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MOJA in Europe: The 2013 Budapest-Vienna-Prague Jazz Tour

Radio host Russ Davis searches for new jazz in three of Europe’s great cities

Russ Davis & Courtney Pine in Prague
Courtney Pine live in Prague at the Prague Jazz Festival
Russ Davis & family in Prague

When my daughter Blair decided to spend her semester abroad in London this year she proposed that my wife Patricia and I come pick her up at the end of her semester and do some traveling in Europe for a couple of weeks. Patricia put together an itinerary that included Budapest, Vienna and Prague. I immediately began to think of the possibilities to investigate the current jazz scene in these three cities and in Europe in general. There has been much talk recently about how jazz has been moving away from its roots in blues and Africa and more towards “classical” music that certainly could be a reference to the influence of Europe and its ancient musical traditions. We’ve all probably heard the term “improvised music” used instead of jazz to describe much of the instrumental music made by European musicians as well as by musicians from other countries, America among them. I decided to find out how true this might be and whether or not Europe might be leading the way in helping jazz evolve in the 21st century. I found the answer to be yes, and no.

My last trip to Europe was to attend the 2008 Barcelona Jazz Festival and I certainly found some unique and interesting new takes on how to make jazz. The electric big band sound of Llibert Fortuny certainly caught my attention, but then there was the vocal work of Cigala who takes his queue directly from flamenco. Old and new were peacefully co-existing on the same festival lineup, beside the Five Peace Band featuring Chick Corea & John McLaughlin and Chucho Valdes. Plus, in recent appearances in New York, Montreal and Detroit, I’ve had the chance to hear some of Europe’s great, new improvisers in action, among them French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, the Dutch group New Cool Collective, that morphs between a big band set up and a smaller ensemble and mixes boogaloo with rock and other elements. I’ve heard the great pianist from Ajerbajhan, Amina Figarova, who now makes Rotterdam her home and brings a great love of American jazz to the mix that includes some obvious classical references. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko blends electronics and acoustics in a decidedly European style. Then there’s Norway’s Jaga Jazzist, that’s been at it since they were teenagers, creating a style that’s all their own by blending the Norwegian horn band traditions with electronics and a powerful groove that never “swings” in the American sense. I’ve also seen the energetic, young pianist from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, who certainly swings, but in the tradition of Armenian folk music. As a very wise man, NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, once said to me when I asked if he felt like having recorded a Brazilian album with Brazilian musicians was taking him away from swinging…”Every kind of music has its own kind of swing.” True that Mr. Barron! I set out to discover if I could get a read on what might be a new kind of swing happening in Europe these days.

In Budapest, where the jazz scene isn’t as strong as in other cities in Europe, I discovered a place called The Budapest JazzClub and the vocal/guitar duo of Micheller Myrtill and Pinter Tibor who pretty much love the blues. Micheller is a pretty, little blonde who sounds like she’s listened to a lot of Bessie Smith while Pinter knows a little about Robert Johnson but with a few more jazz licks thrown in. We had just missed a concert that featured John McLaughlin and a lineup of non-jazz artists in a large concert hall, so they know their famous jazzers in Budapest. But the surprise show, and one of the real treats of our entire two weeks abroad, was hearing a gypsy family band performing inside one of Budpest’s famous “Ruin Clubs.” They take these massive, old, dilapidated buildings and fix them up by installing entertainment centers inside that include rooms with giant video screens showing bizarre films, DJ’s working for those on the dance floor, restaurants, bars, quieter lounge areas and performance spaces. The latter is where we hear the gypsy family complete with violin, accordion, guitar, percussion and the children dancing while Mom sang. I felt as if I was hearing exactly what people had been listening to for centuries in Eastern Europe, and, yes, there was improvisation and, yes, it was swinging!

After four days in Budapest we were off to one of the great places for classical music history, Vienna, where we even toured one of the homes that Mozart lived in during his heyday! There are MANY groups that perform Mozart’s music every week in Vienna and the shows appear to be sold out in advance so make your plans if you want to hear some. As for jazz, it’s a bit easier to get into the places where the music is performed in Vienna and the two main venues seem to be clubs called Jazzland and Porgy & Bess. I got some great info from a jazz lover from Vienna named Manfred Kramlinger who created his own website he calls “Jazz In Vienna” which you can find at this url ( Manfred explained to me that Jazzland is the place for more traditional jazz played by local guys while Porgy & Bess is the place for international musicians who tour Europe and want to play Vienna. He was right about the stars coming to Porgy & Bess as we’d just missed Pharoah Sanders and would be missing Larry Coryell who was playing the day after we left. Also on the bill at Porgy & Bess for the rest of May were Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth Band, Lee Ritenour, Henry Threadgill, Ralph Alessi with Fred Hersch, Mike Stern and Bill Evans, Pat Martino, The Bad Plus and jambanders JJ Grey & Mofro.

I decided to hear two trumpet-led trios that would be playing on the same night, the all acoustic English trio Dangerous Musics, led by trumpeter Jon Corbett, and the Swiss-based trio The Outer String featuring trumpeter Werner Hasler, who shifts between the horn and a laptop. Dangerous Musics created totally improvised, free music with no apparent structure. Mr. Corbett produced blasts of sound with trumpet, pocket trumpet, valve trombone, bamboo flute and conch shell. Nick Stephens on upright bass and South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo completed the trio that alternated between atmospheric segments and torrents of energy. I was much more taken by what our Swiss friends had to offer as the blending of trumpet and electronics employed by Mr. Hasler gave the music more variety of texture, harmony and rhythm while instead of a double bass the trio featured a cello played by the very talented Vincent Courtois who seemed the virtuoso of the group, which also included drummer Julian Sartorius, and lent a decidedly classical flavor to the music. All in all, I enjoyed a most interesting and unique presentation on this evening in Vienna at Porgy & Bess. Our final stop in the mini-tour in search of European Jazz would be the hottest city in all of Europe these days, Prague.

Two of the main places of interest in Prague are The Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, both of which are within walking distance of one another and are filled with hundreds of tourists most any time of day. Not only are you surrounded by a throng of people but also buildings that date back to a time when America was not even a gleam in an explorer’s eye. Inside these old buildings are many active establishments including a large number of jazz clubs like Agharta Jazz Centrum, Jazz Republic, Jazz Time, Reduta Jazz Club, Ungelt Jazz and Blues Club and the one that caught my eye the most, Lucerna Music Bar where I witnessed a great performance by English saxophonist Courtney Pine as part of the Prague Jazz Festival. Courtney Pine is not only a multi-instrumentalist but a composer, bandleader, educator and a national hero who has received the OBE and CBE awards from his country. After the show, which was a celebration of his newest release House of Legends, I had a chance to talk with Mr. Pine for a half hour and get the answer to many of the questions I have about the current jazz scene in Europe, where things have been and where they are going. I feel that after this conversation with this learned and talented man I have a better idea of the past and the possibilities for the evolutionary development of jazz in general for the future.

The show itself was a groovy party from the first beat and note. Courtney Pine was born and raised in London but his parents were originally from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, so he’s always had a very strong connection to the islands of the Caribbean, the various styles of music that come from each place, and the importance of this region of the world with relation to jazz history. His first band in which he played as a teenager was a Ska band, so it’s in his blood as well as his musical experience. After embracing jazz and all it’s forms and possibilities he’s only just now come back to his original desire to express that personal heritage which is the thrust of this newest work, House of Legends. From the beginning Courtney Pine invoked the audience to become personally and physically involved with the performance. The fact that Lucerna was set up with tables and chairs instead of a dance floor was a bit detrimental to his desire to get the people moving but it had little to do with keeping anyone from totally enjoying the groove and energy as well as the uplifting affect of hearing the music. Courtney Pine studied clarinet originally as a young student and is a multi-instrumentalist known primarily for his saxophone work. He’s also employed the flute, bass clarinet, and keyboards, on which he composes his music. On this evening he would play a bit of keyboards, comping behind his fine guitarist Cameron Pierre and steel pan master Samuel Dubois as they brought the songs of House of Legends to life. But his primary instruments would be the soprano sax and the EWI, or Electronic Wind Instrument, which would dominate the set in my mind and prompt the questions that I had for him concerning the possibilities for the future of jazz according to one of Europe’s main jazz men.

Courtney Pine turned 49 in March of 2013 and has over 20 solo albums to date, the last five on his own record label, Destin-E. Some have reached the top of the POP charts in England. When was the last time that happened for an American jazz musician making a totally instrumental album? He followed his musical dreams to America to work with the likes of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. He made the acquaintance of fellow saxophonists like Branford Marsalis, Rudresh Mahanthappa and the late Michael Brecker, which whom he shared some of the secrets of the EWI, an instrument that opened up endless possibilities for both men in their quest to express themselves in personal and unique ways and to push the boundaries of jazz to its limits and beyond in a new century of the music. As we spoke of his personal journey, Courtney Pine mentioned how the lure of America was strong but that he felt a special desire to stay in his homeland and help develop the jazz scene from his side of the pond. Those awards from his country, as well as his honorary doctorates from prestigious universities like Westminster and Southampton, are indicative of how grateful they are that he stayed. Here is a man who studied the likes of Coltrane and Sonny Rollins extensively while maintaining a great love of the music of his Jamaican heritage, of Africa and India, all the while keeping current with the trends of music developing around him in the fertile English and European scene. As Acid Jazz, Hip Hop and Drum & Bass emerged Courtney Pine embraced these styles and merged elements of these musics into his own way of making jazz. His collaborations with many American jazzers continued too and his rich and varied experience makes him a perfect candidate to find out what might be going on in the future.

When I asked about the sounds I’d heard in his live performance produced on the EWI and how they were both consistent with jazz as we know it while simultaneously of an other worldly musical place, his answer was deep and simple at the same time. The EWI is simply another instrument through which to emote and improvise but that it has endless possibilities that he feels he is still to discover. From where I sat it sounded like he’s discovered quite a lot on the EWI so far. What I heard on this evening was one man playing through one instrument that at times sounded like three or four different instruments at once. There was a percussive quality, the sound of the human voice, and what appeared to be three “saxophones” filling the high, midrange and low frequencies all at the same time. I asked him about what instruments like the EWI, as well as the world of electronics in general, offered him in the way of inspiration. His answer was one that not only addressed the possibilities for jazz and improvised music but of music and what it means for all of us. He indicated that we might be on the verge of a breakthrough in which we perceive of and create music by thinking not in traditional ways of harmony, melody and rhythm but in terms of frequencies instead. Imagine making music without the traditional theory written on sheet music employed by the likes of Mozart or Duke Ellington but instead captured in a different, yet undefined physical form? Now THAT is food for thought and I’m still thinking of those possibilities, days after hearing it from Courtney Pine.

I asked him about the European way of making jazz and what the scene is like at this point. He mentioned that it’s fragmented, not a lot unlike the American scene it seems to me. There are the traditionalists who want to maintain the standards set in the beginning of the 20th century and those who want to blow all of that up and make jazz a music totally of the 21st century. Then there are those, like Courtney Pine and, it seems to me, hundreds more, who love the past, honor and embrace the best qualities of that heritage but have one foot stepping off into the future and wherever that may lead all of us who love and live this music every day.

Mr. Pine talked about the current system in which an established artist such as himself has to produce, distribute and sell his own recorded works while maintaining his own promotional and marketing efforts based on touring which he himself must structure, motivate and fund. It’s a tough life sometimes but one does it to express yourself and if you are doing what you truly love then it’s a lot less work and more love. He mentioned that some of the English critics had given him trouble for the style of some of his recent projects but still voted them some of the best of each year. If that sounds a bit confusing then maybe it’s an indicator of the delightfully “confused” time that we are living in jazz history. When something feels pretty good it’s kind of hard to leave it and move on, but it’s in the journey to the next stop where great things can be discovered. That seems to be where Courtney Pine, and many others like him, are heading. I, for one, plan to take the trip with them and my journey to another continent helped reaffirm that desire once again.

Originally Published