Most of the North American jazz community does not know there is a jazz festival in Belgrade, Serbia. The Belgrade festival was more famous in the ’70s and ’80s, when Yugoslavia was still intact and when all the big names played there, even Miles and Duke and Dizzy and Monk. But the Balkan wars shut the festival down between 1991 and 2005, and when it came back it had to start over from scratch.
The cityscapes of Belgrade contain extreme contrasts. There are grim blocks in Soviet gray, covered in graffiti in Cyrillic. There are also many big, peaceful parks. On any street you might come upon an abandoned Ottoman or art nouveau edifice, windows boarded up, blackened with time. There are bombed-out buildings, their guts exposed, hit by NATO planes in 1999. From the beautiful grounds of Kalemegdan fortress, high above the old town, you can see where the Sava and Danube rivers meet.
A jazz festival here is necessarily a hand-to-mouth operation. There are no posh venues in Belgrade. The people, on average, have far less disposable income than in western Europe. Sponsorship and government support is constrained by the harsh realities of the Serbian economy. Serbia has made significant progress in the 11 years since the dictator Slobodan Milošević was overthrown, but much rebuilding and healing still needs to take place. Yet against all odds, Belgrade has become one of the strongest festivals of the European autumn season. Programming is bold and creative and uncompromised. Unlike so many other jazz festivals, Belgrade resists the temptation to include pop acts. Every concert is filled to capacity, or near it, with attentive, enthusiastic audiences. Ticket prices are kept low, and the festival has become the place to see and be seen if you live in or near Belgrade and you have any aspirations to coolness. There is a special raw energy to this city, and it pervades the festival. Musicians seem to feel it. They play their butts off in Belgrade.
The festival was founded and is funded by the Assembly of the City of Belgrade, and is organized by the Dom Omladine Cultural Center. Since its rebirth in 2005, the director of the festival has been Milan Lučić, who is also director of Dom Omladine. The entire festival project is administered by a five-member board, under president Dr. Milan Savić, which is elected by the City of Belgrade. The three people most responsible for the program are board member Mića Marković, Artistic Director Vojislav Pantić and Program Manager Dragan Ambrosić. Marković is a rare jazz festival overseer who is also one of his country’s most important jazz musicians. Pantić is a mathematics professor by day but during the festival he is seen mostly from behind as he dashes off to his next rendezvous, cell phone (ringing every 45 seconds) in his right hand, cigarette in his left. Ambrosić is the eye of the hurricane, lurking in the background, appearing bemused by it all but never stressed, not even when tenor saxophone players coming in from Slovenia are two hours late for their sound check. (Igor Lumpert’s concert went off without a hitch.)
For 2011, Pantić and Ambrosić made the risky, unprecedented decision to hold the entire festival in Dom Omladine. (The single exception was Pat Metheny’s concert on opening night, which had to go in Sava Centar, with its 3300 seats.) In Serbian, Dom Omladine means, roughly, “home of youth.” It is just off Republic Square in central Belgrade. It was built 50 years ago, as a facility for young Yugoslavians to participate in politically correct Communist programs, but is now an eclectic cultural center. It contains two venues. Velika Sala is downstairs, a 550-seat auditorium, plain but recently refurbished. Sala Amerikana, where the late concerts were held, is upstairs and funkier, with seats for 140 and standing room for 350 more.
The risks of putting the festival in Dom Omladine were that Velika Sala would be too small for acts like Charles Lloyd and local hero Duško Gojković, and that the older members of Belgrade’s jazz community might not come to the “home of youth.” The risks were surmounted. Gojković’s concert was a quick sell-out so a second 11 p.m. performance, off the program, was scheduled and also sold out. Ambrosić moved some money around and made the numbers work for Lloyd’s sold-out event. And the older folks showed up along with everybody else. (Jazz audiences in Belgrade span four generations.) Dom Omladine turned out to be a great choice, because the two venues were intimate and the whole building, with its open main floor, foyers upstairs and down, and two bars, became one huge festival hang. People began gathering in the afternoon, when several public interviews and panel discussions were held, and stayed until the wee hours, well past the end of the after-midnight shows in Sala Amerikana.
This reporter came to Belgrade directly from the festival in Skopje, Macedonia (see article under “Reviews/Concerts” on this website). Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet (Jason Moran, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums) played both festivals, and so did Pat Metheny’s new/old trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. The experience of hearing these two bands in back-to-back appearances gave rise to reflections on the role of spontaneity within the jazz art form.
Metheny’s performance on the last night in Skopje had been a huge success. Tickets were expensive by Macedonian standards (about $40, twice as much as Wayne Shorter on opening night), but the 1600-seat Universal Hall was full. Metheny played flawlessly, on blow-outs like “Question & Answer” and on ethereal acoustic ballads like “And I Love Her.” His reconstituted hook-up with Grenadier was deep and Stewart kicked ass. The crowd demanded three encores and got them.
Three days later, on opening night in Belgrade, Metheny played exactly the same program. He played exactly the same songs in exactly the same order, and took very close to the same solos. He even said the same things in the same places, substituting the word “Belgrade” for “Skopje.” The only difference was that he played two encores, not three.
The result was that, for someone who had been in Skopje, the Belgrade concert was a let-down. Is this because jazz lovers are gluttons for new stimulation? Did Metheny really play with less passion in Belgrade? Did the cavernous, rather sterile environs of Sava Centar, with its set-back stage, change the vibe? (Approximately 2600 of the 3300 seats were filled, 1000 more than Skopje.) Whatever the answers to these questions, it was impossible to overcome a lingering disappointment in learning that Pat Metheny scripts his excitement as closely as Taylor Swift.
The contrast with Lloyd could not have been more dramatic. In Skopje, Lloyd had begun in a fervent whisper, with “Dream Weaver” and “The Blessing,” almost as if playing for himself. In Belgrade, he opened with “Ramanujan,” on his Hungarian tarogato, and shrieked and brayed as if he would wake the dead. Out of the blocks, it was a fury, Moran pummeling block chords, Rogers churning, Harland lashing. Lloyd put down his tarogato and took up shakers and twisted around the stage and ended up back behind Rogers and Harland, dancing in circles. He was feeling it. (Asked about it later, he said simply, “It was a different night.”)
“Ramanujan” subsided and flowed into “Go Down, Moses,” solemn and magisterial. Lloyd had not played it in Skopje, nor had he played the next song, the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No.” It was a ballad that he carried aloft with long calls, in that sensual tenor saxophone sound so distinctive you can tell it on a radio playing softly in the next room. In both cities the band closed its sets with “Passin’ Through.” It was completely different in Belgrade, longer and fiercer, with a wild Moran solo of splayed crashings.
The Lloyd concerts were jazz of the transitory moment. Lloyd is 73 and was playing Belgrade for the first time. As he played he discovered how he felt about it. And he passed those feelings on, as he was passin’ through.
This was a festival rich in pianists. Stefano Bollani performed with his trio (Jesper Bodilsen, bass; Morten Lund, drums). Bollani is on another level from virtually every other living jazz piano player. The closest analogue may be Oscar Peterson: Peterson refracted through the relativities and indeterminacy of new millennium consciousness. The limits of Bollani’s chops are unknown. He played a monstrous super-imposition of fresh content upon the grid of “There Will Never Be Another You.” It poured in torrents, wave after wave. He ended with “there will never be another,” refusing to play the last note. Anyone can play the last note. It was Bollani’s way of sticking the landing.
Joachim Kühn appeared with a highly original project, his Chalaba Trio. Majid Bekkas, from Morocco, played the three-string electric guembri, and Ramon Lopez, from Spain, played drums. The impact of this music came from the startling juxtaposition of two disparate musical worlds: twitchy, hypnotic, insidious Middle Eastern and African polyrhythmic grooves from Bekkas and Lopez, and raging, splattering Germanic piano abstractions from Kühn. Bekkas and Lopez rocked your body and Kühn, concurrently, messed with your mind. Jazz is a big tent.
Tigran Hamasyan, from Armenia, gave the most dignified, formal, arch, decorous recital of the festival. His technique is extraordinary. His sensibility does not always convey a jazz feeling, but what else would you call his enormous constructs beginning with Gurdjieff, or his vast, towering expansions and decorations of “Someday My Prince Will Come”?
Anat Fort, from Israel, appeared in a duo with bassist Gary Wang. Her subtle, proprietary lyricism won over the night crowd in Sala Amerikana. Fort’s original tunes (“Paul Motian,” “Minnesota,” “a piece about camels”) do not develop as linear narrative but as little clusters and modules spaced along the progress of her coalescing thoughts and feelings. It was pretty, even if it did not swing.
Phronesis is a cooperative band from the U.K. (pianist Ivo Neame), Denmark (bassist Jasper Høiby), and Sweden (drummer Anton Eger). Neame is the most talented British pianist to come on the scene in years, but Phronesis is a band of equals, loose and cocky in attitude, tight in nailing their intricate, slamming arrangements. The obvious, inexact comparisons are The Bad Plus (Eger is a very loud drummer) and e.s.t. On stage, they offer more charisma and showmanship than either. Høiby in the center, tall and thin as a Giacometti statue, is given to dramatic bass pronouncements. Eger, on the right, in evening wear, presents orgiastic drum frenzies while sitting quite still except for his arms. Neame, on the left, is a dead ringer for Linus: small, oblivious to his surroundings, bent low, long bangs spilling down to the keyboard. “Love Song” seemed to be about a problematic relationship, perhaps even a break-up. “Happiness” sounded ominous. Their music was hard, hip, and clever. They are comers.
One of the special moments of the festival was the 80th birthday concert (concerts, as it turned out) by Duško Gojković, Serbia’s most famous jazz musician. He worked in the big bands of Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman and Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland. He still plays clean, fluent, soulful trumpet. In Velika Sala, he appeared with British alto saxophonist Peter King and Big Band RTS (Radio/Television Serbia). The band was solid. Gojković’s charts, on tunes like “Lush Life” and his own heartfelt “Doboj,” were crisp and elegant. King played with a classic stylish urbanity that is hard to find anymore. Sometimes, in flashes of memory, Johnny Hodges was there.
The Belgrade festival is also a place to discover Serbia’s best emerging jazz musicians. Pianist/composer Maja Alvanović played an airy, graceful, intriguing set with her Majamisty Trio. Alto saxophonist Neša Petrović looks like Bill Murray. His concept is remarkably diverse, weaving moody floating passages and sudden yelps and squawks and funky grooves into a coherent whole. He was like a landscape painter who sometimes impulsively splashes and smears paint across his nice picture.
On the last night, in Sala Amerikana, Marc Ribot played rasping, stinging thrash guitar, flailing at his snarling, shrieking strings. Sometimes he subsided and slowed but just as a new atmosphere began to emerge he destroyed it, wrenching screaming tirades from his instrument. Gradually you began to hear the melodic variation that the din improbably contained. Gradually the passion and the power began to overtake you, and you heard the spiritual crises and releases that could not be communicated by less tumultuous music. The piece was “Holy Holy” by Albert Ayler. It was very moving to see Henry Grimes on the stage, who played bass with Ayler in 1966. Grimes disappeared from the music scene for 30 years and was often presumed dead. He is back, and he looked very calm, at peace with Ribot’s onslaughts, as he fingered gigantic, resonant bass notes in cryptic patterns. Drummer Chad Taylor was also essential, kicking and smashing. It was a night to remember.
But the night was not over. Elliot Sharp’s Electric Willie took the stage and replaced Ribot’s rarefied spiritual strivings with explicit carnality. Electric Willie played the songs of Willie Dixon, with Ladell Mclin and Tracie Morris on vocals and Sharp on snaky, filthy avant-garde guitar. This jazz festival went out with everyone dancing.