's Five Elements (1990), Miles Davis (1991), Don Byron Klezmer Orchestra (1994), Bill Frisell Group , Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (2001), Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet (2002), Jan Garbarek Group (2003), Ornette Coleman Quartet (2004), Abdullah Ibrahim (2005), , Alexander von Schlippenbach & Die Enttäuschung (2006), and Charlie Haden Quartet West (2008). For the more recent history see my review here (2017), here (2014) and here (2012). Artistic director Bogdan Benigar has profiled the festival and the Jazz and World Series of Cankarjev Dom the past decade in cooperation first with Pedro Costa from Lisbon, then with Edin Zubčević from Sarajevo.

Slovenian fields

This year's edition presented a greater number of homegrown musicians of different generations and Slovenian musicians from abroad (New York, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Groningen).

Alphabet/Young Explorer series

The Alphabet and Young Explorers series organized by renowned Slovenian drummer Dré A. Hočevar. The series was set up in order to bring new generations of musicians close to the goings-on of the festival and to strengthen ties with the young scene. It happened here with the series in a much freer way than through the usual showcase format.

It comprised the duo of Alla Blehman (voc, flute) and Nina Virant (voc, perc), the group of vocalist Veronika Kumar, the sextet of bassist Gašper Livk, the trio of trumpeter Maj Kavše, the Chimera duo of Carolina Giannakopoulou (voc) and Domen Bohte—(voc/g), and the Kukushai trio of vocalist Eva Poženel with pianist Rok Zalokar and drummer Bojan Krhlanko. There was a striking number of vocalists present here, all of notable character and artistic profile. In the open-air concert situation in the park, taken as a litmus test, Veronika Kumar was the most outstanding, farthest carrying, resonating voice. All others, each with an original approach, had a clear developmental potential especially the Blehman/Virant duo.

Not all came from the local breeding ground. For young Slovenian musicians there is a longer existing Graz-, Vienna-, Groningen and Amsterdam connection.

There are a number of renowned Slovenian musicians that are active abroad, especially in the scenes of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna and New York, such as pianist Marko Črnčec/Churnchetz, pianist Kaja Draksler, drummer Dré Hocevar, drummer/cellist Kristijan Krajncan, saxophonist Igor Lumpert, vocalist/electronic musician Maja Osojnik & Band, saxophonist Jure Pukl, saxophonist Cene Resnik, guitarist Jani Moder with his large ensemble Ecliptic. In between we find veterans like percussionist Zlatko Kaucic, who this time supplied a concert for/with children together with multi-instrumentalist Boštjan Gombač. Also, in the festival schedule were klaviermeister Drago Ivanusa (1969), one of the main film-and theatre composers of Ljubljana and a forceful piano recitalist, and Rotterdam-based guitarist/vocalist Mihael Hrustelj (1991) presenting a tour through classical, flamenco and Balkan fields.

3x Clean Feed

Ljubljana Jazz Festival has a longstanding, strong relationship and collaboration with the Lisbon record label Clean Feed. Clean Feed released a series of high caliber live-concerts of the festival and Clean Feed director Pedro Costa has functioned in the past seven years as artistic co-director. This southern cross-connection has been a unique collaboration in the European festival landscape and continues unabated under new conditions.

Igor Lumpert's Chromatic Vortex

The first tour of Chromatic Vortex, a new configuration led by New York saxophonist Igor Lumpert, comprising a highly promising combination of pianist Aruán Ortiz, cellist Tomeka Reid, vocalist Lana Cencic and drummer Chad Taylor, also brought this group to Ljubljana in Lumpert's country of origin. Known for his excellent group Innertextures with Greg Ward, Chris Tordini and Kenny Grohowski, this new undertaking brings new harmonic and emotional colors to the game as part of an original approach to unleash 'chemical' reactions between heterogeneous musical sources and impulses, and melt those into ascending special shadings. The rich unfolding music, fragile then angular, tilting and illuminating hidden tinting, can best be indicated as appealing 'Clarity of the Unclear.' It was, in all respects, different from common ways of jazzing or grinding up folk and other sources. Chromatic Vortex focused in a highly original way "on the co-relation between creative/improvised music and free jazz with ancient folkloric Balkan melodies and rhythms." The group carefully sounded the music out— sometimes with some cautiousness thereby—intentionally or not -raising awareness of the delicacy of the transitions and establishing a closeness with its listeners.

The Rite of the Trio

Drummer Pedro Melo Alves from Porto is a strong up-and-coming musician of the latest generation. In Portugal he recently received the Award named after legendary pianist/composer Bernardo Sassetti (1970-2012) for his compositional work, in Italy he just received the named after Italian grandmaster Giorgio Gaslini (1929-2014). The Rite of the Trio configuration that he shares with Portuguese guitarist André Silva and Portuguese bassist Filipe Louro has become a hot favorite at this year's festivals. Festival Alto Adige in Bolzano in particular presented him in three different configurations, one of them a brand-new collaboration with bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Eve Risser, Abdul Moimême and three vocalists.

Rite of the Trio, that gave its first concert in 2013, is now shaking up the self-evidentialities of jazz performance beyond Portuguese borders. The group has developed and cultivated its very own 'procedure' of stop, go and throw, turn and burn, cut off, speed up and slow down, freeze, breeze and melt, unravel and let hang. This way, roaming the quarries of style, it juggles fragments of patterns, snippets from various sources, of broad diversity in mood and temperament, temperature and speed—brute and serene, singeing and lingering. With juvenile luciferian pleasure, the three musicians mutually undermined these patterns in a theatrical game. It was playful deconstruction, tongue-in-cheek with a smile -cool serious fun— the work of three coequal musicians, Filipe Louro's fierce and loose bass, André Silva's roaring guitar and Pedro Melo Alves' incisive and heaving drums. During its stay in Ljubljana the trio also recorded a new studio-album for Clean Feed.

Kaja Draksler Octet

The large (multinational) ensemble of Slovenian musician-composer Kaja Draksler was a little miracle of unified heterogeneity— agitating and captivating. Like a prospering wild plant it sprouted out from various sides, winning height, occupying space and unfolding into a movable interlacing whole that incorporated contrasting, mutually illuminating and emphasizing forms and colorings of neighboring plants. Nourished by rain showers and brushed by falling winds, it wound its way through the rural alpine landscape filled with rising, exultant elf-and faun-like singing. In the final phase, the musicians spread out over the audience forming a newly germinating and wrapping vegetal structure. Draksler's ensemble comprising George Dumitriu (violin), Ada Rave and Ab Baars (sax), Lennart Heyndels (bass), Onno Govaert (dr), Björk Níelsdóttir and Laura Polence (voc), excelled through its dynamic interplay of convergent and divergent forces with splendid outliers like the shock waves of Ada Rave's fulminant roars.

Some more musicians

There was only one full solo-concert given by extraordinary double bassist Joëlle Léandre. She is an improviser pur sang and she interacted with qualities of the surroundings as well as integrating alternating varieties of her voice, an experience of a singular kind. There were two outstanding double bass players of the young generation at the festival, too: Manu Mayr (1986) from Vienna and Daniel Casimir from London. Both went into a remarkable totality of their instrument's sounding, although in different ways with different attacks.

Manu Mayr (1989) started his appearance with an elongated solo on his double bass. He created astonishing long confluent lines of integrated bowed and plucked parts before changing to bass-guitar when he continued with his group Synesthetic 4. Although quite risky to play a double bass solo concert open air, Mayr succeeded in catching and stretching the attention at high degree thereby introducing the audience into a newly explored original sound world. The music of Synesthetic 4 then was rustling leaves and a thirsty, ringing groove.

Mayr is a founding member of renowned Austrian group Kompost 3 (with trumpeter Martin Eberle, keyboarder Benny Omerzell and drummer Lukas König) that made its start 10 years ago in 2009 and he is one of the most inventive and forward heading musicians of the Vienna scene. Mayr's concert was part of the partnership of/exchange of the Ljubljana Jazz Festival with renowned Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Tyrol, Austria. Ljubljana Jazz Festival has always initiated and cultivated a tradition of truly European exchange.

Another Austrian configuration was the duo of drummer Judith Schwarz and bass clarinetist and saxophonist Lisa Hofmaninger. This bold and intimate border-crossing unit played open-air under a tree at the periphery of the park. Their sound penetrated only partially and could not fully expand in the space. It is music that needs an intimate space, inside or outside. The good intention to make the music accessible to many visitors in this case had the consequence that it was not very accessible to the dedicated part of the visitors that cared.

With his dark dry bouncing of short repulses London bassist Daniel Casimir excelled with a performance combining exactness and explosive high energy force in the group of young London saxophonista Nubya Garcia. Saxophonista Nubya Garcia is a story apart. She has emerged as a true leader to a boldly flung destination. However, it is not something that she is wearing on her sleeve. It is -as her Ljubljana club appearance unequivocally showed -rather a factual something in the air as a result of her decisive and incisive playing toward a relentlessly growing climactic arc. The most astounding characteristic was maybe the never drying up thrust of spiraling energy. It was a marvelously balanced affair between passion and calculation that would have been impossible without the great and rich interaction within the group.

What was the obvious new gospel that had been preached so powerfully and confidently here in and through the music? It was its originality and the burning fire of its deep connectedness to its own (Caribbean) cultural roots, its forward kind of life celebration that brings these musicians to take and use all means of expression that serve and foster this.

The Caribbean gunpowder this time not only ignites as a few times before in British jazz. Other than in the 60s it got burning on much higher energy force constituting a strong connecting bond between the musicians. This time it persists—contrary to the 60s when jazz musicians from the West Indies played a great role but disappeared for a greater part from the middle front of the arena.

It obviously is a community-based thing of great dynamics between the musicians and dedicated audiences too. On this basis, these musicians can connect very well to audiences of their own generation from where different dynamics of music making and receiving emerge. It can make insiders of outsiders but also outsiders of insiders. Many will find something, and others might miss something. It is a question of group-based intrinsic dynamics naturally emerging from a subcultural ground/surrounding that enables it and maintains it. It is said that it is the first generation of British musicians making jazz that is distinctly, defiantly, gleefully post-US-American and so it is characterized as independent and original. The music is fed by various sources, southern and western ones— a case of real empowerment. As a vibrant example it shows why top-down or from-outside initiatives to induce young audiences as active followers of jazz are doomed to fail.

This hausse happens at a moment that Britain as a country represents itself in highly idiosyncratic, far from realities, difficult to grasp way of dealing with its internal and external relationships.

A less visible saxophonista is Ada Rave from Argentina, now an Amsterdam resident. She performed as part of the Kaja Draksler Octet at the festival. She used to come up with unusual sounds in great timing. The same goes for her forceful roars. Rave is a musician of great patience, calmness and earthiness. Her distinctive voice deserves attention and (more) exposure.

There were some cellos and—as one might expect -lots of double basses and guitars. Among the guitarreros Gyan Riley, for me personally, was the most surprising among those I saw for the first time live during the festival. Guitarist/bassist Jasper Stadhouders I have seen countless times. He always has his unmistakable Jasperian contribution. As a tireless, inexhaustible musician he left his marks in/with groups such as the wild bunch of Cactus Truck, Spinifex and his own Polyband. For quite a while, he has been part of the American-Austrian-Dutch group Made To Break. His contribution on both instruments in the Ljubljana concert was crucial. Stadhouders in particular was the one who made Made To Break vital through his fierce bouncy attack. Another strong guitarist who did his own striking thing is André Silva of Portuguese group The Rite of the Trio. He not only stirred up the abrupt stop-and-go approach rapidly switching between style fragments, but also dived into provocative edgy electronic turbulences creating tearing and burning epicenters.

Conspicuously, there were only two violinistas in the line-up of the festival: Mark Feldman who played in the duo Courvoisier/Feldman in the Bagatelles Marathon and George Dumitriu from Romania, now residing in Amsterdam, who fulfilled an important bridging function in the Octet of Kaja Draksler. He is an up-and-coming force entering international collaborations and playing prestigious festivals.


Magnets of this year's 60th edition of the festival were the Bagatelles Marathon of John Zorn on the second night at the 1500-seater Gallusova hall and a non-seated open-air concert of 11-piece unit Snarky Puppy at huge historic site Križanke, both US-American constellations thus.

The Bagatelles Marathon, an apparent contradiction in termini's, is a relay-race where the torch is given through from participant to participant, 14 in total, each staying and playing for 15 minutes. Average changeover time in Ljubljana was 60 seconds as the organizers proudly stated. Une bagatelle est une bagatelle -14 x 15 minutes bagatelles, ce n'est plus une bagatelle ... The way the event strongly took off on a fairly high level, swirling, culminating, flashing, throbbing, roaring and contemplating, quickly won the audience over, inducing a complicity that could be sensed from the vibrations. It was a highly varied and dynamic crisscrossing affair that ran like clockwork and added up to an echoing unity of colorful diversity with some personal surprises and favorites for the involved watching listener. As a whole it obeyed the same principle as the Naked City rides, now, however, with islands, heights, abysses and valleys, groves and glades of bagatelles instead of shreds wildly twirling, hitting, crashing and detonating. It was a non-opus opus that driven by a persistent ingrained energy that fell forward gracefully.

14 constellations each playing short pieces in 15 minutes appearances. It all added up to a four hours parcours—including one break—providing a breathtaking variety of talents, temperaments and temperatures that came across:

Masada > Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman > Mary Halvorson 4 > Craig Taborn > Trigger > John Medeski 3 > Erik Friedlander/Mike Nicolas > Brian Marsella 3 > Ikue Mori > Kris Davis 4 > Gyan Riley/Julian Lage > Nova 4 > Peter Evans > Asmodeus.

The line-up included seven guitarists, six drummers, five pianists, four bassists, two cellists, two trumpeters, one violinist, one electronic musician and one saxophonist.

Most remarkable and attractive for me personally was the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. Their Bagatelles elaboration brought detail, clarity and sophisticated interweaving to the fore. They wove a highly complex tapestry in the fascinating up down flow of their interplay. It kept me listening joyfully and with deep concentration thereby lifting me up to a higher degree of lightness. The way traces of Django surfaced in Riley's own weavings made me smile. The contrast with the berserk electric guitar violence of Marc Ribot could not have been starker. It is interesting to see that Mary Halvorson seems to be more and more into two-guitar-configurations as here as in her own quartet with the guitar doubling of Miles Okazaki.

The relentless force of Sylvie Courvoisier's splintery piano-runs together with the sharp glistening of Mark Feldman's violin heavily kindled the inner side of Zorn's given specifications, whipping it up to exploding thunder and lightning. Kris Davis with her quartet of Mary Halvorson, Drew Gress and Kenny Wollesen came from the opposite side by digging deep into balladeering, warmly coloring the dust of the cave. Pianist Brian Marsella also took that road though with more gravelly and bumpy sections and dark sky. He is a master of radical, abrupt jump cuts, however, from a safe dark Eastern ground. Craig Taborn was one of the solitary agents besides trumpeter Peter Evans and electronic musician Ikue Mori. We know that Craig Taborn will lead us to sounds and places unknown, unfamiliar for us. However, his musical logics are so clear that he (mostly) gets us with him such that we dare to join no matter how strange it might seem at times. There was no speeding up with rolling thunder, but it rather went by quite circumferentially with illuminating movements that opened up to some translucent zones of sonic wonder as fait accompli. Hereby Taborn created moments of looking around in wonderment. It was significantly counteracted by the violent jerky, crushing noise attack of young men's band Trigger before cellists Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicholas entered the arena. Ikue Mori stepped in the solo-role and rendered a very beautiful electronic Far East vision of a Zorn Bagatelle. Peter Evans finally again overruled all conceivable obstacles in an arresting improvisation.

This resembled an Acores day with its abrupt breaks of the weather, hail strikes and extreme changes of light. Such confronting contrasts might raise the audiences' awareness and intake intensity but might also confuse, annoy or bother. However, with these musicians the latter did not happen.

It raises some questions: Is this merely an elaborate sample tasting session? If it is a valid form is it then also beneficial for the involved musicians and their music making? Is it a format that (already) satisfies an increasing need of bits and pieces consumption or consumption under an easier to apprehend labeling/ framing? Or can it serve as a step up for the audience digging more intensely into the musicians/groups own music?

It seems that presenters are enabled to serve many ends at once and make use of it gratefully. By hiring a Zorn marathon, a greater part of a festival program is easily filled in by this package with a huge quantity of euphonious, attractive names. And the name 'Zorn" still works magnificently after all these years of marathons. Since 2015 when Zorn created the 300 Bagatelles in three months, the Bagatelles Marathon has toured extensively. Writing the pieces and performing them in this format are mutually dependent.

This year the Bagatelles Marathon is present nine times at European festivals. For the artists it might beneficial because of the gigs and prominent exposure—as long as it is not conflicting with musician's own touring schedule and being present autonomously. For the musicians it is also reinforcing the sense of community (that can give some strength but also can restrict). If these kinds of Marathons become a welcome and easy escape for programmers and festivals it would lead into a Zornification of the musical landscape and development, which would be not good despite of the great merits of John Zorn as spiritus rector, instigator, organizer and creative being.

Cloud arrangements

Photography and photo exhibitions have been a long-time regular part of JFL. Nothing could have been more appropriate for this jubilee edition than an extended survey exhibition (1986-2017) of the work of Slovenian photographer extraordinaire Žiga Koritnik (1964). Embodying the musical spirit, and being its portraitist too, Žiga Koritnik has been an indispensable part of the musical happening of the festival through the years. He has a special sense how the music goes through the musician and moves (over to) us listeners, affecting us.

Light, shadow and form, Žiga works with it in the triangle of personal gesture, surrounding objects (a chair, a pair of shoes, a cymbal, a bag etc.) and spaces, and the eye of the beholder to visually catch moments and constellations—constellations that draw our attention, speak to us, and move our soul. His shots are condensing and expanding at the same time, opening up to deeper characteristics, the personality of both musician and listener/beholder. This is strikingly depicted in a portrait of Mats Gustafsson who is peeking through the center hole of a vinyl to the photographer as well as to the beholder. In the touching cover-photo of Koritnik's book "Cloud Arrangers" things fall in place and— for a blink of an eye -bring the world to a halt.

It is not just astonishing arrangements. These arrangements speak to the beholder because—as Hamid Drake puts it in a video on Žiga's work -the beholder can recognize, discover something of her-/himself in it. Like the photographer Guy Le Querrec (1941), Žiga is a natural part of the music-making he portrays—and a weighty one.


This 60th jubilee edition felt like a cumulative recapitulation with astonishingly few overt historical reminiscences and little inclination to enter new/surprising territory. The sequencing and contrasting of concerts as well as their locating can work as an expectational arc that draws the audience in and carries it along the route. It did this less than the years I experienced before, notwithstanding great performances and highlights. The tension of the next great moment was less. It felt looser this year; a bit indifferent sometimes. There was thrust within performances but less from one to another. I missed two acts that will have contributed to a rounding impression, the concert of The Big Band of Ljubljana Academy of Music and the international 80-piece orchestra's with musicians from Slovenia, Serbia, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, Lithuania) crowning the Alphabet/Young Explorer series.

Overt historical reflection came from the excellent, rich and instructive lecture of Francesco Martinelli. The lecture dealt with the influence of Italian opera arias in the context of the Caribbean/New Orleans origins of jazz. Pairing this with an insightful reflection on the present Caribbean centered jazz wave from London would have been something that could have attracted an interested audience. It is these revealing insights and reflections that counter-balance self-celebration in the jazz field.

The Bagatelles—Marathon will have pulled a heavy burden on the festival's budget. It worked out better than people may have expected. It became a richly swirling, varied broadsheet of musical bites that coming together formed an attractive whole—the festival's birthday present to itself and its audience.

The 60th edition showed the sharp edged and rich potentials of jazz from Slovenia, both domestic and from abroad. It is a good basis to sharpen in the context and confrontation of future fully fledged editions plowing old and new fields.



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