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.

Nevertheless, the trio played music that was dynamic, colorful and uncompromising yet it was calibrated for appeal beyond the hardcore jazz audience. Since Skopje was the last date on the tour, he announced the last tune a bit prematurely. Eventually, he saw the crowd was eager for more and he gave them more prolonging the set deep into the night. It turned into a party with Cohen taking requests from the audience. By end of the show, the trio literary brought the house down with a stimulating set that constantly moved, grooved and flipped stylistically. This was very memorable. The first midnight concert at City Hall with Melt yourself Down was utterly dynamic, playful, but it wasn't to my liking. It just didn't feel like the right kind of music after Cohen's spectacular concert. When Dave Holland's Prism played and closed the Skopje Jazz Festival in 2013, the festival's manager Oliver Belopeta, announced the band and introduced its band members, he expressed his admiration for pianist Craig Taborn, mentioning that he would like to welcome him one day as a solo act at the festival. Well, he kept to his promise and Taborn was the first performer for the evening. Concentrating on found motifs than on tunes, variation on a tune and then returning to a tune sequence, Taborn's piano explorations have found him exploring impossibly complex ascending and cascading lines, shapes and rhythms. Often the explorations brought shapeless explorations to the point of tedium. So delicate was his approach that sometimes the only way to differentiate the pieces was the variations of tempos. Eventually, by the end he would introduce minor melodic hooks or lines that would give meaning to his pieces.

On the other hand, the performance of Gregory Porter as the second act in the bill was a totally different affair. It was one of the most exhilarating performances the festival has ever seen both in musical and emotional sense. This night was easily the busiest one out of the four. Backed by a very superb band, Gregory Porter did a master class of how to use words, voice, appearance and melodies in order to seduce the audience. The moment he appeared on stage he was greeted with a thunderous applause and standing ovations. Porter's appearance is of modesty and his personality and voice radiate such warmth. His voice is tender, but powerful and it has a range and resonance. The set was well chosen with great songs such as "There Will Be no Love Dying Here," "Hey Laura," "On My Way To Harlem" or 1960 What? His emotional sensitivity is breathtaking spreading the feel-good vibe across the hall. The performance of his very able band can only described as captivating. The band displayed its strong musical rapport, depth and emotive quality and it solidified its status as one of the most exciting bands around. Gregory Porter's concert was nothing less than a veritable masterclass of singing.

The second midnight concert at City Hall by Soweto Kinch was a blast. His mixture of raw jazz and hip hop was original and dynamic. Kinch really knows how to communicate with a crowd and serve them excellent music. The performance of the duo Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld on the closing night added significantly to the festival's diversity. Easily the most distinctive performance at the festival, with its minimalistic repetitive motifs, it belonged to other improvisational traditions. The rest of the performances were part of the classical jazz, blues or the free jazz idiom. This was something different. Their performance was easily one of the highlights as well. It was very interesting to watch Stetson performing with his huge bass and tenor saxophones on stage in communion with Neufeld's violin. The duo's music was carefully architected and nuanced, and as a result it created brilliant instrumental gymnastics that evoked sounds and influences ranging from minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Penguin Music Orchestra. The duo created mesmerizing and pulsating cohesive walls of sound that were often engaging. The repetitive melodies of both the saxophone and violin were craftily enmeshed in an almost otherworldly ebb and flow of cinematic textures.

The performance of Angles 8 closed the festival. Their photograph was also featured in the photo exhibition that opened the festival. The band's music was slow paced and as a band they didn't spill their cards all over the table at every hand. The themes took a lot of time to unfold and develop often resembling a film noir soundtrack. The arrangements were intricate and carefully crafted. Often the slow-pacedness in the first part of the show was on the point of boredom, but by the end of the performance things began taking up speed. The dynamics turned the band into John Lurie's Lounge Lizards ensemble. The ending chapter of the performance was far more interesting that the one that preceded it and it brought the concert and the festival to a satisfying conclusion. No year is the same at Skopje Jazz festival. Each year it brings the best, newest and most exciting artists. Regardless of circumstances the festival occurs in, it continues to challenge traditions and presumptions. Avant-garde subculture players that have strayed from stale musical conventions share the spot with late-career legends. It's the music and the challenge it poses is what is attractive about the festival's selection. This year it was not different.

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