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The Slovenian Experience: Jazz Festival Ljubljana 2017

Henning Bolte By

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Ljubljana—capital of the Republic of Slovenia, member of EU, neighbored by Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy—hosts the oldest jazz festival in Europe, which held its 58th edition this year (June, 28—July, 2). The event is organized by Cankarjev House/Cankarjev Dom, a prestigious, state-run cultural center in midtown Ljubljana, residing in one half of an impressive twin tower building, the other part being the National Bank of Slovenia.

Cankarjev Dom has been created in the 1980s to foster collaboration between all art disciplines. Ivan Cankar (1876-1918) is held to be the most important writer to shape Slovenian identity: "Cankarjev Dom believes that cultural, artistic and scientific creativity meets the basic condition for attaining spiritual freedom and the richer spiritual lives of people and social development."

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Core of the festival was jazz from Europe (14 concerts). One group came from the Middle East and six units from the US. There were mixed groups like Amok Amor and the Igor Lumpert Quartet, and even Karkhana from Lebanon had two North-American musicians. There were four groups from Slovenia: Velkro, Cene Resnik with Zlatko Kaučič, Igor Lumpert Quartet, Art Beaters and Container Doxa. Groups like Hearth (Kaja Draksler) and the Emilia Mårtensson Trio had a Slovenian factor. Kaja Draksler grew up in Slovenia and Swedish vocalist Emilia Mårtensson, who also held a two-day vocal workshop, has Slovenian ancestors. The furthest participation came from South Africa (Shabaka And The Ancestors) and Argentine (Ada Rave, Hearth). A short look at the program reveals that the festival presented a high percentage of musicians of the younger generation.

The following grouping of the concerts offers an insight into the focus of the program:

Out of the ordinary. Karkhana (Lebanon), Akosh S (Hungary), Susanna Risberg (Sweden), Rob Mazurek (US)

Into the extreme. CP Unit (US), Nate Wooley's KNKNIGHGH (US), Amok Amor (Germany)

Old school. Archie Shepp (US)

New horizons. Hearth (transnational), Alexander Hawkins/Sofia Jernberg (UK/Sweden), Lucia Cadotsch 'Speak Low' (Switzerland/Germany/Sweden), Philipp Gropper's Philm (Germany), Emilia Mårtensson Trio (Sweden/UK), Art Beaters (Slovenia), Shabaka And The Ancestors (UK/SA), Yussef Kamaal (UK)

Advanced. Kris Davis/Craig Taborn (US), Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet (US), Igor Lumpert Quartet (Slovenia/US)

Highlights

Some of the performances were outstanding in different respects, for different reasons. They made a strong mark and/or were highly promising: the Musho duo of Alexander Hawkins/Sophia Jernberg, the quartet Hearth, the solo of Rob Mazurek, and, in a certain way too the concert of Archie Shepp.

British pianist Alexander Hawkins is leaving a strong trace through today's jazz landscape. It seems everything he touches, turns into gold. Even if you already know this, every new combination turns out as surprising, beyond expectation. The duo with Swedish vocalist emerged from the October Meeting in 2015 at Amsterdam Bimhuis where it performed for the first time under the name 'Musho.' Their duo performance appeared to be a broadly agreed highlight of the meeting. The Ljubljana concert surpassed that by far. In Amsterdam they performed several pieces based on Ethiopian traditional music in carefully balanced and well-timed transcendence into present day musical areas. In Ljubljana they performed in one fabulous continuing stream of consciousness with strong references to Ethiopian music. Seamlessly fading in and out of musical areas they interconnected different musical spheres and domains in unprecedented, subtle and credible ways. Both drew from rich sources and in real time composed a fabulous, naturally flowing stream of captivating music, a rare and almost unbelievable thing. Jernberg is an amazing performer, who can do almost everything vocally with great inner concentration in a non-agitated, mildly smiling way. It was an outstanding, memorable performance.

I saw Hawkins earlier, in January of this year (at the festival in Münster, Germany), doing a thrilling concert with his trio and fabulous British vocalist Elaine Mitchener. Although Mitchener is a musician of a different temperament and approach, the performance had the same general qualities and brilliance. This brilliant duo of Hawkins/Jernberg has played at Nasjonal Jazzscene venue in Oslo recently and is in urgent need of further circulation.

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