Jazz Festival Ljubljana 2019

Henning Bolte By

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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 Dre Hocevar. 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.


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