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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2024

Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival 2024

Courtesy Danius Labutis

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Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival
National Drama Theater
Vilnius, Lithuania
May 23-26, 2024

Intro

As every year since 2002, the cosmopolitan Lithuanian capital Vilnius once again hosted the Mama Jazz Festival. While customarily booking acts that might please a wide range of music lovers, the bill this year was one of the strongest to date, with acts from Europe, the USA and beyond, along with a Showcase Stage offering new talent the chance to get noticed by an expert panel of overseas festival promoters, club bookers and journalists. The plush National Drama Theater, just off the main shopping drag, put on ten acts over four evenings, as well as a further ten in the free Showcase for Lithuanian Jazz spread across two afternoons.

Jones Jones

Drummer Vladimir Tarasov has attained iconic status in Lithuania. Unsurprisingly then that, as a forefather of Lithuanian jazz, he appears regularly at the Mama Jazz Festival. One especially fertile setting for his intelligent percussive instincts is the strikingly empathetic trio Jones Jones with fellow master musicians Mark Dresser and Larry Ochs. As a consequence of geography (both bassist and saxophonist reside some 5795 miles distant in California) and schedules, the group comes together infrequently. So every occasion when they do is an event to be savored.

Each of the mature talents involved boasts an impressive history. Dresser was the bassist in Anthony Braxton's classic 1990s quartet, while Tarasov was part of the Ganelin Trio, hailed by critic Chris Kelsey as "arguably the world's greatest free jazz ensemble" in their 1980s heyday. Ochs has been one-quarter of the Rova Saxophone Quartet since its inception in 1977. But as noteworthy as their illustrious track records is the fact that they still nurture an adventurous streak. All the nous derived from these various groundbreaking escapades finds its expression in their work together.

They traded in abstract free jazz which prized spontaneous interplay over energy or pyrotechnics, yet also managed to suggest an underlying but mysterious logic to their exchanges. It is Tarasov in particular who gives this group its distinctive character. Although sitting surrounded by all manner of percussive devices, he utilized them sparingly with that wisdom which comes with age, focussing only on a limited array of sounds at any one time—a well-placed tympani boom here, or malleted zither droplets there—whatever seemed to best suit the moment. Such restraint also served to enhance the transparency and openness of the dialogue, allowing the fine detail of Dresser's high harmonics and bowing to ring out clearly.

Ochs similarly avoided grandstanding. In fact, his wavering, querulous tenor saxophone often added a mournful human dimension to the communion, his passion set out in lower case. Tarasov began one piece by alternating chimes with a simple snare pattern, straight away establishing an unusual space. Ochs wielded his sopranino saxophone to deliver what might have been an alien folk refrain, while Dresser interlaced arco creaks with the occasional reiterated surge. Only then did they meet the expectations of what a free jazz trio might do, becoming heated for the first time, Tarasov pursuing a steady forward momentum, while Ochs wailed over Dresser's fast walk.

When it seemed that the final number might be taking the same route, with Ochs dialing up the skronk on tenor and Dresser digging into what threatened to become a riff, it was Tarasov again who subverted assumptions, sustaining a spare open pulse on tambourine. Even for what might be perceived as a demanding presentation, the sold out crowd insisted on an encore.

Satoko Fujii Trio

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's Quartet featured in the very first edition of the Mama Jazz Festival back in 2002. Predictably then for such a prolific personality, she brought a different group this time out featuring the edgy trio that waxed the excellent Jet Black (Libra, 2024), completed by Tokyo-based bassist Takashi Sugawa and drummer Ittetsu Takemura, two band leaders in their own right. While many of the customary Fujii hallmarks were apparent—the intricate unisons, the precipitate starts and stops, the canny use of space—they were set within a more improvisatory framework than many of her projects. Passages of hushed timbral interchange and prickly texture vied with flashes of high drama. From the first stirrings, it was evident that this was something special, and despite the concert hall surroundings, the group drew the attentive throng into their sometimes intimate discourse.

Sugawa and Takemura brought an unruly exploratory attitude, even as they totally bought into the idiosyncratic universe demarcated by Fujii's writing, and she gave them ample opportunity to dive deep into the weeds. As a consummate improviser herself, no stranger to such pursuits, she responded by delving into the interior of her grand piano to extract unlikely but apt sonorities, whether by striking with a rubber mallet, pulling a string back and forth around a piano wire to bend a note, or by using one hand to modulate the tonality, while using the other on the keys. At other points, an introspective piano melody erupted into keyboard storm, as she rolled her hands onto her knuckles.

In one particularly memorable feature Sugawa drew on his entire instrument. He proceeded from flicking the strings below the bridge, to plucking buzzing harmonics, and tapping on the body of his bass in an enthralling display. He also revealed the sensitive side of his playing on the final number as he wielded his bow in a mercurial duet with the pianist that was full of light and shade. Then, a chain of staggered thematic material escalated first into a tumultuous exchange between Fujii and Takemura, and then a drum solo full of unexpected accented outbursts, which Sugawa accompanied on strident bamboo flute. The juxtaposition of improv sensibilities with more ordered elements in unpredictable trajectories was an alluring strategy which Fujii exploited to the full all evening.

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet

Young American saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins' Quartet was a fine choice to close out the festival. He brought with him long-time bandmates pianist Micah Thomas and drummer Kweku Sumbry, and new-to-the-fold bassist Rick Rosato for the first night of this European tour. Acclaimed as a rising star on both alto saxophone and as a composer, Wilkins introduced the continuous suite that makes up his sophomore Blue Note album The Seventh Hand (2024). While it began with the sort of flowing modern jazz that might be thought to characterize the label, replete with fluent extended solos by both the leader and Thomas, happily it did not dwell there for the duration.

Thereafter the boundaries between tunes became blurred. Was that brief kick drum and ride cymbal feature a transition to another number or an integral part of the current one? Ultimately it did not matter as the set flew by in a whirl of incantatory motifs, gently soaring churchy ballads and braided lines. It almost seemed as if the opener was to demonstrate that, yes he could do that if he wished, but his preference was rather more nuanced. One intriguing juncture came during a prayerful foray for sax, piano and bass, which was suddenly interrupted by Sumbry's urgent clanging on the bell of a cymbal, like a fire alarm going off, before a return to the serene feel.

Elsewhere Thomas made wayward gestures at the keyboard, as if chafing at the bounds of form. In another episode Wilkins channeled Charlie Parker, in a fast and fluid post-bop excursion, nimbly supported by Rosato and with Sumbry fanning the flames. Sumbry continued at high intensity as they progressed seamlessly into another area, with Wilkins also going for broke, as if in a duel. Things got wilder still when Thomas joined in, all three soloing simultaneously, with only Rosato's throb maintaining any semblance of order, until abruptly, saxophone and drums, then piano halted. Cue rapturous applause and a standing ovation. It made a fantastic ending, indicative of Wilkins' counterintuitive moves as a composer of promise. The inevitable encore was more restrained, a swinging theme with Thelonious Monkish airs to send the assembled throng home happy.

Rabih Abou-Khalil Group

Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil brought his deeply personal world music to the festival stage which, while not falling within many people's definition of jazz, nonetheless shared the same spirit of unfettered adventure within his uncategorizable compositions. Early in his career, Abou-Khalil worked with many luminaries, including saxophonist Charlie Mariano, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and bassist Glen Moore. He combines those modern jazz sensibilities with the Arabic tradition and contemporary classical practice, creating a mouthwatering stew both moving and harmonious.

Closely packed in the center of the stage, the group's music was similarly densely woven, tight yet unrestricted at the same time. Joining him was American percussionist Jarrod Cagwin , a fixture more than twenty years, and a pair of Polish string players, Mateusz Smoczynski on violin and Krzysztof Lenczowski on cello from the Atom String Quartet, whose presence was a reminder that the relationship between East European folk and Arabic music is closer than one might think. In an ecstatic fusing of influences, they eased from joyous celebration to keening dirge and everything in between. The sometimes prosaic nature of his song titles (one piece written in remonstrance to his children was named "Don't Send Me Photos Of Your Food") wholly belied the elaborate melodic structures, rhythmic invention and elegant counterpoint of their contents.

Abou-Khalil showcased dazzling prowess on the oud (a Middle Eastern lute), with bent notes that summoned the ghost of blues guitar and even pedal steel at times. His musicianship was matched by dashing string solos, bravura percussion and spirited rhythms. His dryly humorous announcements helped establish a convincing rapport with the audience who demanded an encore. He duly obliged with "Vlad," a song written in Bran Castle (aka Dracula's castle) in Transylvania, which once again emphasized the Balkan connection and gifted everyone one last solo.

Petter Eldh's Post Koma

Berlin-based Swedish bassist Petter Eldh brought a dynamite quintet under the moniker Post Koma, another evolution of his Koma dynasty which began with the release of Koma Saxo (WeJazz, 2019). By now a familiar name on the European scene, his big sound and expansive vision power a host of bleeding-edge bands such as Amok Amor, Enemy and Punkt. Vrt. Plastik and Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra. For Post Koma, Eldh has amassed an all-star ensemble that retains reedmen Otis Sandsjö and Jonas Kullhammar from previous incarnations. They form a heavyweight front line alongside the singular vocalist Sofia Jernberg. But perhaps the bassist's most potent collaborator remains German drummer Christian Lillinger.

At times it seemed the pair were in danger of disappearing into a rhythmic wonderland via a mix of fragmented beats that drove relentlessly but rarely directly. Eldh melded with Lillinger's precise stutter and dislocated accents. Although they brought a hip-hop flavor to non-metric playing and improvising, with the glitchy, perpetual morphing, there were no foot-tappers. Even at their most repetitious they constantly warped and stretched the meter. However, well used to the anarchic undertow, horns and voice continued unperturbed, draping extended unisons across the percussive crenellations. Most often Jernberg employed her voice wordlessly as an upper register extension to the reeds. Only occasionally did she blossom into the astonishing swoops, trills and whinnies for which she is so well known. Differing tenor saxophone approaches, with Sandsjö lighter and more prone to fractured overtones compared to Kullhammar's muscular post-bop mode, ensured variety and contrast. In particular, Sandsjö's multiphonics intertwined winningly with Jernberg's vocal gymnastics, while Kullhammar's flute achieved a thicker more robust presence than normally expected from the woodwind.

Lillinger though was a delight to behold, flamboyantly brandishing an array of sticks and other implements in a finely detailed blur. The audience loved him too, much to Eldh's mock disgust. Their exploits meant there was always a whiff of jeopardy, a sense of flux even within the confines of the charts, which kept everyone on their toes, ensuring a set that was at once rigorous yet spur-of-the-moment.

Elsewhere on the Main Stage

American drummer and vocalist Jharis Yockley was at pains to point out that he and Japanese keyboardist BIGYUKI were not playing jazz. They were one of two late-night shows included in the festival this year (the other being the London-based duo Binker Golding & Moses Boyd, with the assistance of Max Luthert on electronics). They certainly pulled in a different, younger crowd for their set in which they performed tracks from his debut album Sometimes, Late At Night (Rainbow Blonde, 2024). However, although traversing hip-hop grooves, looping electronica and pop vocals, Yockley's virtuoso drumming and the impromptu synth layers meant that the distance between genres wasn't as far as might be imagined. As he said, the jazz gods were smiling on them, especially when at the end of their set, they began riffing on the Lithuanian for thank you "Achu" and crafted a joyful jam that had half the hall dancing in their seats.

Weird Ugly Fish, the Lithuanian twosome comprising drummer Aiste Kalvelytė and the electronics of Julius Čepukėnas, was one of the highlights from the previous year's Showcase Stage. As a result, they were promoted to the Main Stage on the final evening of this year's event. Set up facing each other, they presented an evolving conversation punctuated by sudden fluctuations of course. Kalvelytė answered Čepukėnas video game beeps with hands pattering across her kit, before switching to sticks as the circuitry became more involved and dense. Čepukėnas signaled imminent changes to the synthesized matrix, with Kalvelytė instantly transforming her cadence in response. Her pile-driving drumming remains a big plus, as she toggled between intense primal thud, dub tattoos and more floating interludes. Their set was like passing through a series of adjacent raves, with barely a comedown in sight.

Also from London was seed. composer and saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi's ten-strong ensemble which married a '60s Blue Note vibe with more contemporary, Caribbean and African rhythmic sensibilities. Aside from the leader's acerbic alto, other standout soloists were guitarist Shirley Tetteh, tenor saxophonist Ayodeji Ijishakin and drummer Patrick Boyle. Ill-considered, another outfit from the UK capital, comprising saxophonist Idris Rahman, electric bassist Liran Donin and drummer Emre Ramazanoglu offered a trance-inducing brew of rugged off-the-wall saxophone vamps, energetic rocky beats and minimalist electric bass, which was a big hit with the first night attendees.

Showcase Stage

An enduring attraction of the Mama Jazz Festival is its promotion of Lithuanian musicians through a Showcase Stage held during the event proper. Ten groups took to the spotlight seeking to impress listeners who included promoters and journalists from around Europe as well as the general public. So popular was the free event, that there was hardly any unoccupied space in the smaller upstairs theater. The acts on show covered almost the entire spectrum of modern jazz styles, though there seemed a particular emphasis on electronics, with half sporting some type of plugged-in wizardry.

Perhaps the most accomplished of these was the Vilnius Jjazz Ensemble, here manifest as a trio, although much larger sizes are available. This version consisted of three of the country's most seasoned performers, trombonist Jievaras Jasinskis, saxophonist Simonas Šipavičius, and drummer Domantas Razmus, who all wrote for the band and doubled on electronics too. Notwithstanding the color-coordinated red shirts and leather jackets, immediately it was clear this was an experienced outfit bringing form, clout and surprise all within a weighty overall concept. Muted trombone and drums both passed through live processing and only the saxophone was unmodulated, generating an orchestral sound with looping, inexorable techno excitement.

By way of total contrast, the Cinamono Duo was positively pared back: just double bassist Vytis Nivinskas and vocalist Laura Budreckytė. She expressively sang a sequence of texts by Lithuanian poets with lyrical accompaniment from the richly gifted bass. By turns conversational, coquettish, exuberant, theatrical and vivacious, their arrangements were a big hit with the audience. While lack of fluency in Lithuanian was not an obstacle to appreciation due to their engaging brand of direct communication, if they were able to overcome the language barrier for listeners elsewhere, there would be no stopping them.

Pianist Dmitrij Golovanov performed twice, first a sometimes meditative, sometimes locomotive solo set with understated live sampling and secondly in a trio, the woefully handled No Name Jazz Fellas. Despite the name, the threesome, which also included drummer Razmus and electric bassist Artūrs Duckis, presented an unbroken set of seemingly structured improvisation in which the pianist and drummer established a notable bond. Talented acoustic guitarist Mindaugas Stumbras led a quartet through a succession of his compositions which touched on folky, Spanish, Latin and jazzy moods.

Outro

Every night in the National Drama Theater was virtually sold out, with the knowledgeable audiences enthusiastic not only for the more accessible fare, but also for the more challenging acts. The two late-night concerts also brought in younger enthusiasts and were well enough supported that it would be a surprise for the initiative not to be repeated in subsequent years. Such patronage is likely to have greatly heartened founder Judita Bartoðevièienë, Mama Jazz herself, and her team, and will hopefully guarantee many more installments of the Mama Jazz Festival to come.

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