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

Henning Bolte By

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Working through a varied repertoire of Billie Holiday songs, standards like "Lover Man," blues, and Mongo Santamaria's classic "Afro Blue," she did exactly what was expected. She even topped it off with a highly dramatized version of "Besame Mucho." She sang and interacted in perfect timing with her band and the audience. It was a fabricated, smooth show offering what the crowd wanted. Not thrilling; just entertaining.

June 30: Diagnostic

Saturday had the densest program, starting in the morning with a solo recital by Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, followed in the afternoon by the Portugese/Canadian collaboration Lama, and the première of a new trumpet and drums configuration.

The solo recital was the third turn during the festival for local pianist Draksler (1987). Draksler is not only active as pianist but also as a bandleader, composer, arranger and conductor. She studied in Amsterdam and won the prestigious Dutch Deloitte Jazz Award in 2009. That same year she released her third record as a leader, Türkü (Self Produced), with Acropolis Quartet and promising singer Sanem Kalfa as a guest. In 2007, she composed a concerto for accordion and orchestra, "Orpheus and Eurydice," recorded and performed by Janez Dovc and Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra. Here, she delivered an impressive patchwork of classical and folk-infused miniatures, alternating with Cecil Taylor-esque percussive accelerations, competing left hand/right hand lines, and beautifully creative inside the piano passages, finishing with a Thelonious Monk-like improvisation and a brief Bach encore.

The Lama trio, with Porto-based trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, and Rotterdam-resident bassist Gonçalo Almeida and drummer Greg Smith, made its first record, Oneiros (Clean Feed, 2012). Lama played its very own form of dream-like music, effectively using various means—technically and stylistically—and demonstrated a strong command of varying dynamics. Almeida infused loops and soundscape-like electronics but also fell into a classic walking bass lines and simple, beautiful ostinatos. Smith started with a heavy bass drum beat, while switching to hand drumming at the right moments. Silva has achieved her own voice on trumpet and flugelhorn, informed by legacy artists including saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, and the entire group's performance affirmed Lama as a promising one to watch.

The afternoon program ended with the première of a brand new trumpet/drums configuration instigated by curator Pedro Costa. It was the first time these four master musicians had ever met onstage together, and was recorded by Clean Feed.

Trumpets and drums make for the basic, atavistic, battlefield lineup. They had to lead the troops, stir them up and sound the retreat. Many of these musicians were killed in action, as in the famous battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when Napoleon defeated the superior Austrian-Russian alliance. Drummer Jim Black (1967) is an outstanding drummer who has a significant approach, a distinctive sound and inexhaustible musical possibilities. Paul Lytton (1947) belongs to the groundbreaking older generation of free improvisers. Here, he acted, for the first time in years, more in the foreground. It seemed that Lytton mainly served the marching function, whereas Black gave the signals to fire. Black employed electronics and small cymbals, while Lytton used large cymbals and brought in several tiny sound-making devices.

Peter Evans and Nate Wolley are highly sophisticated trumpeters who have pushed the envelope sensationally in their own right. Both are such powerful multidimensional players that their pairing and confrontation reshape and rebalanced their sound, creating a broader tone field. Every player went for his own way of sound making, such that new textures and forward sound lines emerged. It was a unique thing and great fun to watch and hear.

The evening started with a new face entering the arena. A Frenchman of Lebanese origin, Ibrahim Maalouf (1980) is a classically trained trumpeter who is also versatile on the four-valve trumpet constructed by his father, Nassim Maalouf, which allows him to play quarter-tones directly.

He used this last skill only briefly, in just one piece. More dominant was his hard-rock and funk-infected way of playing. His competent five-piece band, also featuring trumpeter, flautist and bagpipes player Youenn Lecam, played effectively. Maalouf won the audience by addressing it humorously, putting his music in a cultural and biographical perspective. He enacted themes like "obsession" and "'split identity states" in an illustrative way, and even got the audience involved singing his gentle "Lily" in a natural manner. Maalouf left his mark as a gifted musician and sympathetic stage personality who could and would win his audience. The performance of his biographical piece "Beirut" was impressive, but not performed as intensively as on his album. In his approach, musical worlds and styles coexist. To praise it: there was no "anything goes/mixing mentality" at work in Maalouf's music.

It was a good thing that the festival programmers chose this new voice to perform, as Maalouf clearly adapted the pieces from his recent album, Diagnostic (Hamonia Mundi, 2011), to his band and a performance context. He was sometimes still a bit too much of a classical musician (demonstratively) playing rock; in the long run, hopefully, that will wash off.

And then there was the second world premiére of the festival: The Cherrything—good old Neneh Cherry teaming up with Swedish-Norwegian power jazz trio The Thing, consisting of baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flåten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The group just released its first album together, Cherrything (Smalltown Supersound, 2012). Ljubljana was the starting point of an extended European tour for this constellation. Cherry chose The Thing and The Thing welcomed Cherry as a sister in spirit. As on the album, they reverted to and worked through a series of classics, whether they classic songs or pieces from classic players: "Dream Baby Dream," from the proto-punk duo Suicide (Alan Vega/Martin Rey), for instance, with its conjuring qualities; or Cherry's stepfather's "Golden Heart," part of Don Cherry's Complete Communion (Blue Note, 1966).


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