Skopje Jazz Festival 2015

Nenad Georgievski By

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Skopje Jazz Festival 2015
Skopje, Macedonia
October 15-18, 2015

Always in the news and perennially in either political or economic turmoil, Macedonia is not the easiest place to live. Conflicts, poverty, crisis. Even now in 2015 it was not spared from problems as it was on a trail of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the troubles in Syria and Iraq. Amidst all of these circumstances, problems and troublesome news, there has always been one constant paradigm—in October you always know there will be a jazz festival in Skopje, no matter what. It is a miracle that the festival has endured for so long. It is a miracle even more that the festival has retained its high quality and diversity of its line ups regardless of budget restrictions and financial shakedowns. As if the previously mentioned circumstances weren't enough, the Universal Hall where the festival's program has been happening for the last 3 decades was closed down as it was decided it was time to be rebuilt, but without clear resolution in the end. The location and the festival were literally inseparable and both have witnessed some of the finest musicians pouring their hearts out, offering the audiences in attendance memorable music and experiences.

This has left the festival with little space for maneuvering and it had to book the concerts at MOB (Macedonian opera and ballet) where until recently SJF had organized its second festival—Offest. Yet, the festival offered an abundance of quality music with a broad spectrum of artists that were both within the jazz genre and beyond. The festival was opened with an exclusive photo exhibition by Slovenian photographer Petra Cvelbar named "Sweet Addiction." Cvelbar has been attending the Skopje Jazz festival for quite some time diligently taking photographs alongside her colleague and country fellowman Ziga Koritnik. The exhibition featured 28 photographs taken from various festivals in Europe and the US including a photograph of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell which was taken at the Skopje Jazz Festival 2011. Her black and white photographs have a film noire quality to them and she captured artists in moments of various inner emotional states like excitement, reflection or ecstasy. What followed for four consecutive nights was a firm confirmation of the festival's direction to build a strong program characterized by diversity and maverick artists rather than associate itself with an image of a typical jazz festival and a strict cast of profiles each year. The honor of opening the festival belonged to guitarist James Blood Ulmer and his unique take on the blues. In his hands the blues became simultaneously avant-garde and traditional.

Well-versed in the harmolodic approach, the songs sounded far from the played—to -death kind of approach to the blues. Sang with a sly, husky, raw voice, the songs sparkled with many little ideas and harmonies, and he only referenced the blues along the way. The overall feeling was of warmth and as he was strumming his bright yellow guitar waves of warmth and feel-good feelings seemed to spread all over the hall. The second act which followed was Gianluca Petrella and his Cosmic Renaissance orchestra. Petrella is known as one of the leading exponents from the Italian jazz scene and for a while as a sideman to trumpeter Enrico Rava. Undoubtedly, he is one of the most innovative trombonists to appear on the international jazz scene. The Cosmic Orchestra kicked the motion in different gears and the dynamics went in different directions for the evening by introducing intricate arrangements, rock solid bass lines and rhythms, and lush keyboards. The band was fun, not afraid to take chances.

But at least for three consecutive evenings the double bills began with a solo recital. The second evening began with a solo piano performance by Joachim Kuhn. This was his third performance at this festival over the years. What began as a totally abstract and freely improvised solo pieces soon turned into more melodic and warm compositions and improvisations. In between pauses he would occasionally address the audience and would tell stories. One such story was his tour with the late saxophonist Ornette Coleman where Coleman would compose stuff exclusively for the night of the performances, never to be repeated again on the tour or afterwards. He performed two outstanding compositions by Coleman from that tour which changed the course of the whole performance. Obviously in a good mood Kuhn played soulfully and then did a short rendition of the Doors' epic song "The End." He saved the best for last, as he did a fantastic rendition of a Bob Marley song "Redemption Song." In his approach, he kind of liberated the innate gospel feel that this song carries, making it sound a bit grand like Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Trouble Water." This is the way this song is supposed to sound like.

The act that followed brought joy even more. The concert of Avishai Cohen in Skopje has been a long time coming. The place was packed full. As expected of Cohen, the show was nothing short of a triumph. The first part of the set consisted of slow paced compositions accentuated by the melodic piano and Cohen's precise bass lines. Cohen is one of those rare musicians that are equally at home in multiple of genres and constellations. Culturally diverse, but filtered through his unique vision, his music is rich, warm and intelligent. Utterly focused, the trio put everything into every note they played and Cohen was magisterial throughout, raising the fires and strengthening the intrigue with his melodic and deep tones. In the midst of this tour he replaced his pianist of choice, Nitai Hershkovitz and along with drummer Dor he played with Omri Mor, the pianist he has played with before Hershkovitz. Probably that was one of the reasons why their repertoire featured but two tunes from the trio's last album From Darkness.
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