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Sarajevo Jazz Festival 2016

Francesco Martinelli By

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After all the huge amount of music and emotion experienced in Sarajevo, what is left is the sense of having lived through an intellectual adventure of the highest calibre.
Sarajevo Jazz Festival 2016
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
November 2-6, 2016

When your plane lands in Sarajevo, its wheels roll over the crumbling underground tunnel that was the only connection of the city to the outside world during the Serbian siege from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. It was twenty years ago, and a few months later, in a devastated town, Edin Zubcevic launched his first jazz festival.

"This is a post-trauma society, like many other societies," said recently Edin. "We are really trying to do something for society. It's a mission. We are here for the music because we really believe in the music and its power of reconciliation, its healing power."

Sitting uneasily on the edges of Europe, the historical city of Sarajevo where so many key events of European history took place is slowly recovering from the war, in a general economic slump that does not help the economy. Founded by the Ottomans and for centuries one of the most important trading centers of the Balkans, with sizeable Jewish, Muslim, Catholics and Orthodox communities, its still a powerful visual model of tolerance with its cathedrals, mosques and synagogues sitting within metres from one another.

Boys and girls on the streets look like anywhere else, but unemployment is high and perspectives difficult, with a stead outflow of emigrants, draining the country of the brightest talents. Remaining there and fighting the fight is the choice of Edin and his passionate, efficient team, whose hospitality is legendary among musicians.

This year's program centerpiece was the John Zorn Marathon, the European premiere of Zorn's bagatelles, a dream for Edin since basically the first edition of the festival, and a very ambitious project for an event taking place in a weak economy. It was however a resounding success, with a full house and musically satisfying for listeners an musicians alike. The program took off at the Bosnian Cultural Center (an old synagogue restructured into auditorium) on November 2 with the new Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception Of Jazz band, an all-girls (apart from the leader) experiment by the fearless Norwegian keyboardist. Renouncing all his past collaborations with star performers and tapping the talent of a new generation is a courageous move, and the band answered well to Bugge's continuous groove variations. I guess it will take some more time to extract the full potential from it, but kudos for yet another surprise turn. Rob Mazurek's Sao Paulo Underground is of course one of the most exciting realities in music today, and the recent passing of Rob's father—the concert was dedicated to him—added yet another dimension to the shamanic rite that riveted the audience to their seats. Percussion, voices and sounds trascending the instruments themselves in the creation of a unique vibrational world. Unfortunately after three flights your reviewer could not stay up for pianist's Nitai Hershkovits solo late evening concert. The folwing day opened with the Tatran trio from Israel: being two generations removed from these boys I probably lack the means to follow their music, but I must confess that it did not anything for me. Painfully loud, poor in original material, despite being extremely well played by competent musicians I could not find anything interesting in it. They also played way too much showing disrespect to the other performers and throwing off balance the very full program.

Fortunately both Marc Ducret's solo and Samuel Blaser Trio with the leader on trombone, Ducret and Peter Bruun on drums provided some of the most exciting music on the program, with seamless fusion between composed and improvised material, lightning quick communication, humour and intensity. A masterful performance.

Due to the protraction of the afternoon concerts (and the need to visit a cevapcici shop now and then—it's a delicious Bosnian version of kebab) I missed Markus Stockhausen's duo with Florian Weber, which was later described to me in enthousiastic terms. I caught however the Taksim Trio, another unsatisfactory performance by hugely talented musicians. I'm not too fond of the electronically modified sound of Husnu Senlendirici's clarinet, and the creativity of İsmail Tunçbilek on bağlama as well as Aytaç Doğan on kanun seemed stifled, with the music never really taking off. The concert fell flat with an audience who was ready to warm up but could not find enough motivations, despite an auspicious beginning. I think they have to find a way out from the current stasis.

The final concert by Croatian pianist Matija Dedić, whom I knew from his collaboration with the excellent singer Tamara Obrovaç, took place in the Town Hall, an Austro-Hungaric building in Moorish style, recently restored, that used to be the National Library but went up in flames—with all its books—during the siege. Check out the video of the touching performance of Mozart's Requiem conducted by Zubin Mehta in the middle of the siege in the ruined building. The setting was inspiring but the piano sound got lost in the huge, high-ceilinged hall. The affectionate explorations of the compositions by his late father, Arsen Dedic are naturally so much more involving to an audience familiar with the Yugoslavian singer-songwriter's repertory. The following was the great day, and at 7 PM Masada exploded on stage with undiminished fervour and power. It's hard to believe that the band—named after another siege—is already more than 20 years old. It was not an easy act to follow, but an alternation of colors and atmospheres kept the program flowing over the 11 groups that took to the stage. No-one was less than interesting, but for me the highlights were the Nova Quartet with John Medeski, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass and again Joey Baron on drums. Engaging, detailed, energetic yet transparent, their rendition of selected Zorn compositions was truly brilliant. The strength of Zorn's idea shined through Trigger 's performance—a high-power electric trio with a hardcore punk or metal (I am showing my ignorance here) attitude whose music explored Bagatelles from a different and fresh viewpoint. The two cellos by Erik Friedlander and Jay Campbell were another highlight, as Uri Caine in trio and Craig Taborn solo. The final Asmodeus with Marc Ribot was conducted on stage by Zorn himself, and provided further insight in his creative process, closing the festivities on a high note. Later reflecting on the experience I realized that despite its humongous dimension it was in fact a lesson in restraint—each set was in itself short and to the point—with Zorn's compositional concept diffracted in different directions like light on a diamond. An opposite concept to Braxton's operas in a way, but with in common the idea of stretching the concept of time.

The following day I had the honor to be included in the presentation program, tying up with Bogdan Benigar's presentation of the 2017 European Jazz Conference that will take place in Ljubljana 2017 to introduce the project I am coordinating of a collective book about the History of European Jazz with almost 40 different contributions from all the European countries about their own history in and with jazz. A young, interested and bright audience filled the room and fielded questions and comments.

I was looking forward to my first sevdalinka live in Sarajevo and the duo of singer Tijana Vignjević and Belma Alić on cello was the answer. In front of a local and loyal audience they reinterpreted traditional songs from Bosnia—love songs and laments—with great emotion, using creatively a wide variety of vocal and instrumental colors. Limited means, as Steve Lacy was fond of saying, stimulate invention, and the duo was a perfect demonstration. Ranging from more classical sounds to folk and even theatrical gesture, the concert received a well deserved ovation. I am really looking forward to hear their record release as soon as possible.

Miroslav Tadic on guitar and Merima Ključo on accordeon are well established virtuosos on their instruments, and their recital ranged from Satie to folk material with breath-taking virtuosity and plenty of humour. Really enjoyable music from great masters, get their Cd if you can.

I was very curious to hear the new adventure by bassist and singer John Greaves of Henry Cow fame, and was not disappointed. Held together by Vincent Courtois' textures on the cello, powered by Mark Nauseef on drums, the project focus on Greaves' vocal, dramatic interpretation of songs. Such a personal male voice is not frequent in jazz and the trio mesmerized the audience, sending me back to retrieve Greaves' album tribute to Verlaine. The Dutch-Belgian trio Oliver's Cinema led by trumpeter Eric Vloeimans with Jorg Brinkmann on cello and Tuur Florizoone on accordion was a change of pace, not so intense but very enjoyable, with the different characters of the joking trumpeter and the concerned accordionist offset by the imperturbable attitude of the cellist. Excellent playing from all involved, airy textures that uplifted the audience.

The final night of the festival opened by two duos with pianist Bojan Zulfikarpasic—in an already very tight program that really challenged who wanted to entirely follow the events this was maybe a bit too much: one would have been enough. However they were different in character, and each had their strong points. I preferred the clean, streamlined sound of the trombone played by Nils Wogram, but the emotional committment and familiarity with the repertory of French saxophonist Julien Lourau created a more equal and richer dialogue with the keyboards. These two sets also went on too long, displacing the rest of the evening even farther into the night. Django Bates' humanCHain suffered from the situation, due also to the lack of experience of his band formed by excellent students. His opening Dylan tribute was masterful —the second of the day, after A Hard Rain Gonna Fall sang by Greaves—and showed at best the energetic singing and magnetic presence by Claire Hugenin, but the attention began to fade with the night advancing and the hard core of the audience waiting for the last concert. I think that such a project need more breathing space, as I still remember how elated I was after a similar concert in Tallinn. I regret to say that my own energy was exausted and I had to miss—after almost 12 hours since the first concert—the final and eagerly expected set by Terje Rypdal's band with guest Palle Mikkelborg on trumpet.

Besides the fascinating context the festival takes place in, I feel that a festival is strong when leads a listener on a path of exploration. It includes and welcomes the possibility of finding dead-ends, because no discovery runs on a highway—you need to go through backstreets and forest walks, with the resident danger. After all the huge amount of music and emotion experienced in Sarajevo, what is left is the sense of having lived through an intellectual adventure of the highest calibre. Kudos to Edin and his team for creating and keeping alive this festival in the most difficult conditions—we all may soon have to learn from them.
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