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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

Due to the (unstable) weather on Thursday the open-air concerts had to be moved to the Linhart hall inside, a last-minute decision. It had an infelicitous effect on the starting group of Berlin saxophonist Philipp Gropper's Philm. The sound in the hall made the group's music unrecognizable and they had no chance to take off. Conditions were slightly better for the Slovenian-Norwegian-Portuguese unit of Velkro comprising saxophonist Boštjan Simon, guitarist Stephan Meidell and drummer Luis Candeias. Their music started dusty and proceeded slowly. Gradually the fog raised and the music caught fire leading into wild attacks and subsequent release. Velkro created a natural arc of consistently extended layers of sound. It is remarkable how this transnational Too Lazy To Panic unit (title of its recent Clean Feed album) created such a profiled and distinguishing new sound from its different cultural backgrounds. It was a processual kind of music balancing on the edge of vagueness and exactness differing from many varieties of minimalism that are en vogue at the moment—a pleasurable experience.

Emilia Martensson comes from the south of Sweden and has Slovenian ancestors. She is an accomplished musician on the British scene. This night in Ljubljana she performed for the first time with her newly formed British trio of pianist Kit Downs and cellist Lucy Railton. In 2013 I wrote about her older trio of pianist Barry Green and percussionist Adriano Adewale, that she took "the nice and beautiful way but also has potential for more"( All About Jazz). The performance with this brand-new trio was a promising attempt to proceed into that direction. It was to its disadvantage, however, that this British-Swedish configuration was programmed to follow the British-Swedish constellation of vocalist Sofia Jernberg and pianist Alexander Hawkins. Apparently it was too difficult for the audience to make the switch from one voice and one approach to the other.

The final act of the night was drummer Yussef Dayes' Black Focus from Britain, consisting of Charlie Stacey (keys), Mansur Brown (guitar) and Tom Driessler (bass).This is an example of a group that I didn't like in the beginning but by staying to listen I got more into and very much liked the music in the end. The repetitive beat became irresistibly attractive, took me away and opened many floodgates. The music had an amazing hypodermic suction effect.

The first Friday concert took place at legendary Gromka Clubin the Metelkova neighborhood of Ljubljana—an apt place for the CP Unit of Brooklyn saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos with guitarists Brandon Seabrock and Tim Dahl plus drummer Jason Nazary. Pitsiokos' name has been circulating for a while and this appearance in Ljubljana was his European debut—this year's release of his Clean Feed album Before The Heat Death may have helped too.

The clearest sign in my notes is the term 'Horror Garden,' obviously indicating the music with its opposite sides can cause frightening and fascinating, repellent and attracting, confusing and exciting effects. It is a unit that is extreme in speed, density and loudness, but also extreme in cut up style fragments. The unit started with extremely up-speeded Salt Peanuts twitches—peristaltico ultimo -but never lingered in such a mode. They proceeded in rapid changes and relentless crushing, keeping each other and listener extremely awake and responsive. The unit came as a Naked City intensification and underneath there were lurking traces of raw blues. Every crushing and sudden turn brought forth complex forms that had to be dealt with. Often it seemed an exercise in free gardening, in the beauty of ugliness. An interesting counterpart was the late night appearance of German-Swedish-US American unit Amok Amor of Berlin residents Wanja Slavin (saxophone), Petter Eldh (double bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums), united with trumpet wizard Peter Evans. Amok Amor is much more loose in its shattering, splitting and splintering. They generate contrapuntal constellations and balance divergent movements. There is a different kind of velocity at work in Amok Arnor. The CP Unit creates from crashes and constriction, Amok Armor from splinting and splattering as a continuous process in which forms and structures are transitional, but always remain contoured.

Days and nights: Saturday

On Saturday two concerts stood out from the rest: the solo performance of young Swedish guitarist Susanna Risberg and the appearance of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire with his quartet with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown.

For sure hardly anyone in Lubljana knew, had heard or seen young Swedish guitarist Susanna Risberg before she entered the Ljubljana stage—except, obviously, artistic director Bogdan Benigar. Risberg played directly after the concert of all-female unit Hearth. The contrast between both couldn't have been starker. Susanna Risberg, a musician from the youngest generation, is a prime example of soberness and precision. The pureness and fluency of her playing were irresistible, far out of the ordinary. Maybe Julian Lage or Jakob Bro have a bit of the same in their playing. Risberg's playing is free of electronics and distortion. She has a crisp, crystal clear tone free of reverb with large space around. It's a confident voice of solitude. She played sophisticated pieces in a light, effortless way. It was something elsem quite an an experience. I guess we will hear and see more of her music making. Elegance is one of the key characteristics of the music North-American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is playing. Akinmusire has this deep vibrant tone akin to Bill Dixon and is a musician open to many sides. He can easily switch from making pressure to loose lyrical spheres. He is one of the musicians that puts the music at the center to let it prosper and bloom. It took the group some time to find its sound and balance but after that everything was flourishing brightly.

Context

Participation, intake and experiential value of a festival program at a high degree depend on the social and artistic context a festival is able to provide and the atmosphere it induces and maintains. Compared to other festivals Ljubljana again offered a multitude of interrelated and interrelating activities. An important place is the bar and the roof terrace of the Club of Cankarjev Dom at the 6th floor of the building. The Portuguese wine/fish reception has grown into an ultimate festival moment.

Photography/film

Photography is an art form closely connected to jazz and its development through the last hundred years. It has not only documented the music making and the making of the music. It has created a very own, distinctive and crucial iconography of jazz as a subculture and as an art form. Its influence on the perception of the music and its social binding force has been huge (and still is).

For this year's photo exposition Zaradi jazza / Because of Jazz excellent (and famous) Ljubljana photographer Žiga Koritnik curated a selection of the rich collection of (classical) black and white photographs of Oliver Belopeta, shot through the years at various places. Oliver Belopeta is the director of the jazz festival in Skopje (Republic of Macedonia) and was the director of Ljubljana Jazz Festival for a while too. He has a privileged personal access to many musicians. His photographs show a fascinating combination of recognition of the familiar and mind boggling, surprising deeper views. Another exhibition 'Complicate Simple' at NLB bank's gallery was dedicated to the festival posters.

During the festival days two documentaries were shown, one about saxophonist John Coltrane, and Jim Jarmusch's documentary Gimme Danger on Iggy Pop and the Stooges (this shows the scope of the Ljubljana Festival). There was also a screening of the experimental film 'Dissecting the Paraconcept' with live accompaniment of pianist Bram de Looze from Belgium (a.o. LabTrio), cellist Lester St. Louis and Slovenian drummer Dré Hočevar. Bram de Looze and Lester St. Louis participated—together with a.o. Chris Pitsiokos—in the two Clean Feed albums of Dré Hočevar Collective Effervescence and Coding of Evidentiality.

Installations/Live drawing/workshops/discussion

The festival offered a couple of multimedia installations and performances with titles like 'Just below the sonic level of sense making' (Dré Hočevar), 'Disenfranchised Language of Muted Rage' (collaboration with Ljubljana Music Academy), 'Subphenomenon of Utterance' (Pia Podgornik) and there were two workshops, one for children and one Vocal Workshop led by singer Emilia Mårtensson from Sweden/UK. Young musicians held a round-table to discuss the issue of 'Contemporaneity of Improvisation and New Media.'

A special experience was the enlivening of Dré Hočevar's installation 'Just below the sonic level of sense making' at the Grand Reception Hall of Cankarjev Dom. It resembled a bit the courtly promenading and conversing scenes from the glorious aristocratic past through its mixture of casualness and stylization. That kind of tableau emerged, directed by an invisible hand, and gradually seized all passers-by in the huge reception hall. It balanced on the edge of feeling staged and just enjoying the pleasure of walking around and making (small) talk with other passers-by. It became a lively and stimulating exposure to the continuation of the live drawing adventure of visual artist Lena Czerniawska from Wroclaw, Poland, presently residing and working in Berlin. The drawings from last year and this year were exposed in the large receptions hall.

She was invited by the Ljubljana Jazz Festival last year and again this year to accompany the concerts with real time drawing in response to her experience of the music. Lena Czerniawska developed this in the music scene of her hometown Wroclaw, especially at a longer series Melting Pot meetings of young European improvisers at Jazztopad Festival organized by Poland's New Forum of Music on the initiative of artistic director Piotr Turkiewicz.

During this year's edition of the Ljubljana Festival the exposition space, artwork, visitors and musicians formed an ever moving, confluent ensemble together with the sound installation 'Just below the sonic level of sense making' by Slovenian musician Dré Hočevar and various other performance activities. The drawing is an accompanying activity, a different medium performed in real time synchronous with the live concert music. It reflects the visual artist's perception and experience of the music going on. It is a recoding in lines, dots, textures, colors, shapes etc., a visual live-remix of the original musical performance. The drawings are a spontaneous response to the music that could also motivate/stimulate people from the audience to exchange and share their perceptions/experiences besides or as part of the communal hangs. These aspects and the practice of live drawing, especially that of Lena Czerniawska, will be dealt with in a later article.

Conclusion

Without a doubt the Ljubljana Festival offered a rich collection of interrelated and interrelating activities and cutting-edge diversity of music as well as diversity of impressions and stimulating experiences aimed at an active audience in an enjoyable social meeting place. It is a fertile ground for the European Jazz Conference that tales place at Ljubjana's Cankarjev Dom these days (September 21-24).

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