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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."

Line

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.

Another striking event was the appearance of all-female quartet Hearth, a transnational sisterhood of fire. Pianist Kaja Draksler from Ljubljana and saxophonist Ada Rave from Buenos Aires share the Amsterdam impro-scene as home base, saxophonist Mette Rasmussen from Denmark has a strong tie to Trondheim in Norway and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva from Porto in Northern Portugal is residing in Stockholm. Strong centrifugal and centripetal forces brought the Sisterhood of these four young women together. The strongest and longest trace has been drawn by Susana Santos Silva in the recent past. She is part of the partly Rotterdam based quartet Lama, has a duo with Kaja Draksler. Ada Rave is part of the Kaja Draksler Octet and Mette Rasmussen is maybe the farthest reaching out force of them being very active in Scandinavia, Japan, and Central Europe. For a longer while she has now a dashing cutting-edge duo with North-American drummer extraordinaire Chris Corsano. It was quite natural that they found each other and joined forces at the OctoberMeeting 2016 at Amsterdam Bimhuis.

Hearth continued the line deployed at last year's edition by Swedish-Norwegian unit of Anna Högberg Attack (see my report). Initially the music of the four Hearth musicians reminded me strongly of the Alien Huddle unit of Sylvie Courvoisier, Lotte Anker and Ikue Mori. Fascinating forms emerged from the chirruping and huddling of the Hearth voices in a thrilling combination of coincidence and deliberateness along varying dynamics. It showed potentials that need to be exploited under more and new circumstances—in short: more festival appearances!

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek concluded the six concerts schedule of the festival's Saturday that was to be followed by the single Sunday dessert spectacle of Shabaka and The Ancestors. Mazurek's appearance was more a ritualistic unleashing performance than a usual cool or hot jazz concert. Using piano, trumpet, electronics and assorted percussion Mazurek whipped up turmoil of demonic flashes and murmurings. His actions cut deep, were smoldering in diffuse light and loosed off in crashing flashes. Its visceral quality, existential load and spiritual drive made it a rare thing that should happen more often.

Sometimes time comes to standstill, vanishes from awareness and leaves you completely immersed in the magic of a past time. This can happen with music. I experienced it once at a concert of Lee Konitz in Bucharest. Archie Shepp was on the program of the large Gallus hall of the Cankarjev Dom center after a hiatus of 30 years. He was the headliner with a heavy line-up of pianist Jason Moran, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer extraordinaire Nasheet Waits.

From the wonky start on it took some time before the music found its track and unfolded from inside and gained glowing color. In the beginning it raised questions concerning the link with John Coltrane—the concert had been announced as a tribute to Coltrane. Skepticism was nourished, but staying open and receptive was rewarded. Finally it appeared, it was there, the good old magic, in full color, beautiful timbre and deep air (and with the voice of Tom Waits in mind). It turned out a time travel, extraordinary, captivating, memorable. The connection with Coltrane was the rendering of one of his pieces and conjuring up the spirit/feeling of those old times. It was less myth and more atmospheric touch.

Days and nights: Wednesday

Thursday evening brought a heavy start with Karkhana, the group from Beirut consisting of trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, electric guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, electric bassist Tony Elieh and Maurice Louca augmented by reedist Umut Çaglar from Istanbul, Egyptian Canadian Sam Shalabi on ûd and electric guitar and Chicago drummer Michael Zerang. Karkhana continued a line of cultural dialogue from earlier festival editions.

The group started in a powerful inwardly rotating dark mood with some golden shimmering traces. It became a self-surpassing, self-growing force discharging into a deeper trance stream, but then for not obvious reason the group switched to a twitching free jazz intermezzo. It took some time but happily the group found its way back to some powerful rotating movement. Normally you won't hear this music at jazz festivals in Europe, which is a real pity.

Hungarian multi-instrumentalist Akosh Szelevény, who migrated to France in the second half of the 1980s, has made a name in the late 1990s and the first decade of the new century with his Akosh S. Unity. His music was a furious mélange of ethnic roots, exotic extensions, raw jazz and rock energies. The new version of the Akosh S. unit is scaled down but with its two drummers (Szilveszter Miklòs, Aron Porteleki ), double bass (Peter Ajtai) and two saxophones (Akosh Szelevény, Gabriel Lemaire) it can still raise a rough storm rushing over the Pannonian Steppe. It seems that the intensity of the music has increased and is still more obsessed. The five dedicated musicians totally went for it in long energetic stretches, which didn't miss their heavy impact. The unit has a unique sound not coming from electricity but mainly from the materiality of the acoustic instruments.

The two raw Eastern things formed a stark contrast with the concluding duo of the evening, pianist Kris Davis teaming up with the most admired jazz pianist of this moment, Craig Taborn. Kris Davis is a young master in her own right, who recorded a whole album of duos, Duopoly, with guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, pianists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore, and reed players Tim Berne and Don Byron.

With this duo the festival continued its two-piano-line after last year's Eve Risser/Kaja Draksler constellation. Craig Taborn returned to the festival after the daring duo-set with Swedish saxophone ace Mats Gustafsson in 2015. The duo concert in the intimate round amphitheater of the Štih hall became a rich and highly sophisticated affair with high listening demands. Davis and Taborn faced each other but only a few spectators could observe the action on bóth keyboards. The interplay was exciting, amazing and at times it even became confusing as it was difficult to discern who of the two pianists was playing, and what. It was a highly structured, splendid recital that got looser in the second half and during the encore.

Days and nights: Thursday

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Jazz Near Ljubljana
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