Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2017

John Sharpe By

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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival
Vilnius, Lithuania
November 15-19, 2017


Although a going concern since 2002, Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival doesn't possess the high profile internationally that its longevity might suggest. Set amid the baroque beauty of the Lithuanian capital, in an assortment of venues, the festival has brought together performers from Europe, USA and beyond for the last fifteen years. The 2017 edition boasted two unique selling points. The first, a celebration of one of the founding fathers of Lithuanian jazz and the second, a Showcase Stage which offered artists, embracing a healthy proportion of Lithuanian groups, an opportunity to present themselves to festival promoters and critics from overseas (of which this writer was one) as well as local listeners.

Very much at ground zero of modern Lithuanian jazz stands the renowned Ganelin Trio, founded in 1971, but which exploded into Western consciousness from behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union in 1980 when Leo Feigin released Live In East Germany on his Leo imprint, bearing the declaration that the musicians were not responsible for publishing the tapes. Critic Chris Kelsey described them as "arguably the world's greatest free jazz ensemble" of the period. Although the three constituent pillars comprising pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, drummer Vladimir Tarasov and reedman Vladimir Chekasin, hailed from discrete parts of Russia, it was in Lithuania that they came together. The group disbanded in 1987 when Ganelin emigrated to Israel, but Tarasov has remained a fixture on the Lithuanian scene and in 2017 he celebrated his 70th birthday. In his honor the festival programmed two contrasting ensembles for the prime Saturday evening concert.

Jones Jones

First was the conjunction of three white-haired maestros in Jones Jones, with Tarasov joined the by the Americans bassist Mark Dresser and saxophonist Larry Ochs. Dresser will likely forever be known as part of the classic Anthony Braxton Quartet, but has since collaborated with a veritable galaxy of stellar names, and convenes his own ensembles (heard lately on Sedimental You (Clean Feed, 2017). Ochs meanwhile remains one quarter of the longstanding Rova Saxophone Quartet, but is involved with an expanding range of projects, including his Sax and Drumming Core. Having originally got together in the Bay Area in 2006 their evident synergy lead to several European tours, one documented on The Moscow Concert (Not Two, 2016) with other recordings in the can.

A conversational spurt from bass and drums launched their set, as Tarasov sprinkled his mallets around his extended kit. Ochs inserted short distinctively wiry tenor saxophone kernels into the discourse and they were away in an ebb and flow of changing dynamics. Though the tidal metaphor might suggest something preordained that was emphatically not the case. With so much experience at their fingertips, it was no surprise that they felt able to take their time to explore the blossoming of unpredictably dovetailing exchanges in which no one instrument predominated.

Neither Tarasov or Dresser accepted the usual allotted roles. Tarasov moved in abrupt bursts of activity, often letting the resonance ring out from exquisitely delicate interventions on an array of metallic implements, as well as more forceful snaps on tympani and kettle drum. Dresser's mastery manifest itself in the panoply of unusual timbres he drew from his bass, whether creating a rippling pizzicato with two hands at the neck of the fingerboard or bowing in terse strokes to conjure an increasingly buzzing legato. At one stage Dresser's vocally flexed slurs found a match in Ochs pitch bending tenor. An unapologetically abstract player in the post-Coltrane tradition, Ochs dug in without rhythmic inflection, mingling animal bleats, harsh yells and sudden altissimo shouts, in a responsive participative way which was the antithesis of showboating.

They extemporized two lengthy pieces which mesmerized the packed auditorium of the National Drama Theater, and prompted demands for an encore. Tarasov began with a rattling clip clop, but both Dresser and Ochs avoided against the meter. Undeterred the drummer switched to sticks to generate a free pulse, while the reedman issued guttural cries and Dresser pursued a contrasting but complimentary throb. After reaching a sustained crescendo they all stopped on a dime. But, in yet another instance of the trio's unpredictability, just when you thought that might be it, Tarasov reverted to shakers and the initial clip clop, until finally he too chose to halt.

Vladimir Tarasov and the Lithuanian Art Orchestra

The second part of the evening was billed as Tarasov and the Lithuanian Art Orchestra with special guest Vladimir Chekasin, a rare reunion of two thirds of the legendary trio. Tarasov founded the Orchestra in 1991 and it has continued with a variety of line ups uniting the cream of the nation's talent since then, appearing at several previous editions of the Festival. The surprise here was that it was Chekasin who took charge of the 13-strong Orchestra from the off, vigorously organizing and directing with hand signals in the style of a Butch Morris, but also using a headset microphone to sing lines for the musicians to follow. That was in addition to the charts and unmistakably notated sequences.

Chekasin set up a pounding beat from the rhythm instruments on the left side of the stage, then devoted himself to selecting soloists from the assembled horns to the right, and instigating backing riffs. Among the featured turns, the wailing tenor saxophone of Liudas Mockūnas stood out, both alone and dueling with the baritone saxophone of Klaudijus Stuopinis. There was a madcap energy to how Chekasin dashed about the stage borne out by some of the rampaging ostinatos he cued. And there was a whiff of danger too in that no-one, not even the orchestra, knew what he might do next. But the resultant tension worked to the benefit of the music, as a glorious din enveloped the hall.

There were more reflective moments too as a drifting pointillistic section ensued in which Chekasin blew on curved soprano saxophone, demonstrating that he had lost none of his facility. He enjoyed brief double acts first with bassist Eugenijus Kanevičius and then pianist Arnas Mikalkėnas, but the overall impression was of a huge kaleidoscope of textures whirling around certain fixed points. One of the most affecting was a mournful air reminiscent of a Ennio Morricone soundtrack for the eve of a gunfight, delivered en masse by the horns. Some adopted a playful stance. Alto saxophonist Vytautas Labutis instituted some irreverent humor into his exchanges with Chekasin and percussionist Pavel Gunter, while guitarist Juozas Milašius went for broke whenever the slightest opportunity emerged, all without disrupting the fabric.

Midway through the set, Tarasov hobbled onstage to present the third installment of his piece "Tapestry." While he continued the same conductive approach, his orchestration seemed smoother and jazzier, perhaps a consequence of the ensemble's familiarity with his ideas. However that did come at a price, as the tension was no longer as palpable. An actor recited from a text at various points in the piece, over an impressionistic backing. Towards the close, Ochs, Dresser and Chekasin all returned, and Tarasov settled behind his kit to direct proceedings. Ochs growled and spluttered over a simmering Orchestra, and then reveled in a pungent push and pull with Chekasin.

Inevitably the audience demanded an encore. Tarasov complied, initiating a sprightly cadence over which he introduced the Orchestra and gave each member the chance to express themselves in a concise solo, pianist Mikalkėnas notably obliging in a flurry of fingers and elbows. The set convinced as a stunningly unorthodox presentation, in a good way, and the Orchestra and its two directors well-merited the standing ovation at the evening's end.

The Showcase Stage: Lithuanian Bands

Six Lithuanian bands, with some overlap in membership, featured on the Showcase Stage in the lobby of the National Drama Theater during the final two days of the Festival. Most striking was the collective trio of reedman Liudas Mockūnas, pianist Arnas Mikalkėnas and Norwegian drummer Håkon Berre. Among the best known of his country's improvisers internationally, Mockūnas already owns a significant discography, including a splendid entry Plunged (Barefoot Records, 2017) by this threesome.

The degree to which they blurred the boundaries was neatly exemplified by a passage during which Mockūnas belayed a weighty four note phrase on the gargantuan bass saxophone, while the pianist and drummer went hard at it. Then amidst all the fury, the pianist calmly turned the page of his score. Whether notated or on-the-fly, the upshot was spellbinding music which both delved into the extremes but also touched on diverse genres, one instant invoking Middle Eastern muezzin, the next recasting a melody by Sibelius.

Another wild duo between Mikalkėnas and Berre culminated in a drum solo in which the Norwegian went from crashing bombast to scrapes and scratches using a medley of cymbals on his drum skins. Mockūnas also delighted in polarities, as well as co-opting the granddaddy of the saxophone family, he used his skill at circular breathing to take his soprano on a screeching roller coast ride. On clarinet he could be similarly dog bothering, but more often coolly looking towards the chamber. In the absence of a bassist, the pianist sometimes held down the vamps with his left hand, but embarked on freewheeling digressions with his right, which nicely encapsulated the trio's use of fragmentary themes to illuminate their powerful interchange.

Of the other Lithuanian groups on the Showcase Stage, KU.Piece effectively combined improv and fusion in a set full of informal colloquy. Džiazlaif (pronounced Jazzlive) explored oppositional gambits in pieces which skipped between genres from free to big band swing, in and out of time, juxtaposing shouting sections with elements like an acoustic bass solo, or introspective muttering between the two saxophones. The venerable Shinkarenko Jazz 4N executed new compositions by leader electric bassist Leonidas Šinkarenko, which relished tricksy convoluted heads and modern mainstream blowing, one tenor solo by Vytautas Labutis being particularly noteworthy.

Labutis was back again with his Silent Blast Quintet which featured a young rhythm team of his former students who will likely go far. Away from the melodic themes and horn solos, much of the time was given over to their rousing interplay. Their flair is plainly already recognized as drummer Jonas Drėma Gliaudelis fuelled all three Showcase sets on the final Sunday, also joining the Deimantas Jurevičius Group and the Liutauras Janušaitis Quintet, while pianist Domas Zeromskas and bassist Nojus Drąsutis were also part of the former.

The Main Stage

Of the other acts on the main stage, the Pharoah Sanders Quartet deserves special mention. A living legend for his tenure with John Coltrane, Sanders still trades heavily on that association. His 90-minute set which concluded the Festival in fine style encompassed several Trane numbers, including "Giant Steps" and "Naima" from 1960, (though paradoxically nothing from the time Sanders was actually part of Coltrane's band in 1965/67). But you can't begrudge the 77-year old saxophonist milking the situation. After all, he was there making history!
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