Vlatko Stefanovski is always cooking up something interesting, and the ingredients in this project are inspired choices. Taftalidže is an area in Skopje where Stefanovski has lived for most of his life and from where he went to conquer the world of music firstly with his band Leb i Sol and then solo. At the time, this area was known as the funk center in Skopje with people forming bands and amassing enormous vinyl collections. As a child of the 1960s and 1970s when the expansive ambitions of these eras exploded and colored Stefanovski's own ambitions and appetites, after more than 40 years his career saw an equal expanse with projects that range from classic rock songwriting to jazz-rock instrumentals, from solo acoustic guitar performances to tours with prestigious classic philharmonic orchestras or jazz bands. So when the initial 2020 coronavirus lockdown came, Stefanovski, who has built a home studio years ago turned off the news and turned on his recording equipment and dived deep back into his inspiration to come up with this collection of songs.
The truly great guitarists are the ones with a signature sound, instantly recognizable from only a handful of notes. Stefanovski belongs in such an elite company and, thankfully, his latest solo offering delivers a great deal of that familiar tone. Taftalidže Shuffle is a tasty stew of rock, funk, jazz, and blues that sees Stefanovski glancing back in his rear view mirror for inspiration. The songs address his youthful concerns salted with the experience of age. The set packs more bite than some past songwriting efforts and in some ways, it is a philosophical relative to the first trio record he did years ago. The set kicks off with the title song which is a joyful and playful instrumental that makes the music nudge from 1920s New Orleans towards Chicago and Memphis of the 1950s. It's a grooving opener. His guitar bravuras on this opening tune shine brightly and his touch, tone, and feel are on full display here and this is the reason why guitar cognoscenti hold him in such esteem.
But the record has its own secret ingredient: the new rhythm section consisting of drummer Jan Stefanovski and bassist Ivan Kukic. The rhythm section are young but they play so much gusto that they energize the bandleader effectively. Jan is Vlatko's son but he plays like a seasoned pro which he is, taking into account the many gigs they have played together live. The trio seems to pull from all the right places and falls together like a group of old friends.
"Funky Junkie" is where the band shines the brightest. It's a funk song that somehow resembles Stefanovski's legacy with the much-admired Leb i Sol band. The trio is joined by keyboardist Tihomir Assanovic Pop, who provides a swirling, fuzzy organ. The rhythm section below does everything a great funk/rock band can do: call-and-response, playful rhythmic prodding and accenting, that push-pull feeling of impeccable swing. Somewhere in the middle, one can hear the flutist Teodosii Spasov actually playing trumpet adding Miles Davis-esque tones to this outstanding song.
Tihomir Asanovic Pop is just another of an army of guest master keyboardists and pianists who lent their talents to these songs. Joining him on this endeavor are keyboardists Damir Imeri, Vasil Hadzimanov and Kiril Dzajkovski, the great jazz pianist Matija Dedic, and Diran Tavitjan of the Tavitjan trio fame whose keyboards adorn the opening title song.
Each of the songs on Taftalidže Shuffle has a unique identity, but even though the format is not something novel, as these are still standard songs, this isn't an attempt to recapture some bygone era or to echo the past but a record that respects itself and refuses to be dressed up in ill-fitting clothes. There is only one true ballad here, but it is enchanting. "Ogledalo" moves with stately grace, outlining a melody that sits squarely between a classic Tin Pan Alley tune and a rock-era classic that might have been written by Eric Clapton. The set closes with "Diaspora," a poignant song that reflects the tragic nature of these times that forces people to migrate and separates families.
Stefanovski sounds reinvigorated on this record. Even though we are living in strange and difficult times one might think that the fact musicians couldn't jam together or perform live would limit their creativity and hinder the new records. Instead, the opposite was true. This may be a better record because of the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
Taftalidze shuffle; Funky junkie; Igranka; Garaza; Global warming - local freezing; Ogledalo; Nemam
pesna za tebe; Raskrsnica; Dijaspora
Ivan Kukić: 6-String Bass; Andrijana Janevska; Backing Vocals (tracks: A4,B1,B2,B3); Jan
Stefanovski: Drums; Art Direction, Artwork By – Ladislav Cvetkovski; Guitar, Vocals: Vlatko
Stefanovski; Keyboards: Damir Imeri (tracks: B1,B2,B3), Diran Tavitjan (tracks: A1), Kiril Džajkovski
(tracks: A3), Matija Dedić (tracks: A4), Tihomir Pop Asanović (tracks: A2), Vasil Hadžimanov (tracks:
A5); Trumpet – Theodosii Spassov (tracks: A2); Voice: Nikola Ristanovski (tracks: B4)