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Vilnius Jazz 2019

Ian Patterson By

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Politics surrounds music like everything else in life, but how often do musicians take a political stand on an issue by refusing to play?
Vilnius Jazz 2019
Russian Drama Theatre
Vilnius, Lithuania
October 16-20, 2019

Is a jazz festival primarily about entertainment, or is it meant to challenge the expectations of its audience? Does programming risk mean financial suicide? What responsibility does a festival have to promote young, emerging talent? What place do women have in jazz today? How does jazz benefit from collaborations with other art forms? Does jazz carry a diplomatic passport, or should its practitioners use their extraordinary platforms to exert greater political influence? These and other questions were raised during Vilnius Jazz 2019, where audiences were met with more than one surprise.

Overview

For its thirty second edition Vilnius Jazz pulled out all the stops. Topping the bill were The Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra, both making their respective debuts in Lithuania. The former was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, while the presence of the latter represented a personal milestone for Vilnius Jazz festival director Antanas Gustys, who had long attempted to lure the legendary band to the Lithuanian capital. A few old friends of Vilnius Jazz were welcomed back. Heavyweight tenor saxophonist David Murray was appearing for the first time in a decade, while Alexander von Schlippenbach, who had played the inaugural edition of Vilnius Jazz back in 1987, reminded all present that Europe's free jazz/avant-garde movement has been as distinctive as it has been enduring.

Prodigal son Vyacheslav Ganelin, the veteran Lithuanian keyboardist/composer resident in Israel since 1988, reunited with some old sparring partners to revive the heyday of modern jazz in Lithuania in an exciting new quartet. The breadth and depth of European jazz was further evidenced by musicians from Portugal, Latvia, Belgium, France and Norway, while late-night gigs and extended jam sessions in the Pavilion Club by some of the current crop of young Lithuanian bands underlined the vitality of the country's contemporary jazz scene. The format was simple enough -two gigs per evening in the Russian Drama Theatre, an early twentieth century edifice of baroque and renaissance design. Located in the old city, this UNESCO cultural heritage protected building has hosted plays in Polish, Russian and Lithuanian for over a century, with just brief closure during the second world war. The venue's intimacy, and the proximity of the audience to the performers, created an atmosphere sometimes lacking in larger, contemporary theaters.

In addition, a photographic exhibition by Sigitas Kondratas of artists who have appeared at Vilnius Jazz over the years adorned the walls of The Russian Theatre. In past editions of Vilnius Jazz, talks on various aspects of jazz history have been given by Jazz Forum's Pawel Brodowski on Krzysztof Komeda, and by Siena Jazz's Francesco Martinelli on The History of European Jazz: The Music, Musicians and Audience in Context (Equinox Publishing, 2018). For this edition of Vilnius Jazz, the author was invited to give a talk on Great Black Music—a title inspired by the slogan of The Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians.

The five-day festival began with the double bill of Tommy Got Waxed and Sofia Rei/JC Mallard. The former was a collaborative project bringing together Rotterdam-based band Tommy's Moustache and Vilnius-based band Sheep Got Waxed. The bands had met at 12 Points in 2017. Sofia Rei and JC Mallard presented The Book of Beriah from John Zorn's Masada Cycle. This report picks up from day two.

Thursday 17th

Hermia, Ceccaldi, Darrifourcq

Drawing from jazz, classical and experimental music, the Belgian/French trio of saxophonist Manuel Hermia, cellist Valentin Ceccaldi and drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq defied easy categorization. From the arresting opening number, it was clear that control and risk were two sides of the same coin. Rhythmic drive gave way to free-wheeling improvisation and delicacy ceded ground to raw power as all three musicians explored the sonic possibilities of their respective instruments.

On the second number, brooding bowed cello, percussive rustling and Hermia's legato-cum-overblowing morphed into a more urgent dialogue, one characterized by feverish bowed-cello riffing, stormy drums and Hermia's rasping attack.

Tempest gave way to collective introspection on "Chauve et courtois," whose initial stirrings sounded like the gears and cogs of a clock magnified audibly a thousandfold; Darrifourcq's manipulated his kit like a mad scientist, employing found objects with glee. Drawing mini cymbals over drum skins, or playing a toy xylophone, the drummer created a restless backdrop that was in stark contrast to Hermia's serene interjections.

Manic industrial rhythms announced "Les flics de la police," with Ceccaldi's propulsive cello ostinato and Darrifourcq's hard-hitting polyrhythms underpinning Hermia's most emotive blowing of the set. The audience's enthusiastic response ensured an encore, the trio launching a frenzied free-jazz attack that, once the flame was spent, petered out on the back of a repeating cello ostinato.

Art Ensemble of Chicago

Even before the Art Ensemble of Chicago took to the stage applause rang out for the band. It was nothing to do with the band's fiftieth anniversary, but everything to do with politics.

Politics surrounds music like everything else in life, but how often do musicians take a political stand on an issue by refusing to play? When emcee Domantas Razauskas announced that The Art Ensemble of Chicago had cancelled its concert in Istanbul the following night in protest against Turkey's invasion of Syria, the news was greeted with applause by the Vilnius audience.

There followed an especially warm welcome for the musicians, whom Razauskas introduced to the stage one by one. Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye are all that remain of the quintet that started its incredible journey fifty years ago in Chicago, but they have recruited a stellar band of guest musicians since hitting the road again in 2017, following a hiatus of seven years. The creative juices are undiminished, as demonstrated by the brilliant We Are On The Edge: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration (Pi Recordings, 2019).

In time-honored fashion, Mitchell, Moye, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, cellist Tomeka Reid, pianist Brett Carson, percussionist Dudù Kouaté and double bassists Silvia Bolognesi and Junius Paul spread out on the stage, turned ninety degrees to the left and observed a moment's silence. This ritual is designed to focus the energy and attention of the audience to what is taking place on stage. It's something similar for the musicians themselves, though for Joseph Jarman—who passed away in January 2019—the silence represents a wordless prayer for unity and peace in the world.

A single note from Mitchell's whistle was met with a pocket of silence. More single notes alternated with silence. A trumpet blast, the strike of a gong and a lone bass note responded in turn, commencing what would become a thirty-five-minute group improvisation.

A flutter of brushes and the rumble of mallets ignited a bass pulse and arco drone. Kouaté's deft percussive accents—tinkling chimes and bells, the rattle of shakers— coursed throughout, while the piano's rhythmic entrance sparked greater collective push and pull. Enticed, Mitchell unfurled longer improvised lines, free and intense, responding to pounding bass strings, bowed riffs and drones, and Moye's martial rhythms. Carson, a long-time collaborator with Mitchell, but playing only his seventh gig with the Art Ensemble tore into his keys, pulling the others into the musical vortex.

The music wheeled and spun in an orchestral jam of notable intensity, veering between free-jazz cacophony and heady, experimental abstraction. Like the rapid flicking of a book's pages the triggers were too numerous to follow. Numerous calls and numerous responses -the music itself was the conductor.

The second act saw an extended dialog between Moye and Kouate, based around the Senegalese percussionist's composition "Africation"—an ode to African self-determination and self-rule. Kouaté sang, as did his tama (talking drum), before he joined Moye on congas, the two trading back and forth. Mitchell played a supporting role on saxophone.

Ten minutes in and the percussionists' narrative was redirected by the arrival of piano, bass and saxophone. A groove emerged. Moye returned to his kit and upped the ante. Mitchell squawked and wailed as the other instruments chirped and chattered, the individual voices stretching out almost imperceptibly until the music swelled grandly. Twenty minutes passed by in a flash. Before you knew it, the band had struck up "Odwalla," the Art Ensemble's perennial, swinging farewell.

The encore served up a little more of what had gone before but added little to the overall effect, proving perhaps that less is more.

Friday 18

Ganelin, Vyšniauskas, Pashkevich, Gotesman

Though making its Lithuanian debut, the individual members of this quartet know each other very well, having played together in each others' ensembles for thirty-plus years. And it was a homecoming of sorts for Vyacheslav Ganelin, one of the legendary figures of Lithuanian jazz, who has spent the past thirty year in Israel.

For forty-five uninterrupted minutes the quartet explored open-ended variations, where extended improvisations were tied together by subtle compositional threads. From a somber intro dictated by Ganelin on piano and electronics, the dual saxophones of Petras Vyšniauskas (soprano) and Deniss Pashkevich (tenor) and an animated Arkady Gotesman quickly lifted the music into more visceral terrain.

The music followed a symphonic logic, softly lyrical at one extreme, tempestuous at the other—the journeys between the two poles gradual and organic. Even at the music's most impassioned, however, the quartet never lost its collective sense of purpose, which made for a powerful, unified statement. The music moved inescapably towards a thrilling, rhythmically propulsive finale, with tenor saxophone and piano riffing as Vyšniauskas cast spiraling figures.

The encore wove a contrasting spell. Ganelin's spare piano and deft electronics combined with Vyšniauskas' softy lowing bansuri (Indian flute) and Pashkevich' sympathetic tenor to conjure a meditative reverie, broken, in the end, by Pashkevich' triumphant shout.

Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio feat. Alexander von Schlippenbach

. Over the past decade tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado's Motion Trio has built a name as one of Europe's most arresting improvising trios, a reputation cemented by recordings such as The Flame Alphabet (Not Two Records, 2013), The Freedom Principle (NoBusiness Records, 2014) and Desire and Freedom (Not Two Records, 2016). For this tour Motion trio was joined by European free-jazz pioneer Alexander von Schlippenbach, making a return to Vilnius Jazz after thirty-one years.

In the blink of an eye, Amado, cellist Miguel Mira, drummer Gabriel Ferrandini and von Schlippenbach moved though the gears from an edgily explorative opening to full-on group improvisation. von Schlippenbach was the first to stretch out with a robustly percussive solo. A ruminative passage followed, headed by Amado's gently probing tenor. As if catching some unseen current, Amado's lines grew bolder, drawing first von Schlippenbach, then Mira and Ferrandini into the eye of the storm, where the raging crosscurrents collided spectacularly.

The music ebbed and flowed—as if guided by gravitational force—between contemplative and lyrical terrain, free-jazz fire, and restless abstraction. It was as breathless as it was tirelessly inventive, bringing to mind Joe Zawinul's notion whereby everybody solos and nobody solos at the same time.

An unaccompanied, bass-like cello solo was the one concession to individualism, but the sonic contrast it provided was captivating in itself. For over ten minutes, with only minor percussive cajoling, Mira totally commanded the stage. The final word, however, went to the quartet, which reignited the improvisational flame for one final charge.
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