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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2017

John Sharpe By

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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!

He still luxuriates in a wonderful buffed tone, and though his famous upper register flare-ups were limited to a few dissonant blasts in passing, he still radiated a blissful warmth, well appreciated by the audience. His band of long time associate William Henderson on piano, and European-based rhythm section of bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo, helped display the leader in the most favorable light possible. Also on the main stage, two British outfits, Get The Blessing and the Neil Cowley Trio, both presented polished performances which were a great hit with the crowd in the National Drama Theater. Cowley's jokey persona forged an immediate rapport, which certainly didn't do any harm in shifting CDs after their rapturously-received set.

The Showcase Stage: Overseas Bands

Tamsta Club, a bright modern space with good acoustics on the edge of the picturesque Old City, furnished the venue for the overseas acts on the Showcase Stage, attracting a sizeable audience of mixed ages and gender for the first three nights of the Festival.

Like many acts on the festival circuit Romanian piano trio Jazzybit channeled the successful but sadly no more, (following the death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson), EST combo by bringing a bit of rock attitude to catchy tunes adorned with a melodic lilt. What also caught the ear was their combination of funky rhythms, tight musicianship and witty arrangements. Pianist Teodor Pop (great name) also moonlighted on an electronic keyboard on Hammond organ setting, injecting a dose of '60s R&B tinged with Sun Ra wackiness, sometimes attacking both keyboards at the same time.

Electric bassist Mihai Moldoveanu's booming contours and Szabó Csongor Zsolt's crisp drums interlocked with the keys to draw an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Illustrative of their attention to detail were how Zsolt mirrored Pop by striking a distinct cymbal for each chord on the head of "A Moon Ra," and the way Moldoveanu extended Pop's keyboard arpeggio on "Curaçao," all without interrupting the flow. They already have a couple of commended albums under their belts and on this showing will be likely to garner many more accolades.

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