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Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2014

Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2014

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2014 Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2014
Ljubljana, Slovenia
July 2-5, 2014

Ljubljana—capital of the Republic of Slovenia, member of EU, neighbored by Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy—hosts the oldest jazz festival in Europe, which held its 55th edition this year. The event is usually organized by Cankarjev House—Cankarjev Dom, in Slovenian—a prestigious, state-run cultural centre in midtown Ljubljana, residing in one half of an impressive twin tower building, the other part being the National Bank of Slovenia.

Ljubljana is situated near the Alps in the west and the Adriatic part of the Mediterranean Sea in the south. It is on one hour from Trieste, two hours from Venice, two hours from Zagreb and three hours from Vienna. A city with a high appreciation of the arts, its roughly 300,000 inhabitants have access to eleven theatres, fifteen museums, four professional orchestras and a rich musical history. The first philharmonic in Europe was established there in 1701, with Haydn, Beethoven, Paganini and Brahms as regular guests; and in 1881 Gustav Mahler started his professional career there as a conductor.

The House of Cankar is a state institution, 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."

Slovenes have undergone different ruling powers and absorbed many influences. They had and have a high esteem for their indigenous language, which has some peculiarities not easily accessible, even for speakers of other Slavonic languages. That esteem resulted in a remarkable curiosity. Despite being a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Lutheran Reformation Day is an official holiday on October 31st of each year because Slovene standard language and Slovene literature were both established by Lutheran protestants: Primož Trubar, who wrote the first books in Slovene; Adam Bohorič, who wrote the first Slovenian grammar book; and Jurij Dalmatin, who translated the whole bible into Slovene.


The concerts of the festival were running in four venues: at three in Cankarjev House (Štih Hall, Linhart Hall and the Klub), along with the big semi-open air venue, Križanke. The jazz festival is part of the city's bigger and longer-running summer music festival. As with the last two years, the festival was again co-curated by Cankarjev's Bogdan Benigar and Pedro Costa, from Lisbon, associated with the well-known Clean Feed record label. That brings a special quality to the festival, its programming and its productions which can only be found in a few other festivals in Europe, like 12 Points and Jazzdor Berlin (some reflections on this can be found on the festival website).

Fifteen groups were performing at the four-day festival: three from Norway, including Jaga Jazzist, In The Country and Cortex; and four from Slovenia, Jani Moder's Brainblender, Tarek Yamani Trio (with a leader from Lebanon), Marko Črnček 4, and Zlatko Kaučič/Agusti Fernández. It also means there were only sequential concerts, with no parallel streams, so it was possible to attend every show. This year's festival had two main coordinates: Norway as regional focus; and an instrumental focus on the piano. Twelve pianists were performing at the festival, from solo to groups with more than five musicians. This year's edition had only one piano-less group in Cortex- -a great exception. The pianists present at the festival, both well known and less known, were veteran Joachim Kuhn, along with Agusti Fernandez, Morten Qvenild, Giovanni Guidi, Chris Abrahams, Marko Crncek, Oystein Moen, Fulco Ottervanger, Gabriel Pinto, Chip Crawford, Tarek Yamani and Pierre Chretien.

Day 1: Wednesday, July 2

The festival started with the opening of an exhibition by longtime festival photographer Nada Žgank at Cankarjev House's gallery. The exposition gave an impressive overview of the great variety of musicians and groups who had performed at the festival in recent years.

Jani Moder's Brain Blender, a Slovenian-Austrian combination led by Slovenian guitarist Moder, functioned as the musical festival opener at the big open air venue, Križanke. The band was comprised of well known Slovenian keyboardist Marko Črnčec, bassist Robert Jukic and Austrian percussionists Klemens Marktl on drums and Flip Philipp on marimba. Moder's music leaned to a more tranquil variant of fusion, often switching to a Pat Metheny-informed style of playing. Moder went into more contemplation modes as well as adopting a more incendiary approach to his solos, especially in the second half of the set. His band mates delivered some nice solos, too. The group finished its set with an Eastern- tinged piece, spinning out its beautiful melody.

The hall was completely filled up when Jaga Jazzist started its concert. Jaga, now in its twentieth year, played for the first time without long time member, Mathias Eick, a well- known trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist who joined the group in 1998. As is often the case with Norwegian groups, he was not immediately replaced by another musician. The current lineup is now: Lars Horntveth (tenor sax, bass clarinet, guitars, keyboards), Øystein Moen (keyboards), Line Horntveth (tuba, percussion, vocal), Erik Johannessen (trombone, percussion), Marcus Forsgren (guitars, effects), Even Ormestad (bass, keyboards), Andreas Mjøs (vibraphone, guitars, drums, electronics), and Martin Horntveth (drums, drum machines). The other eight members, all of them multi-instrumentalists, had to take over and adequately fill in the gap left by Eick. Because of their ability to switch to other instruments during the performance, these musicians were able and still are able, even minus one member, to produce a huge and rich sound with big energy, which immediately brought the hall and the audience to a high degree of vibration. Jaga's musicians proved masters of enchanting, repetitive and rhythmic music. Dipped in colored shades of sophisticated visuals—its patterns shifting, with rock beats and excursions into buoyant, rich brass sounds—brought forth strong turbulence effects and set the house on fire.

It also appeared that the group can swing deeply, stage impressive solos and are able to switch to surreal modes and connected moods. It all revealed in the brand new piece "Suomi," a homage of the group to Finland, as one of the few countries they had not yet the chance to perform. Lars Horntveth blew an impressive solo and the piece, a highlight of the concert, went through a couple of imaginative phases of sound—a strong closure of the first festival day.

Day 2: Thursday, July 3

The second night appeared to be a trio night in three steps, from the high north to the deep south and also from west to east: first, the all-Norwegian unit In The Country, consisting of pianist Morten Qvenild (a former member of Jaga Jazzist), double bassist Roger Arntzen, and drummer Pål Hausken; then the force of the German-Moroccan- Spanish Chalaba trio with pianist/saxophonist Joachim Kühn, vocalist/oudist/guimbri player Majid Bekkas and percussionist Ramon Lopez; and, finally, the Tarek Yamani Trio with Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani and two young, internationally operating Slovenian musicians, tubaist Goran Krmac and drummer Kristijan Krajnčan. It promised to be an evening of stark contrasts on a virtual line: the first one a seemingly classic jazz trio; the other two constellations with a special bass voice, Bekkas' guimbri (a bass lute originating from Gnawa, the ritualistic healing music of Morocco's black African slaves; and then the Yamani unit operating in musical modes of the Near East with Krmac's Slovenian Alpine tuba.

Despite its classic appearance, In The Country—a trio existing for almost 10 years now— transcended the format by far, especially with its gradually infusion of advanced electronics. Indeed, Qvenild is the declared hyper piano man, studying and working out musically fruitful expansions of the classic 88-keyed string/percussion instrument. But not for nothing this trio bears the name In The Country, alluding to its music's pastoral characteristics. The trio unfolded music of a ritualistic, cinematic quality, enriched by carefully engraved traces echoing sounds from various musical pasts and cultures: lots of classic Afro-American soul music, Keith Jarrett and, maybe most surprising and not intentionally, musical shapes reminiscent of Jim Pepper's "Witchi Tai To." Considering that the main point of the classic piano trio is to join together a diversity of song material in exciting ways, the trio ultimately succeeded, and at a pretty high level.

After that, the Chalaba force brought a contrasting energy emanating from a quite different approach: extroverted, abundant, fiercely blazing, full of rich ornamentation and trance rhythms. Kühn is a veteran and, as a pianist, a key figure of the European avant- garde of the 1960s who has worked extensively with a variety of advanced musicians from the continent, like Jean-Francois Jenny-Clarke and Daniel Humair, and, since the late '90s, has also worked with Ornette Coleman. His involvement with Eastern music had its first outing in the duo with oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil on Journey To The Center Of An Egg (Enja, 2005), and after that with the Bekkas-Lopez trio which started in 2006. Kühn does this from a European background with sophistication as well as hot passion, whereas pianist Randy Weston— who was and still is deeply involved in Gnawa music—does it from his African-American background. Kühn found his very own way into that musical idiom with full dedication, deep understanding, great skill and enormous power. It is highly intriguing, for instance, when and how he injects fugue elements into this musical context.

A concert from this trio is always a passionate and highly energetic, cooking affair. That these three musicians know each other so well simply means that they can go to even higher places and are able to stir the fire still more. In the Gnawa spirit, you have to go for it and they did, with a much deep color elevating the audience. Taken by a deeper awareness of form they furrowed and furrowed. All three were also passionate stage personalities, making the encore, "Golden Queen" all the more enjoyable.

The final trio of the evening, despite possessing with strong Middle Eastern characteristics, was a manifestation of a quite different temperament and temperature. Tarek Yamani's trio—the pianist hailing from Beirut—is the product of the Groningen (Netherlands) connection for all three musicians, having met when they were studying at the conservatory there. Yamani first seemed to confine himself to humorous piano transpositions and re- workings of Middle Eastern traditionals, but happily—albeit late— out of his sleeve came some work that was the apparent result of rummaging through some Thelonius Monk and Herbie Hancock boxes. Some clearer contours emerged, but in the long run it was of varying intensity and effectiveness. It became clear that there is some potential but that its own form is still yet to be found by Yamani personally, and the trio as a whole.

Day 3: Friday, July 4

A solo recital from Joachim Kuhn is always something to look forward to. He is such an accomplished musician that he can take the most astonishing passages and create the most unbelievable proximities. His possibilities seem inexhaustible and he does it all the way ordinary people breathe. When he plays he is deeply involved in his own process, yet he gives the impression that he is playing for each member of the audience personally. That is maybe important—not to get lost, even for an accomplished musician such as Kühn, in an endless rain of tones and sound.

How he takes astonishing passages and creates unbelievable proximities revealed immediately after he started to play. Blues and Bach, Bartók and Rodgers rubbed against each other, flew in and out...and then he passed into comping. The second piece moved into the tonalities of Austrian-German composer Hanns Eisler, which Kühn then bended into blues modalities. How far is it, in Kühn's universe, from those Eislerian fields to Ornette Coleman; what are their mutual contingencies? Allusions to the Trauerlied finally paved the way into echoes of Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday. And what about the almost cliché stride piano following? Then: cut to something else, as Kühn announced that he would play two new Coleman pieces, "Homogenous Emotions" and "Researching Has No Limits." Finally, he ended up with a lullaby and an impressive rendering of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." Yes, you needn't, but it was worthwhile very much what Kühn did—one could sense from the audience at that moment. Some redundancies, okay, but nonetheless it was a moving performance.

Then it was a move to Križanke, where singer Gregory Porter was announced for the evening, preceded by Slovenian pianist Marko Črnčec's international group. Črnčec performed with a Pan-American quartet (Canada, US, Cuba) comprised of saxophonist Mark Shim, bassist Chris Jennings and drummer Ludwig Afonso. He presented cold and fast fusion with some creamy warm balladeering in-between, a suitable and good warm-up for things to come.

It was full house—as would be expected—when Porter hit the stage with his smile, cheering up the crowd before he even sang one note. While the audience was impressed that he was really there finally, Porter also spoke of how impressed he was by the trees of Ljubljana, which caused a deep warm smile again.

Porter has this overall smiling simpatico appearance supported by his supple baritone voice, and vice versa. His confident charisma, his accessibility, his guy-next-door dimension; the big audience loves him for that, in Ljubljana as well as elsewhere. His material and his singing are straight-ahead, sincere and highly credible. A few notes are enough to get his audience in and on to him. His band, a well-oiled machine, is part of his overall kind appearance. Not that all his band mates smiled all the time; the drummer, for instance, with his cool sunglasses, had the lightly sturdy appearance of an old school jazz cat. Every musician—from saxophonist Yosuke Sato and pianist Chip Crawford to bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold—was treated by Porter in a generous and highly personal way. Nothing was exaggerated or faked.

Porter smoothly served a short memory span with some higher musical quality, so a series of great singing could unfold—which happened, to a certain degree. Lots of effort had to be spent to feed and maintain the set's framework. The restrictions became clear, however, when Porter struck up a short-breath canalized reminiscence of Nat Adderley's "Work Song." It was all a bit exciting but not exciting enough in the long run, which did not seem to infect the audience too much.

The young Belgian piano trio De Beren Gieren, from Ghent, augmented with Porto, Portugal-based trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, was the real new thing of this year's edition. Appealing, surprising, deft, exciting, convincing, funny...De Beren Gieren, approximately pronounced as "de bearon cheeron" and meaning The Bears Shrieking, are pianist Fulco Ottervanger, double bassist Lieven Van Pee and drummer Simon Segers. The group premiered a new program that the four musicians had worked on in residence the days leading up to its Ljubljana- premiere. It came into being through the joint action of Wim Wabbes, programmer at the Ghent venue Handelsbeurs, the festival's artistic co-directors Bogdan Benigar and Pedro Costa, and the four musicians. It appeared to be another firm axis of European cooperation with striking artistic results. Maaike Wuyts, the producer of the project, explained in one of the festival videos how all came about:

Its performance was a wonderful playful exercise in determining the indeterminacy of form by swirling through alternating states as velocity and retardation, hold and rush, rotation and rest, joined in and let go. At no time did the foursome lose ground. In beautiful oddness and airy heave it waltzed through its non-synchronized universe meeting the spirit of a great young guy from Vienna, composer Franz Schubert. The connection with Schubert could be drawn from the titles of the pieces, and the dynamics of the music could be seen as reinterpretations of the tempo gradations of geschwind from Schubert's famous trout piece. This nightly dance over a trout song was recorded and will be released on Clean Feed soon.

Day 4: Saturday, July 5

On the last day of the festival the concerts started earlier, at noon, in the Cankarjev House's Klub venue. First, an Italian duo followed by a Portuguese-French group and then a Norwegian quartet. The evening program presented a Slovenian-Spanish duo and an Australian trio at the bigger Linhart Hall. The festival wound up with a Canadian group, back at The Klub venue.

Trombone is such a beautiful soulful instrument and Gianluca Petrella is one of the most outstanding players at this moment. Giovanni Guidi is a young but experienced pianist with an already an impressive service record, witness his ECM trio album City Of Broken Dreams (2011) with Thomas Morgan and Portuguese drummer João Luis Lobo. Although Guidi and Petrella seem to be characters of a very different kind, their collaboration showed a lot of rapport and flexibility to adapt to different temperatures and temperaments in music. The first half of their concert had a strong and beautiful blues spirit, while the second half was more lyrical, making a good balance for that hour of the day. A highly recommended duo.

Portuguese bassist Hugo Carvalhais brought his trio with pianist Gabriel Pinto and drummer Mário Costa, extended by two high calibre French players, violinist Dominique Pifarely and saxophonistEmile Parisien (on soprano), the group with whom Carvalhais recorded his last Clean Feed album, Particular (its predecessor, Nebulosa, was recorded with Tim Berne). Carvalhais' music possesses special vaporous qualities with lots of erring will-o'-the-wisps and a decisive role by Pinto. Its swathes broke into lots of sharp edges and vice versa , thanks to Pifarély's trenchant articulations and its intensification through Parisien's soprano work. Increasingly, during the set, Pifarély found his tone, held his focus and gave the music its definite impact.

Cortex, an upcoming quartet of Norwegian cornettist Thomas Johansson, together with saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer and the ubiquitous drummer Gard Nilssen, delved from different sources and blew into a kind of opposite direction, extending the line of Pan-Scandinavian trailblazer Atomic. This band was really digging and pursuing the melodic side of Albert Ayler—his hymnic song side—a rare thing to hear unfolding with this quality. Johansson, another new Norwegian trumpet voice of importance, was the driving force; he was brilliantly assisted by an extraordinary "beating" section, the firm rhythm furred by Høyer's remarkable bass work, which gave Nilssen a lot of chances and freedom to color and counter-balance, thereby providing the music's breezy quality.

Alberts was a hard-hitting element—moving, searching and finding his way in coloring, reinforcing, roughening and extending in accordance with the trumpet on one hand, and the rhythm section on the other. Cortex's music was on the visceral side as the band name (and the title of most pieces) indicated. Hence the band was glad to present its newest album, Live—recorded at Nasjonal Jazzscene in Oslo and released by Clean Feed—live at the Ljubljana festival.

The evening presented two special configurations at the bigger Linhart Hall: the Slovenian- Spanish duo of percussionist Zlatko Kaućić and pianist Agusti Fernandez; and, second, the legendary Australian trio The Necks.

Percussionists do not have just one clearly recognizable instrument but, instead, a lot of devices and materials with which to make sound. Every percussionist therefore has his/her very own collection and set up which makes them all look differently. Zlatko Kaučič is the percussive gardener or, put differently, a percussionist who is "gardening" his sounds. This is a specification due to his posture when playing percussion: he is knelt like a gardener in a plant bed. That offered him a special range to use devices in a specific way. One of the specialties in that performance was a table zither on the left side behind him, which he would strum with his left hand while banging different devices in front of himself with his right.

Kaučič has been working in Spain, Switzerland and The Netherlands for longer periods and has collaborated with musicians and groups of a greater variety of styles and genres. More recently he has worked with the likes of Stefano Battaglia, Javier Girotto, Evan Parker, Saadet Türkoz and Paul McCandless, of the group Oregon. He has an impressive discography which means he is highly respected among fellow musicians, but is a bit underrated and not so well known yet in the media and by audiences.

Fernández, on the other hand, is a well-known and accomplished pianist of free improvisation who has worked with many of the leading figures in that field. A match between these two musicians made a lot of sense and was something to look forward to. Kaučič and Fernández engaged in quick, playful and intriguing interactions from which beautiful fine nerve pieces of musical sound emerged that connected to a richly textured whole. Kaučič played the more impulsive visceral role, whereas Fernández—assisted by his physiognomy, his way of moving around the grand piano and his snake-like diving to the inside of it—played the more elusive, drawn-into-subtleties part. These contrasts worked well but also meant that no major elevating effect took place. It came about more in a calm calculated way which was fine, too, and supplied lots of enjoyment.

It may be said that every live performance of The Necks is a special experience, even if you have seen them before—or, perhaps, because of it. The trio had just arrived from Denmark, where it played the Roskilde festival, one of the largest European rock festivals. Roskilde had a special thing. The group opening for The Necks was a still older legendary group: The The Rolling Stones.

When drummer Tony Buck, bassist Lloyd Swanton and pianist Chris Abrahams took their places onstage and started to play, there was no way at all to suspect or have any idea what would emerge—which sound waves and massive swaths would arise and spread through the space of the actual venue. It's fascinating that such "huge" effects came out of the interplay of three simple acoustic instruments. Still more fascinating was the difference of the actual played tones and the "bigger" sounds that were perceptible and could be experienced. Apparently the cumulation resulted in a higher level of sound quality. The phenomenon may be widely known, but is something else to deliberately work with and work on in a consequential way, as the Necks' three musicians started to do. However its music may be labeled, it has some properties in common with Asian music, for instance Indonesian gamelan music. An essential part of the trio's general approach is the way it gradually built up this bigger- than...-thing, the way it kept it enduring on that higher level and the way the group gradually let it come down again.

There were two things going on: one, a gentle de-automation of expectancy patterns; and two, strongly pulling in the listener to let him/her immerse in an increasing suction. The Necks have developed not only effective ways but enjoyable, deeply sensible means to accomplish this again every time. There are some recognizable devices and elements they make use of, but depending on a lot of circumstances it remains an open process every time the trio plays—and as such still unique up to these days. With an approach like this, each concert can be sensed to be different---depending on the interlocking of the musicians and the location—the space in the room. This Ljubljana concert had a quite gentle expansion, a strong and long hovering in the middle and a gentle downturn. It seemed dead easy and it left many speechless.

It was the right moment for Canadian group The Souljazz Orchestra to march in, greet the night and make bodies dance. The hard-hitting Orchestra forged old school stuff, soul, funk, rock and jazz elements into such a burning alloy that just watching and listening was no option anymore, but instead to join the syncopated funky flow into the night sky.


Ljubljana is a pleasant, small scale festival with lots of allure and clear artistic vision and choice (more about this in the videos on the festival's website). The Norway focus presented,

in a nutshell, the main varieties of jazz made by musicians from the country. Alas, the important vocal variety from Norway was lacking. The piano focus showed enough interesting and provocative contrast as well as underlying coherence. And, again, there were productions and performances which clearly bore the hallmark of the festival. Likewise, it was clearly noticeable that the festival and its programming was embedded in and is an elongation of the high-end concert series taking place throughout the whole year at Cankarjev House, which means there is a good chance for a visitor to see some extraordinary music in Ljubljana at other times of the year.

The city provides a worthwhile ambience as the festival's context. It is easily walkable and has a calm atmosphere and some amazingly well-proportioned architecture, especially in the urban construction of master architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957), who answered style icons and monumentalism of neighbouring nations from the past with sophisticated understatement and transformation. Tarrying on the terraces along the Ljubljanica River, which winds around the city, is a pleasure of a kind. The same goes up for the markets including the art market where, for instance, it is possible to find and meet well-known Slovene jazz photographer Žiga Koritnik.

Photo Credit: Henning Bolte



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