Ljubljana Jazz Festival: Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 20–29, 2012

Ljubljana Jazz  Festival: Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 20–29, 2012
Henning Bolte By

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Ljubljana Jazz Festival
Ljubljana, Slovenia
June 20-29, 2012
Ljubljana, with its 53rd edition, truly hosts the oldest jazz festival in Europe. Norway's Molde, also a candidate, started one year later, in 1960. The capital of the now-independent Republic of Slovenia, neighbored by Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy, Ljubljana is situated one hour from Trieste, two hours from Venice and three hours from Vienna, and is a city with high appreciation of the arts. With about 300,000 inhabitants the city has eleven theatres, fifteen museums, four professional orchestras and a rich musical history. The first philharmonic was established there in 1701, with Haydn, Beethoven, Paganini and Brahms as regular guests; and Gustav Mahler started his professional career there as a conductor.

Gathering in Ljubljana, the first noticeable thing was Portuguese pianist/composer Bernardo Sassetti's 2011 performance with his trio of bassist Carlos Barretto and drummer Alexandre Frazão (plus dancer Manca Dolonc). Sassetti's untimely death, after a tragic fall in May of this year, meant facing the painful fact that there will be no second time and no newly created music by this precious musician—a great loss which will be felt by the many who knew him and worked with him.

One of those people is Pedro Costa, of the Lisbon-based Clean Feed label. Costa teamed up with director Bogdan Benigar once again, this year, as co-artistic directors of the Ljubljana festival. The festival is a unique, brilliant and highly productive example of European collaboration, with four winning parties: the music, the musicians, the audience, and the European cause.


The four-day jazz festival is part of the all-summer long music festival of Ljubljana, and takes place during the last two weeks of June. This year, the festival commenced with a special night on Wednesday, June 20, presenting three promising young bands from different European countries: Elifantree (Finland), WorldService Project (Great Britain) and the Acropolis Quintet of Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, with musicians from Turkey, Rumania and Italy; a collaboration with the Dublin 12 Points Festival. Five years ago, Gerry Godley, programmer of the Irish Bray festival and director of the Dublin Improvised Music Company, began presenting a festival that featured twelve promising bands by young musicians from a variety of European countries. These bands are now sent along to other European festivals to gain further exposure. 12 Points is a successful and award-winning initiative ..."providing an important platform between the domestic structures from which these artists have emerged, and helping them on their way to the international stages to which they aspire. The festival's mission is to bring these emerging artists into a demanding performance environment, presenting their work to an international audience, in many cases for the first time. A significant part of that audience is their fellow participants and musical peers from other member states, facilitating another key objective of the festival's mission: the germination of organic networks between artists across the European Union, directly supported by many national cultural agencies."

June 28: Full Throttle

One week later on Thursday, June 28, the core of the festival, with thirteen concerts, started to unroll in the intimate club location at the House of Cjankar (Cjankarjev Dom), the big modern music center towering above the old town of Ljubljana. The first night, there were two powerful and intriguing performances: a free improvising duo with American trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee and Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten; and the Full Throttle Orchestra, led by bassist Adam Lane.

The McPhee/Flaten-duo was an enduring musical partnership documented in its recent Brooklyn DNA (Clean Feed, 2012). Both players have known each other for a long time through their work in a couple of high-energy improv groups. Nonetheless, they are antipodes; players with their own contrasts. McPhee is the big yet gentle guy with openness and mystery as two sides of the same soul. Flaten is the small and agile guy with concentrated willpower, who constantly emphasizes his sound existence. They found and met each other in the big sound universe with rough edges, on bumpy, overgrown paths, winding caves and, finally, deep spiritual singing on their respective instruments.

Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra consisted of tenor/soprano saxophonist David Bindman, alto saxophonist Avram Fefer, baritone saxophonist Matt Bauder, trombonist Reut Regev and drummer Igal Foni, plus two trumpeters—Nate Wooley and, from Porto, Susana Santos Silva, replacing Taylor Ho Bynum in the lineup of Ashcan Rantings (Clean Feed, 2010).

Lane is the type of player based in improvised as well as contemporary composed music, having written works including a string quartet and a bass clarinet concerto. Some of his formative artistic references and teachers include Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Klaus Huber, and the outstanding Italian bass virtuoso Stefano Scodanibbio. He worked with Darius Jones on the alto saxophonist's Man'ish Boy (AUM Fidelity, 2009); has a trio with saxophonist John Tchicai, trumpeter Paul Smoker and drummer Barry Altschul, and appears on the "Bawlers" segment of singer/songwriter Tom Waits' Orphans (ANTI-, 2006). Lane is an accomplished bassist, capable of propelling an ensemble of this format, quickly bringing about sophisticated transitions and opening up space for cutting edge improvisation. The group had a great tight/loose feeling with a classic jazz sound, well-balanced but unusual figures and solid solo work.

This festival edition had an emphasis on trumpet. The first evening introduced three of them, from different generations: Joe McPhee (1939), Nate Wooley (1974) and Susana Santos Silva (1979). Wooley is a highly demanded and ubiquitous player; Silva is a member of the outstanding Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos, last heard on singer Maria João & OJM's Amoras e Framboesas (Universal 2011), is a member of the egalitarian Lama trio of Oneiros (Clean Feed, 2011), and released her own trio debut, Devil's Dress (2011), on the Portugese TOAP label. McPhee also performed solo the next day, along with the other trumpet-besieger of the moment, Peter Evans. Evans and Wooley then paired and teamed up with percussionists Jim Black and Paul Lytton to play the premièring concert of this brand new combination. This première would be preceded by a performance of Silva's Lama Trio. Last, but not least, new trumpet voice Ibrahim Maalouf performed on the finishing night at Križanke.

June 29: Abstract Society

This day started with Joe McPhee's solo performance in the small Štih amphitheater of Cjankar house. Standing in the middle of the audience, McPhee revealed much more than in his duo performance with Flaten the previous night, evoking plenty of curiosity. McPhee worked in two parts: first on pocket trumpet, then on saxophone. He created fascinating multiphonics, with a simultaneously sung melody coming from far and deep inside; he was able to do this whistling, too.

McPhee refuses to be restricted in his imagination, and the idea of bringing it into reality. Watching and listening to him play is a special experience. His sounds develop without waiting for or being forced into something special or sensational, whereas his efforts to open up and enter the sound domains of his playing are easy to feel. This reinforces confidence and openness, and leads to a joyful, creative listening experience.

The second solo concert was given by advanced trumpeter Peter Evans (1981). Watching Evans play, it is hard to believe that what was being heard was the sound of just one (pocket) trumpet—whether or not it was the first time experiencing him live. Evans, who started in the New York scene nine years ago, is now famous as trumpet innovator, and as a member of the bands Carnivalskin (with Klaus Kugel and Bruce Eisenbeil), Mostly Other People Do the Killing (with Jon Irabagon, Moppa Elliott and Kevin Shea), and his collaborations with other artists including Evan Parker, Nate Wooley and Tom Blancarte. Circular breathing, different kinds of multiphonics, hyper-rapid tone sequences, all kinds of loudness and whispers, it was all manifested in his dazzling playing.

Evans has been pushing the envelope since appearing on the scene a few years ago, opening up new musical territories for his instrument. He may be the most spectacular artists to seemingly emerging out of nowhere, but he is not the only one; instead, he is expanding the limits of the instrument already begun in the 1960s with Don Ellis and Bill Dixon, one that is a continuous process. Nils Petter Molvaer, Erik Truffaz, Arve Henriksen, Joe McPhee, Rob Mazurek, Greg Kelley and Nate Wolley, just to name a few wider-known musicians. Outside jazz and improvised music, Dutchman Marco Blaauw has expanded the instrument's limits remarkably with his double-bell trumpet. It is not only a question of expanded limits and new sounds, but primarily a question of new musical expression—a new idiom. Evans produced coherent pieces including stepping stones—notwithstanding his startling effect—into the exploration of a new idiom.

Ljubljana is a two-faced festival. There is the club face at the House of Cankar (Cankarjev Dom), and the face of the big semi-open air stage at Križanke Cultural Center. 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 richer spiritual lives of people and social development."

At the bigger stage Križanke there is a different, more mainstream-oriented audience which is addressed in the programming. The first evening at Križanke presented a mixed bag: two young local heroes—tenor saxophonist Jure Pukl's band Abstract Society, with pianist Kaja Draksler, drummer Damion Reid and bassist Joe Sanders opening, followed by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Pukl (1977), Slovenia's most powerful saxophonist of the moment, has garnered critical acclaim with his innovative EARchitecture (SessionWorkRec, 2010) (with liner notes by pianist Vijay Iyer). His most recent album, Abstract Society (Storyville, 2012), features Iyer, Damion Reid and Joe Sanders. Reid (1979) has played and recorded with saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Coleman, Greg Ward and Steve Lehman, as well as pianist Robert Glasper. Sanders has worked with everyone from saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianists Dave Brubeck and Gerald Clayton, to saxophonist/clarinetist Oran Etkin, trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, singer Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Lionel Loueke, pianist Aaron Parks and saxophonist Chris Potter.

Pukl, being a self-assured guy of wide views, built long arches with lots of pending moments and tension to be resolved. He was reinforced by his combination with pianist Draksler. Nonetheless, Reid held the music intensively in motion by his fireworks, while Steve Coleman and Vijay Iyer left their marks in the creative thrust of the group. What was possible within the built structure became clear when trumpeter Jason Palmer joined for a short period. He stirred it up, set the music on fire with his horn and pushed it to a higher level; the missing element, happily, came in on time.


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