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Slovenian Showcase Festival 2017

Ian Patterson By

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Slovenian Showcase Festival 2017
CD Club, Cankarjev dom
Ljubljana, Slovenia
September 22-23, 2017

An important part of the European Jazz Conference 2017, held in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, was the Slovenian Showcase Festival, which presented some of the most original, progressive and entertaining of the current crop of Slovenian bands operating in the spheres of jazz, improvised and related music. Of some fifty bands who applied for the chance to play before major European festival directors, promoters, club managers and agents attending the EJC, seven bands were chosen.

The intimate CD Club, on the top floor of Cankarjev dom provided the setting, where, over two nights, the audiences gained an insight into the diversity and depth of talent of the creative music scene in Slovenia. Ljublijana boasts the oldest continuously running jazz festival in Europe, so it perhaps shouldn't have come as a surprise that the modern generation of Slovenian jazz/improvising musicians displayed such pedigree.

Maja Osojnik & Patrick Wurzwallner: ZSAMM

From the brooding atmosphere conjured from electronic drone and Maja Osojnik's doomy vocals, the signs were that this would be no ordinary gig. Standing behind a table laden with electronica and dripping with wires, Osojnik's conducted live sampling, dj-cd jiggery pokery and found-object sound sculpting, while vocally, she oscillated between baritone growl and tenor flight. Drummer Patrick Wurzwallner slipped in and out of the mix, bringing dynamic rhythmic impulse and whiplash percussive accents, while sound engineer Christina Bauer's exerted significant influence.

Electronic static bled from one sonic wave into the next, although it was a strain to understand the lyrics, even though Osojnik sang—and on occasion roared—in English. Dark and introspective at one extreme, thrashing and punkish at the other, what began as a slightly disorienting, not to say jarring sonic experience gradually exerted a strangely hypnotic quality, with the sonic middle ground exerting, arguably, the greatest pull.

Rhythmic, vocal and electronic mantras were woven throughout the performance, while sci-fi abstraction dovetailed with foregrounded drone in an all-enveloping sonic whirlwind. Improvisation felt like a significant part of the duo's equation, while the pockets of melody—organ-like motifs as well as quite lyrical vocal passages and layered harmonies—were rationed amid the maelstrom for maximum effect. A delightfully delicate, choral-like mantra, with gentling rippling chimes, closed out a memorable performance.

During the concert, the sight of Osojnik hitting her head with a tuning fork to keep herself on the harmonic straight and narrow served as a metaphor for this very singular musical proposal—unorthodox, stylistically bold and impossible to remain indifferent to.

Drago Ivanuša: La Bête humaine

Pianist and film score composer Drago Ivanuša may well be of the opinion that history is doomed to repeat itself. His project La Bête humaine [The Human Beast], inspired by Jean Renoir's 1938 film of the same name, chimed with the mood of the times then as now—sombre, tense, wild and unpredictable.

The spare lyricism of the classically hued intro, with its delicate trills and pretty ornaments, hardly prepared the listener for the intensely jangling motifs punctuated by piston-like bass notes that intervened. The delicate mood was restored like a fine veil in an emotionally gripping start to this solo piano performance.

The second piece juxtaposed dense clusters, spidery runs and sharp percussive notes. Denser and faster as the piece progressed, Ivanusa's improvisations displayed fearsome technique, though the odd missed stab in a furious cross- handed percussive passage typified the dominance of the pianist's emotional attack over any preoccupation with technical perfection.

By contrast, a brooding composition dedicated to the recently deceased actor Harry Dean Stanton, veered teasingly between dark and light themes, with a brief visit to the theme from the sic-fi thriller Aliens (1979), in which Stanton played the engineer Brett.

Rhythmic repetition and scurrying runs co-existed on the next number, a curiously rooted yet dizzying exposition with one foot planted in minimalism and the other in roaming avant-garde improvisation. A similar aesthetic colored the next composition, inspired by the train from Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine as a metaphor for power running wild. Ivanuša 's insistent left-hand rhythm conjured the trains' relentless momentum over the tracks, the billowing black smoke, while his dramatic right hand was all licking flame and dancing sparks.

The final piece exploded with furiously chopping hands Ivanuša's subsequent rhapsodic sweeping of the keys punctuated by aggressive staccato jabs that refused to cede to the flow. This powerful sonic attack provided a stirring finale to a bravura performance not short on dramaturgy, and one laden with emotional intent.

Artbeaters

Newly expanded to a quintet, Artbeaters is led by violinist Peter Ugrin, who honed his craft in the New School, New York. Coming after the outré, if not outright radical performances that came before, Artbeaters' contemporary jazz sounded more stylized, though there was passion of a different sort in the set of all-original compositions, taken from the band's second CD, Life Compass On! (2017).

IIj Pušnik's bass arco, Aljosa Jeric's pattering mallets and guitarist Marko Čepak's arpeggios announced the opening number, with pianist Aleš Ogrin following rhythmic suit. Ugrin and Čepak formed an exciting front line, alternating solos characterized by their energy and melodic contours.

Written as a conceptual suite extoling the virtues of compassion, the variations in tempo and mood from one tune to the next succeeded in keeping the attention. At both slow and upbeat tempi chief protagonists Ugrin and Čepak were particularly impressive, though there were occasional, telling solos from the entire ensemble. For the most part Ugrin played acoustic, flicking the switch to go electric on a feisty tune that evoked the spirit of violin great Zbigniew Seifert.

Slow piano mantra, guitar and bass ostinatos and drawn out violin notes underpinned a power ballad that featured a rousing mid-section drum solo. Bass then took up the mantle before the quintet realigned in melodic unison. Violin and drums went toe to toe in an exhilarating exchange, before Čepak took the lead with a mazy, highly fluid response. The final piece stemmed from a Vivaldi-esque violin intro, before electric bass, a heavy back beat and electric violin steered the music towards lively jazz-fusion terrain. A fired-up Čepak delivered another killer solo, with an ensemble vamp serving as canvas for further drumming pyrotechnics.

It was easy to see why Artbeaters had made the final cut for the Slovenia showcase nights at the EJC 2017, as its accessible yet animated music engaged on both cerebral and emotional levels.

Bowrain

Bowrain is the moniker for pianist, composer and producer Tine Grgurevič, whose contemporary piano trio closed out the first evening of Slovenian showcases. Bowrain was presenting material from its forthcoming album, Distracted (Kapa Records, 2017), which, in addition to the trio also features cello, violin and vocals. At either side of the stage, a large graphic projection of slowly moving eye surveyed the scene—an artistic detail seemingly unimportant, but one that immediately set Bowrain apart from the other groups of the showcase.

The opener, "Silenzio," got underway with low rumblings wrought from the piano's intestines. This heavy bass end was augmented by a swirling right-hand pattern, with Ljubljana guitarist Mario Babojelić adding atmospheric, six- string acoustic ruminations. Rustling percussion filtered in and out before German drummer Robert Nitschke slipped into a pocket of relative silence with an infectious, unwavering rhythm. Chiselled, grooving piano chords alternated with circling motifs as drums kept up the same pattern, albeit with increasing intensity, while scratchy guitar, electronically filtered added distinctive textures to the mix.

On a striking, and as yet unrecorded tune a helicopter-like, electronic chop and contrasting polyrhythms provided the backdrop to Grgurevič's bold left-hand ostinato and a melodic right-hand mostly engaged in bright, minimalist motifs. It would make terrific driving music, or the soundtrack to the closing credits of a film. Pre-programmed rhythms announced "Refugee," a mid-tempo head-bobber fuelled by Nitscke's industry and constructed on the simplest of melodic foundations. At the composition's tail end a recorded English news voice, repeated several times, announces the plight of homeless refugees in winter—an enduring humanitarian crisis, seemingly on a global scale.

Set-closer "Continuum" sunk its rhythmic hooks from the get-go, and although by now the prevailing aesthetic of infectious groove and harmonically bright, minimalist melody was well established, it was difficult not to be seduced all the same.

Powerful, hypnotic and uplifting.

Day Two

Feminized.Science.Deniers

This curiously titled trio, better known perhaps as saxophonist Igor Lumpert, pianist Eve Risser and drummer Dre Hocevar kicked off day two of the Slovenian Showcase Festival with music that was of all the showcase bands, perhaps closest to the jazz tradition on one level—instrumentation, improvisation— and yet leaning heavily towards contemporary avant-garde.

Restlessness characterized the first exchanges, with fluttering brushes, slightly dissonant piano comping and gently explorative tenor saxophone—curiously edgy yet lyrical—combining to atmospheric effect. A drum solo, early in proceedings, was in tune with the brooding atmosphere. Risser placed a succession of found objects on the piano strings, damping her deftly placed notes, while Lumpert's improvisation flirted with more abstract notions, braying and whinnying, though with a sense of measure that invited close listening.

Gradually emboldened, the trio raised the stakes, with more expansive collective expression. Risser and Hočevar switched back and forth between rhythmic and percussive roles as Lumpert stretched out, though the tempo, in a piece of little pronounced rhythm, stayed constant for long periods. When the tempo did shift, it went up a gear, with the trio unleashing a free-jazz tempest of sufficient energy to have powered a small town, before slowly winding down. A stirring thirty-minute piece, with a definite emotional arc.

The second piece, much shorter at around ten minutes, followed a similar blueprint in moving from quiet beginnings through a more animated free passage before returning to its starting point. Tension was ever present, raised by a spurt of burrowing tenor saxophone, sustained washing cymbals and jagged pianism, lowered in stages and only fully resolved when silence claimed the stage once more.

Complex and somehow beautifully simple at the same time, free-spirited yet finely attuned, corrosive in its intensity at one extreme, tender and susurrus at the other. Feminized.Science.Deniers wasn't easy to pin down, but that was half the fun.

Kristijan Krajnčan

One musicians, one cello, one drum kit. Kristijan Krajncan's original set-up had a visual impact before a note was played and aroused a sense of expectation. It's rare indeed, for a room full of festival directors, promoters and agents to be faced with a novel proposition, but Krajnčan, drummer cellist and composer was just that.

It was clear from the opening number that the cello operated as much as a percussive instrument as the drum kit, Krajnčan knocking and slapping beats from the cello's body with one hand while working drum skin with the other. Inevitably both hands had to go to one or the other instrument, at which point pedals initiated layered rhythms as Krajnčan worked the cello guitar-styles, evoking Middle Eastern sonorities. A bowed legato melody wound down this impressive introduction.

A couple of pegs on strings altered the dynamics on the following number, Krajnčan lightly stirring gongs in an abstract opening before lifting his bow. A serene excerpt from a Bach cello suite ensued, bleeding into a vaguely Celtic- flavored air complete with chanter drone. As the music swelled, aided by layered cello rhythms, a fairly orthodox drum/percussive improvisation followed, and for the finale, and with the theatricality of an illusionist, Krajnčan threw and caught invisible notes with one hand.

The most beguiling aspect of Krajnčan's artistry was arguably his melodic sense on cello, where classical, European folk, jazz and African folk influences rubbed shoulders. A little of all these influences found their way into the tune "Snow of Ashes"—part of the score to a film soundtrack composed by Krajnčan. For the final number, Krajncan turned to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's "Fratres." Pre-recorded cello ensemble freed-up Krajnčan to play, with mallets, the variations. The serenity of Pärt's choral-like meditation contrasted with a rumbling drum improvisation—now on sticks—like storm clouds above a church.

For Krajnčan, musical genres hold no boundaries. The equal weight given to composition and improvisation made for music that was rooted and free-spirited.

Teo Collori and Momento Cigano

The final act of the Slovenia Music Showcase saw the quintet Momento Cigano led by guitarist Teo Collori breeze through a swinging set of gypsy-jazz. It was the only overtly retro act of the seven showcase bands but Collori's refusal to trawl the Django Reinhardt songbook meant that his originals felt freshly minted.

With three soloists in the shape of Collori, violinist Matija Krečič and clarinetist Matej Kužel there were plenty of individual fireworks, but it was the irresistible swing engineered by double bassist Jan Gregorka and rhythm guitarist Metod Banko that worked its way under the skin.

The first two tunes, the self-explanatory "Chase" and the mid-tempo "Tony Mitraglia" came from the bands' first CD, Hot Club Piran (Celinka, 2015), but the majority of the set was comprised of new material. A slow, swinging ballad by Gregorka featured exquisite violin and clarinet harmonies, with Krečič delivering a lyrical, bluesy solo. On the merrily chugging "Istriano Duro" rich harmonic lines were the order of the day.

Another aching ballad, "La Pluie," commanded the attention, as did the gently swinging "Bled," but most fun was had, however, on the livelier numbers, such as the infectious "One Moon No Sun," which set toes tapping and blood coursing. A couple of rabble-rousing numbers concluded the performance, though a prolonged ovation brought a double encore. A pizzicato violin motif accompanied Corolli's heart-melting melodic lines, the duo eventually joined by a spare bass pulse in this moving serenade. With a perfect sense of choreography the quintet reunited on an up-tempo, driving tune, crowning a faultless and engaging performance in some style.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tina Ramujkic

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