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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2017

John Sharpe By

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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.

Seasoned Swedish quartet Amazonas stood out as the real deal from the fusion acts which dominated the Showcase Stage: excelling at loose structure and good-natured interaction, above all between Biggi Vinkeloe on alto saxophone and flute and Thomas Gustafsson on soprano. Their set evolved seemingly organically from a loosely structured beginning, taking unexpected twists and turns along the way, so that it was satisfyingly hard to tell what if any portions were scripted.

Gustafsson invoked a folky lyricism in his slowly uncoiling soprano runs incorporating microtones and slurred notes, while Vinkeloe took her time to build momentum as she paused between phrases on alto, hitching slight blues infusions to her insistent figures, over a deliberate stalking tattoo from drummer Anders Kjellberg and electric bassist Annika Törnqvist. But it was the voluble interweaving of the two reeds, occasionally recalling Steve Lacy in their nagging reiterations, along with Törnqvist 's pulsating basslines which gave the band its distinctive flavor.

Also bringing to mind EST, but with more emphasis on the jazzy lyrical side was the Lorenzo De Finti quartet. De Finti already has a varied backstory, but here presented his work in an acoustic chamber jazz milieu, excerpting from his We Live Here Suite (Losen Records, 2017). The music varied between gauzy pastels and more agitated segments linked by freeform interludes and hints of dissonance, with De Finti guiding from the piano stool.

His experienced crew, including co-writer Stefano Dall'Ora on double bass and Marco Castiglioni on drums, was sensitive and quick to respond to his needs. Trumpeter Gendrickson Mena Diaz helped accentuate the melodic aspects, while cutting through with incisive lines as the temperature rose. Other points of reference might take in some of Kenny Wheeler's small groups or Enrico Rava on his sweeter byways.

Ukranian trio H.Soror also stood out but for different reasons, plowing a constricted furrow with great effectiveness at the juncture of rock, metal and jazz. While tenor saxophonist Mykola Lebed stood immobile, electric bassist Natasha Steel strolled around the stage, narrowly avoiding entanglement in the maze of wires. Drummer Natasha Pyrohova was an energetic presence, alternating between funereal beats and all out battering with not much in between.

On the opening number Lebed intoned a unhurried doomy sax shape over a slow drag, which gradually accelerated into a death metal thrash. Thereafter they explored similar territory, with Steel adding wordless vocal figures to augment the reeds whose periodic strangulated shrieks enhanced the expressive movement of the songs.

The fourpiece Naked from Serbia was perhaps the biggest hit with the gathered throng. Their infectious brand of Balkan folk music, strutting funk and wild freeform embellishment had the late night crowd baying for more. Imposing bass guitarist Branislav Radojkovic was an irresistible presence, anchoring the group's bottom end alongside drummer Goran Milosevic's explosive outbursts. Completing the cast was the unusual front line of saxophonist Rastko Uzunovic and violinist Djordje Mijuskovic, whose incendiary polyphony and frantic gypsy swing provided little respite from the rhythmic excitement.

Bands traveled from far and wide to take part in the Showcase Stage. All the more remarkable as application to the competitive selection process was on the basis of accommodation only, but no performance fee or travel costs, symptomatic of the difficulty in gaining exposure for new and even established groupings. In addition to those already mentioned, the Bodhisattwa Trio from India came furthest, Poland supplied the Quantum Trio and the Paweł Kaczmarczyk Audiofeeling Band, Switzerland DogOn, and Latvia Very Cool People, while Quite Sublime contained a multinational cast.

Jazz Margins

Concurrent with the music was Jazz Margins, a series of moderated discussions on various aspects of the jazz music business, focusing on the economics, the apparent success of jazz development in some countries, principally neighboring Estonia, questioning the dominant role of festivals in the music ecosystem, and the way forward in the digital age. Indicative of the profile the festival benefits from domestically, two of the sessions were broadcast live on National TV.

Perhaps it's worth finishing with the revealing words of the Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius who in his Opening Speech clarified what the Festival meant to the City. He explained that the Festival brought value to the City by enhancing its cultural life. When he asked businesses what they most needed from him, their message was that they wanted to attract young talent. Obviously public spaces, kindergartens and public transport were key parts of that, but so was making the City an interesting place to live. And as a result the City was pleased to invest in the Festival to help elevate it above the mundane. That's a message that must surely resonate much wider than just Lithuania.
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