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Belgrade Jazz Festival

Dom Sindikata, Kolarac, Dom Omladine Beograda; Belgrade, Serbia; Oct. 29-Nov. 1, 2009

Gutbucket's Ken Thomson at Belgrade 2009 (Photo: Dragan Tasic)
Joe Lovano & Gary Smulyan at Belgrade 2009 (Photo: Dragan Tasic)
Anat Cohen Quartet at Belgrade 2009. From left: Jason Lindner, Cohen, Joe Martin, Daniel Freedman (Photo: Dragan Tasic)
Terence Blanchard Quintet at Belgrade 2009. From left: Michael Olatuja, Brice Winston, Blanchard, Kendrick Scott; Fabian Almazan not pictured (Photo: Dragan Tasic)

That there is such a thing as a Belgrade Jazz Festival will come as a surprise to many American jazz fans. The last time most Americans thought about Belgrade was when we were bombing it, or more precisely, when NATO was bombing it, in 1999. There has been a decade of 24-hour news cycles since the wars in the former Yugoslavia, with their mind-numbing succession of horrors, dominated the CNN broadcast day. But the Belgrade Jazz Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2009, with major players from the NATO countries, most prominently the United States. When Joe Lovano took the microphone on the third night and looked out at the 850 Serbs crammed into Kolarac, he exclaimed, “Belgrade. Wow. Belgrade!” It was as if he could not quite believe where he was. (Kolarac, an acoustically exquisite concert space, has been called “the Carnegie Hall of the Balkans.”)

Duke, Dizzy, Miles, Ornette, Thelonious, Cannonball, Dexter, Sarah and Carmen have played the Belgrade festival. More recently, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas, Bobo Stenson and the Bad Plus have appeared. But it took the festival 38 years to achieve a 25th anniversary. War and its aftermath caused a hiatus between 1991 and 2004.

In Belgrade, the pressure points of recent history are never absent from awareness for long. Before the festival opened, at a press conference in city hall, it was possible to stand at a window and look out over Pionirski (Pioneer) Park and Nikola Pasic Square to the Parliament building. In 2000, this large public space was overrun with the demonstrators who brought down the dictator Slobodan Milosevic. From the same window you can see in the sky the broadcast towers of Radio Televizija Srbija (RTS). You can walk over there, behind the huge post office building, and see the exact narrow section of RTS headquarters that housed the control center. It was destroyed by a NATO cruise missile on April 23, 1999, and has not been rebuilt. The three floors are still open to the wind, ugly, in tatters. Nearby there is a monument, titled “Why?” in Cyrillic, with the names of the 16 people who died in the building that night.

Belgrade is stark and gray and hazy in November. Although the Danube and Sava Rivers meet here, the cityscape, even with the bridges, is austere. The most somber places are the see-through buildings partially destroyed by bombs. But there is an edgy energy on the streets, and the long blocks of concrete buildings covered in graffiti always surprise you by suddenly opening out into a pretty park or a dignified public square. (Tito, it is said, liked parks, and built many.)

Besides the setting, two other things about the Belgrade festival were remarkable. First, in terms of ticket availability, it was the most in-demand jazz festival this writer has ever seen. At a time when so many jazz concerts and festivals all over the world are happy to fill two-thirds of their auditoriums, Belgrade operated at approximately 90-percent capacity. “The Belgrade jazz audience is not spoiled,” explained Dragan Ambrozic, the festival’s program manager. Another reason was the cheap ticket prices. In the two primary venues where the headliners played, Dom Sindikata and Kolarac, prices ranged from 800 to 1,200 Serbian dinars-about $13 to $19. In Dom Omladine, the smaller space where the late night concerts were held, tickets cost even less. The festival is supported by the Assembly of the City of Belgrade, and ticket prices are kept low. Not only were the crowds unusually large, they were unusually young, and wildly enthusiastic.

But the most remarkable aspect of this festival was the strength of the music. In only four nights, Belgrade offered two of the greatest trumpet players in jazz, the most important tenor saxophonist of his generation leading the most important (and underexposed) of his many projects, the best male singer in jazz, and perhaps the most exciting new talent on the current scene (Anat Cohen). And that was just for starters.

It began on Oct. 29. Dom Sindikata, on a large busy square in downtown Belgrade, is a well-worn auditorium. (Its huge, grand foyer was boisterous during intermissions, thick with crowds and with Belgrade’s omnipresent fog of cigarette smoke.) All 1,600 seats were filled for the reunion concert of Sextet Markovic-Gut. This band, co-led by Milivoje Markovic on “tenor saksofon” and Stjepko Gut on “truba” (trumpet), was the most popular Serbian jazz band in the 1980s, but had not played together in 25 years. They had been known for the quality of their original repertoire, and most of the tunes sounded like tricky, tight, unearthed hard-bop classics. Guest tenor saxophonist Jovan Mikovic was the most confident soloist.

The second half of the program featured Croatian singer Gabi Novak, the Croatian All-Star Jazz Ensemble and a young Serbian string quartet. Novak had been a big star in Yugoslavia but had not performed in Serbia since Croatia and Serbia went to war in 1991. The fact that this opening night of the festival was introduced by the Croatian ambassador, and featured Croatian and Serbian musicians on the same stage, led the festival’s artistic director, Vojislav Pantic, to state: “Now for sure we can say the war is over.”

Novak’s clear, rich voice was persuasive, even for a listener who does not understand lyrics in Serbo-Croatian. She did sing “Misty” in English, where “a tausend wiolins” began to play. Novak’s son, pianist Matija Dedic, was impressive, both as soloist and as the author of glistening, minimalist lines to accompany his mother. (To hear more of Dedic, check out his new double-CD, From the Beginning, with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard.)

If opening night was as much a sentimental and historical occasion as a musical event, Tomasz Stanko’s concert on the second night was purely aesthetic, and epic. Stanko, who does not change bands often, appeared with his new quintet. His previous group was a quartet that stayed together eight years and made three of the most important jazz albums of the new millennium, all on ECM: Soul of Things, Suspended Night and Lontano. That band’s young Polish rhythm section (Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz, Michal Miskiewicz) was unknown when it joined Stanko but now has an international reputation and two albums on ECM. The players in Stanko’s new band (guitarist Jakob Bro and bassist Anders Christensen from Denmark, pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori from Finland) are not yet famous but are destined to be. There is a debut ECM recording, Dark Eyes, that is scheduled for March 31 release in the United States but is already out in Europe and is causing a stir.

In Dom Sindikata, they played music from the new album almost exclusively. Stanko has almost never performed with a guitarist, but Bro’s spare, ambiguous lines and muted colors beautifully enhanced Stanko’s atmospheres. Louhivuori too is something new for Stanko, a drummer who throws off freeform energy fields. Stanko still sounded like Stanko: On pieces like “Last Song” and “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch,” he hung trumpet lines in the air like solemn omens. But on others, like “Terminal 7” and “May Sun,” there was a new spring in his step.

In an interview with this writer in 2004, Stanko said, “Life has two sides, the light and the dark. I’m on the side of the dark.” Stanko’s art still contains much more tragedy than comedy, but his new group creates interludes of light. Some of his new compositions (“So Nice,” “Grand Central”) are more like bright individual songs and less like movements in one of Stanko’s dark suites.

On the third night, the move to Kolarac (necessary because the hall was provided rent-free to the festival for two nights) cut the audience capacity in half. On the flip side were the extraordinary acoustics and a more urgent vibe, as those unable to get tickets spilled out into Studentski Trg (Students Square).

The Joe Lovano Nonet is one of the distinguished “little big bands” in jazz history, yet it records infrequently (three albums since 2000) and performs in public rarely (due to economic and scheduling challenges). Its set in Kolarac got the longest, loudest standing ovation of the festival. Lovano played with his left arm in a sling. The day before his appearance in Belgrade, Joe had taken a fall in Lausanne, Switzerland and suffered three hairline fractures in his upper left arm. Yet in Belgrade he played all his solos and sounded like himself, which is very good indeed, while standing atypically still. (More awful luck came two days later, when Joe fell again in Barcelona, Spain, resulting in hairline fractures of his upper right arm. At that point he cancelled the rest of the Nonet’s tour, underwent surgery and returned to the U.S. to recuperate. Get well soon, Joe!)

Anyone who must play with his arm in a sling would like to have these eight imposing figures around him for support and protection: alto saxophonist Steve Slagle, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, trumpeter Barry Ries, trombonist Larry Farrell, pianist James Weidman, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Lewis Nash. They played several pieces from their 2006 Blue Note album Streams of Expression, including the three-part “Birth of the Cool Suite,” arranged by Gunther Schuller. Sixty-year-old themes (“Moon Dreams,” “Move,” “Boplicity”) sounded newly minted. The unique pleasures of this band are the casual, edgy elegance of the ensemble blend and the way the soloists keep topping one another. When the solos are passed around, you can’t wait to hear what the next guy will do with his 16 or 32 bars. It is not fair to single anyone out, but Slagle smoked every one of his allotted assignments and Smulyan sounded like a volcano erupting.

The Anat Cohen Quartet (pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Joe Martin, drummer Daniel Freedman) followed Lovano and killed. Cohen is a born entertainer. From the audience, in her high heels, she looks about seven feet tall, and as she whirls to her music, grinning ecstatically, glorious mop of curls flying, she catches you up in a Bacchanalian celebration. But Cohen’s fun contains serious content delivered with world-class chops. She can do impossible things on a clarinet. Ideas stream across all registers at warp speed in a pure piercing clarinet wail that, even if you are sitting in the back row, nails you to the back of your chair. It was as if she walked out on the stage at Kolarac, flipped a switch and hit a maniacal level of intensity from which she never came down. As Cohen’s mix flies past your head, certain strains are identifiable as Israeli or Middle Eastern or South American. The piece that contained the most exotic ingredients was “Washington Square Park,” a metrically diverse Cohen original inspired by the park in Greenwich Village where, on a Saturday afternoon, the sounds and sights of many cultures engulf the senses. For all her extravagance, Cohen is a thematic, orderly improviser. Her “Jitterbug Waltz” contained vast quantities of supplemental information and it all tied together.

On the final night, Terence Blanchard played Kolarac with his quintet (tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Michael Olatuja, drummer Kendrick Scott). Blanchard is a highly creative and commanding trumpet player, and his sidemen are special, especially Almazan and Scott. But in Blanchard’s set, individual brilliance served an overarching design. The recorded words of Dr. Cornell West were woven into the performance, unobtrusively, like an undercurrent of thought, suggesting a context of quest and purpose. “Bass Choices” was first and was assembled patiently, an instrument at a time: Olatuja’s slow bass ritual and Scott’s brushes like wind and Almazan’s isolated chords and finally the flaring unison horns from which Blanchard shot free. After many memorable chapters, “Choices,” with its fervent summations, brought the narrative journey to a close. Winston burned his solo into the air of Kolarac, and Blanchard employed electronics to multiply himself, drowning you in a sea of trumpet.

Every night there were late concerts and a huge smoky hang at Dom Omladine, Belgrade’s Youth House and Cultural Center. The loudest, most popular act was Red Snapper, the wildest was Gutbucket and the best was Wolfert Brederode. Gutbucket’s own description of their music (“art-rock, avant-squonk, mathed-out prog”) does not begin to suggest the extent to which this quartet (Ken Thomson on reeds, Ty Citerman on guitar, Eric Rockwin on bass, Adam D. Gold on drums) can mess with your head. Gutbucket plays planned insanity, sometimes in hammer blows, sometimes in precise, illogical long forms like “Night Mail,” accompanied by an inexplicable film. Gutbucket clears out your ears and lets you start over fresh for all subsequent music.

Wolfert Brederode’s quartet (tenor/soprano saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen, drummer Samuel Rohrer) was an example of the enlightened programming of this festival. Brederode, from the Netherlands, is one of the most intriguing and promising new pianists in jazz, with a strong debut album on ECM, Currents. His impressionistic music portrays sonic landscapes in silvers and grays. Often, when Brederode comped in gentle drones for Brunborg’s long calls, there did not seem to be forward movement. Instead a spell was cast. But sometimes Brederode allowed energy to accumulate almost imperceptibly until it overtook you, wave upon wave. He understands dynamic contrast. The recurrence of significant silence throughout his set made the crescendos of the last piece, “Angelico,” more dramatic.

The only headliner that this writer missed in Belgrade was Kurt Elling. Fortunately it was possible to catch him at Jazz Fest Sarajevo, which immediately followed Belgrade, a seven-hour bus ride away. Elling’s show, like his new album, was subtitled “The Music of Coltrane and Hartman.” Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts was a featured guest, and every one of his vertical ascents was a shot of pure adrenaline. Pianist Laurence Hobgood’s long discursive prelude eventually became “You Are Too Beautiful.” Elling’s version of this and other songs that Johnny Hartman sang with Coltrane may have been worked out in advance. But with their jarring intervals over freely reinvented melodies, they sounded like spontaneous acts of the imagination. Elling is a compelling performer because he is fully invested in every song.

Sarajevo is a beautiful town in a valley surrounded by steep mountains whose name is synonymous with tragedy. The siege of Sarajevo carried out by Serb forces from 1992 until 1995 killed an estimated 10,000 people, 1,500 of them children. Walking around the town is an atypical jazz festival experience, because you will not venture far without coming upon a Sarajevo Rose on the street or sidewalk. It is the unique fragmentation pattern caused when a mortar round hits concrete. Years ago, the citizens of Sarjevo filled in these lethal, floral designs with red resin. The red is faded now.

Belgrade stays with you longer than other places you visit (Sarajevo too, of course). Belgrade gets under your skin. You dream about its severe iron-gray streets, and its people who, watchful at first, respond to offers of friendship with extraordinary warmth. Jazz, the music of freedom, is embraced in Serbia, a land in the complicated process of emerging from a long night of isolation and oppression.

Originally Published