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Live Review

Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2022

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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival
National Drama Theater
Lithuania
May 27-29, 2022

Introduction

It's a little known fact that Lithuania has more jazz festivals per capita than any other country. Prominent among them is the Mama Jazz Festival, held annually amid the baroque beauty of the capital Vilnius. And it says something for the role that such Festivals fulfill in the nation's cultural life, not to mention the energy and influence of founder Judita Bartosevičienė, that the Prime Minister attended the reception on the second evening. How many other places is that likely to happen?

As every year since 2002, the Festival presented a range of acts from Europe, USA and beyond, along with a Showcase Stage offering new talent the opportunity to get noticed by overseas festival promoters, club bookers and journalists (of which this writer was one). Two of Lithuania's most garlanded musicians, saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin and drummer Vladimir Tarasov celebrate significant birthdays during 2022 and it was fitting that both filled major roles in the proceedings. Both were members of the groundbreaking GTC Trio with pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin which, when it exploded from behind the Iron Curtain in 1979, established that against the odds jazz had set deep roots in the Soviet Union, and was lauded as "arguably the world's greatest free jazz ensemble." But first there was Anthony Braxton.

Anthony Braxton Saxophone Quartet

Composer and reedman Anthony Braxton's Lithuanian debut was the undoubted high spot of the event, and topped the bill on the final night. As the Festival Programme stated without hyperbole, "Braxton is one of the most important jazz musicians (and not only) of the 20th and 21st centuries." So it's understandable that after the contract for this performance was signed, champagne glasses were raised in the Festival office.

Lined up on stage alongside him were three younger acolytes as versatile as they were technically gifted: James Fei, Chris Jonas and Andre Vida, between them covering all the bases from Braxton's diminutive sopranino to Vida's hefty baritone. Fei and Vida first appeared with Braxton on the saxophone heavy Ninetet (Yoshi's) 1997 (Leo, 2002), while Jonas' association dates back to the same period. Braxton has mentored all three, each of whom has developed considerable individual careers since. This was a format he virtually invented, with "Composition 37" for saxophone quartet on New York Fall 1974 (Arista, 1974) alongside Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, famously prefiguring their establishment of the World Saxophone Quartet. For this performance, the opener in a short European tour, Braxton premiered "Composition 436," introducing a new music system, one which involved multiple scores for each musician, combining graphics and notation, as well as live electronics.

To start the set Braxton launched the electronics program which produced minimalist textures ranging from a ghostly shimmer to the gurgle of faulty plumbing, and then initiated an intricate saxophone unison, albeit one which encompassed frequent digressions, before the lines diverged in a plethora of squiggling, buzzing non sequiturs. But this wasn't a blowing date. Each musician was constantly juggling charts, as well as responding to the sporadic hand-gestured directions from Braxton. These generally elicited poised five or six note figures which united them in brief moments of calm, before the siren voices of unfettered adventure exerted their pull once more. One of Braxton's trademark galloping alto excursions assumed early prominence, only to decay into a string of plaintive bleats before being subsumed into the seething improvisatory brew.

All the while the electronics were chuntering on. Although interactive, it was difficult to discern overt connections or reactions to the saxophonists' contributions. But then again, the succinct written material aside, the connections between the four could also be oblique. Sometimes it was obvious who was interacting with who, but other times it was not at all obvious if they were or not. Jonas kept his eyes glued on Braxton almost throughout, while the others' attention was more divided between scores and cues, although Fei, located next to the maestro, often glanced sideways to keep tabs on what sheet Braxton selected. Participation, instruments and direction were in perpetual flux and there were often momentary pauses as pages were shuffled or saxophones switched. To ensure continuity, Jonas for example would hold a long tone to bridge the gap to whatever was coming down the turnpike.

Braxton gives his colleagues a high level of agency, allowing them to choose to follow parts of other compositions from his voluminous catalogue, or to organize transitory alliances between themselves, as when Jonas and Vida turned to each other to embark on an angular tenor/baritone coupling, or even take responsibility for the cueing, as Fei did at one point. Given the difficulty in preparing for such mutable situations there is a degree of risk involved, and even those as seasoned in Braxton's methods as Fei occasionally looked uncomfortable. But the key thing is that such teetering on the brink is all part of the method, keeping performers and listeners alike on tenterhooks. If all this sounds somewhat academic, the reality was anything but. Rarely has such abstraction generated so many feelings: poignant, abrasive, vulnerable, disconcerting, impassioned and not least enthralling.

They each traversed the full range of unconventional saxophone techniques, from Braxton's husky overblowing and guttural vocalizations through his horn to Fei's keypad popping, breaths, susurrations and growling. Memorable passages included three straight horns pinballing around Vida's muscular tenor; instants of harmony, when the four resembled the reed equivalent of a string quartet; an exchange of strangulated blurts which called to mind a group of somewhat inebriated old men having a quarrel, each trying to outdo the other; and a run of especially sweet tender alto from Braxton. There were even fleeting snatches of what you might imagine a saxophone quartet to sound like.

Braxton could be seen smiling or nodding at particularly felicitous combinations, one such being when two sopranos and tenor converged in the bat squeak register. However all of these affairs were short lived, just part of a kaleidoscopic swirl of ephemeral emotions, totally unlike anything else. Then after 50-minutes Braxton instigated another extended unison sequence, only to come to a sudden halt to announce the names of his co-conspirators. Even though this might not have been the easiest music for a festival crowd, it erupted in tumultuous applause. Braxton was visibly delighted, both with the reception and with his fellow musicians.

Vladimir Chekasin 75th Birthday Celebration

In order to pay tribute to reedman Vladimir Chekasin during his 75th birthday year, the Festival dedicated a whole evening to his music, under the title "Suite For Free People." With such a long and varied CV, it wasn't clear what to anticipate. Even so the result was a characteristic revelation. As well as his tenure in the trailblazing Ganelin Trio for 15 years from 1971, he has led his own groups and a big band, made over 60 albums, been a noted educator, and written music for stage, screen and dance. Aspects of all this work surfaced during the evening. For the first set, the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra, with conductor Modestas Barkauskas was arrayed across the rear of the stage, while towards the front were pianist Richardas Banys, vocalists Larisa Stannow and Neda Malūnavičiūtė who also played flute, drummer Domantas Razmus, and Chekasin himself.

As a consequence of his health, Chekasin stayed mostly seated in a lightweight wheelchair, wielding not only the alto saxophone for which he is famed but also keyboards, as well as occasionally vocalizing. What transpired could best be appreciated as a series of scenes, realized by the orchestra with vocal accompaniment, linked by improvised segments for the five musicians directed by Chekasin. The orchestral components derived from Chekasin's theater music, with lyrics, mainly sung in Lithuanian, adapted for the occasion, and incorporated dramatic marches, vaudeville, big band, traditional chanson, a French lullaby, and surging triumphalism reminiscent of Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries." However any grandiosity was offset by the burlesque delivery of the lyrics, complete with theatrical gesticulation and puppet-like actions. The small group sections, in which Chekasin occasionally blew pithy alto bursts, often drifted slightly aimlessly, but also foregrounded the absurdist humor, manifest in mock arguments and disagreements.

More substantive were the interactions in the second part of the evening, when Chekasin was joined by a succession of Lithuania's leading improvisers, many of whom had been his pupils. Notable among them was Vytautas Labutis whose soprano saxophone soared and shrieked over an uplifting fanfare from the orchestra before he linked with Chekasin in a double act, in which the maestro initially mouthed silently, before fleetingly essaying some free-bop alto. To demonstrate that the anarchic streak that Chekasin brought to the Ganelin Trio hasn't withered with age, he began accompanying himself by stomping on two squeaky toys on the floor. Then unexpectedly Barkauskas directed the orchestra to answer his halting phrases, showing that they were not just interpreters but also keyed into some of the more creative veins of contemporary classical music.

They also responded in suitably scrabbling fashion to the flutters, leaps, yaps, quacks, and circular-breathed scrawl of reedman Liudas Mockūnas whose outings on soprano and sopranino saxophones were among the highlights of the evening, as was his pairing with Chekasin, a summit of harmonics and piping horns. Chekasin's old ally drummer Vladimir Tarasov also pitched in for a freewheeling duet which recalled their time in the Ganelin Trio, before a bombastic orchestral march, with a circus feel, furnished the finale, with all the massed firepower together on the stage, prompting a standing ovation and great outpouring of affection for Chekasin.

We Stand With Ukraine

Even before Tarasov's stint with the GTC Trio, he had cultivated a career with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, which helped to hone an already remarkable sensitivity to tone color and sound placement. Perhaps more than any other of his countrymen, he's nurtured collaborations with heavyweights elsewhere, including recordings with Braxton, drummer Andrew Cyrille, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and bassist Mark Dresser and reedman Larry Ochs in the still extant Jones Jones. But rather than salute such relationships in his 75th birthday year, Tarasov lead a trio of his own on the final evening, entitled We Stand With Ukraine, in which he was flanked by two Ukrainian musicians, bassist Mark Tokar to his left and pianist Volodymyr Solianyk to his right.

It's a group which originally assembled for a concert in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in 2017 in very different circumstances to the current state of affairs. Their stage positions could perhaps be seen to reflect their stylistic preferences, with Tarasov mediating between Tokar's adventurous bent and Solianyk's more conventional extemporizations. That was perhaps acknowledged in how their set began, when Tokar's bowed bass and Tarasov's percussive zither and gongs mingled in a spare dialogue of exploratory textures. Once the piano eventually joined, the other two paused, leaving Solianyk to explore a delicate lyricism with more classically inspired technique.

Thereafter the three kicked back, at the outset in the manner of a relaxed standard, though without a tune, with Tarasov swinging on brushes, Tokar contrasting melodic slurs with booming resonance, and Solianyk at times atonal, but also occasionally bluesy. Tokar, who has toured and recorded with Ken Vandermark, Dave Rempis and Nate Wooley among others, tended to remain left field, utilizing some of the innovations pioneered by the likes of Barry Guy, inserting metal rods between his strings, rubbing a mallet along the body of the bass, dusting the strings and scratching with the frog portion of his bow. After a crisp drum solo, Tarasov laid down a rapid pulse on his ride cymbal and the three finished with a rendition of "Just One Of Those Things," rounding off a not altogether successful straddling of genres.

Showcase Stage

Pre-pandemic, the Showcase Stage would feature international acts alongside the homegrown units, but this year all but one of the nine groups offered a platform hailed entirely from Lithuania. Among the most arresting, and auguring well for the future of the art form in the country, was the Lithuanian Youth Jazz Orchestra, a 9-piece band under the direction of pianist Austėja Marija Kimbartaitė. They began in big band style which wouldn't have raised an eyebrow anywhere in the world, but quickly embraced more modern expression proving confident in post-bop and post-Ayler idioms, with episodes of pointillist textures and outbreaks of free polyphony, amid the conducted interjections and sometime rocky cadences. Several sections stuck in the mind: an energetic braying alto solo over fusion riffs, a floating dirge with flute solo from Agnė Repečkaitė, and three altos intertwining, Gintarė Tumaitė maintaining a melodic refrain while the other two pontificated. Their slot continued to upset expectations to the end, as it closed with an alluring timbral interchange from the piano innards, electric bass scuzz from Deividas Skridaila, horn sustains, whistles and scrapes.

Nowhere near as young, though equally catholic in their taste, was the duo of soprano saxophonist Vytautas Labutis and accordionist Andrius Balachovičius, which only got together in 2017. Perhaps as a result of being more experienced, the pair was noticeably more relaxed than many of the other groups for whom this was perhaps more of a make or break situation. Labutis readily stretched the parameters of the tunes, adding an emotional dimension with throaty vibrato which could easily edge into multiphonics, at one stage seeming as if he was intent on trying to exorcise some mischievous spirit from his horn, before snapping back on point into a klezmer air. They also evoked Parisian street music, film scores and a slinky waltz. Balachovičius exploited the accordions capability to simulate a bagpipe drone on what turned into a beautiful folky air, which nonetheless slipped in an expedition into the weeds as Labutis blared discordantly on alto mouthpiece and soprano simultaneously. Balachovičius veered from lush harmonies to banging the side of his instrument in a primal thud, to keep up a vamp with one hand while soundtracking a jerky marionette with the other. The unlikely mix blended well in an accessible, vivacious, responsive and fun session.

Among the more jazz-aligned bands were the vocalist Veronika Chichi's quintet which took in some of the finest Lithuanian players among its number, including pianist Dmitiri Golanov and percussionist Arkadij Gotesman. A charismatic and lively presence, Chichi put her strong voice to good use, singing in both English and Lithuanian, on a bossa nova number, and other funky Latin rhythms. There was some neat interplay among the band too, not least Golanov hammering a dampened note in spontaneous rejoinder to Chichi's scat reiterations. The 21st Century Quintet, containing Armenian and Latvian musicians alongside the Lithuanians, perused the modern mainstream, with hints of the European folk tradition, with accomplished jazzy solos, not least from clearly talented pianist Andrius Savčenko.

Similarly unconstrained, Laivo Troupe was another young outfit whose set was short and sweet. Across four pieces the sextet featured tight arrangements which spanned genres, touching on hymn-like horn harmonizing, intricate stop start themes, heavy metal thrash, swinging tunefulness, jaunty Dixieland and madcap carnival. Some of the other groups were as close to rock as jazz, with more limited elements of improvisation, particularly John's Shower Band, who went through lots of quick mood changes, and touched on power ballads, funk and hip hop, as well as Synthetika, Juzt and Quark Effect who inclined further towards the electronica end of the spectrum.

Main Festival Stage

Of the other acts on the main Festival Stage, American tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel's Quartet delivered a set of clean cut contemporary jazz, with the leader ridiculously fluent at fast tempos. Israeli pianist Shai Maestro proved a fine foil for Wendel, picking up on his licks to build his own solos. Bassist Joe Sanders by contrast meted out his notes sparingly providing a firm foundation for the high density shenanigans going on around him. However it was drummer Gregory Hutchinson who most often embodied the sound of surprise, as likely to smack one stick against another, or hit the rim of his stick tray as to strike a cymbal or drumhead. He sustained a constant chatter of incisive accents and coiled motifs, which together implied but seldom directly stated the beat. They left the best until last with their encore comprising a buoyant dedication to Ahmad Jamal. They were preceded on stage by French pianist Grégory Privat, who played an easy on the ear solo piano set, supplemented by his own, sometimes looped, vocals, which proved a great favorite with the assembled throng. To round off the overview, the night before my arrival, the Festival opened with sets from the US band Ghost-Note and the Scandinavian trio Rymden.

Outro

Every night in the acoustically perfect National Drama Theater was virtually sold out, with the audiences enthusiastic not only for the more accessible fare, but also for the more challenging acts. Such support is likely to ensure many more editions of the Mama Jazz Festival to come, and also to make the event popular with artists from a wide range of backgrounds.

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