When you think of the great autumn jazz festivals of Europe, cities like London, Berlin, and perhaps Milan come to mind. You don’t necessarily think of Belgrade, Serbia. Many jazz people are probably surprised to learn that Belgrade has a festival. In the 1990s, Serbia and the Balkans dominated the cable news channels during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. But according to the dynamics of the 24-hour news cycle, that was long ago. Most people in America and Western Europe have lost all track of Belgrade.
It is not a romantic European destination. Belgrade has some grand vistas over the Sava and Danube rivers, especially from Kalemegdan fortress. It has many nice parks and some beautiful neoclassicist architecture. But because of frequent wars, few structures predate the 19th century. The dominant visual impression is of gray austerity and graffiti. Towering clusters of Soviet-era apartment blocks are streaked with black from pollution. When you walk around the city, it is shocking to suddenly come upon the rubble of a building bombed by NATO in 1999, still not cleared. Everything from the way people dress to the grim hole-in-the-wall retail zones to the cars on the streets tells you that Serbia has not recovered economically from wars that ended 20 years ago. Still, there is an ambience to Belgrade, a certain edgy energy, that gets under your skin. People here have seen everything and survived. They distrust all governments, starting with their own. It’s a city devoid of sentimentality. Serbs only smile when they mean it.
Watch Thomas Conrad’s video report from the Belgrade Jazz Festival:
Belgrade’s jazz festival began in 1971. Back in the day, everybody played Belgrade: Miles. Duke. Monk. The festival went dark between 1991 and 2004 because of the wars. It started up again in 2005 and has slowly grown in scale and reputation. It took BJF 49 years to reach its 35th anniversary. But today, if you want to discover the best Serbian jazz bands, and also the leading-edge new ensembles of Europe, you go to BJF. As for headliners, you often encounter artists you didn’t know you needed to hear again. The people primarily responsible for the spot-on bookings are artistic director Vojislav Pantić, program manager Dragan Ambrosić, and board member/PR manager Milica Ševarlić.
In 2019, from October 21 to October 27, BJF took place in three venues in two buildings, both in the heart of the Old Town (Stari Grad). For many years, the main festival hang has been Dom Omladine, the Belgrade Youth Center. It contains Velika Sala, a recently renovated 550-seat auditorium, and Sala Amerikana, a dark, funky, intimate upstairs cavern where the late-night music goes down. The headliners played in what used to be called Dom Sindikata when it was a communist trade union hall. It too has been recently remodeled, is called Kombank Dvorana, and now has a capitalist bank corporation for a sponsor.
First, the headliners: The highlight of the festival was Charles Lloyd’s new quintet, Kindred Spirits. It is a rare Lloyd project that includes both a pianist (Gerald Clayton) and a guitarist (new addition Marvin Sewell). There is also a new bassist, Harish Raghavan. The drummer is Eric Harland. The wild card is Sewell, who brings a raw, explosive blues dialect into the ensemble. Because Lloyd, at 81, now plays mostly ethereal, rapt tenor saxophone, the contrast with Sewell was stark. At first you thought the shrieking, feral guitar solos might not work in a Lloyd atmosphere. In fact, Sewell did not solo on ballads like “How Can I Tell You.” But on pieces like “Dismal Swamp,” the juxtaposition of Sewell’s extremity and Lloyd’s sensitivity led to revelations. Lloyd has his own way of creating drama, not by amplitude, but through the purity of his spirit. When he flowed into “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” barely breathing it, a hush descended upon 1,400 people in Kombank Dvorana.
The Mingus Big Band opened for Lloyd. They are a class act. Thanks to these guys, the world still gets to hear timeless Mingus pieces like “Fables of Faubus” and “So Long Eric” in fresh arrangements executed with precision and passion. With so much solo firepower on hand, this band just keeps coming at you: Conrad Herwig. Alex Sipiagin. David Kikoski. Steve Slagle. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery unfolded a long, contemplative out-of-time rumination and it was a rush when it became “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ great elegy for Lester Young. Behind Escoffery’s shouts and cries, the full ensemble murmured an undertone of mourning.
One veteran big-name singer and one hot new singer performed, and it was revealing to compare them. Dianne Reeves and Jazzmeia Horn both offer exceptional range and daring phrasing. But Reeves’ chops served something outside herself—human emotional truth—and Horn’s chops served her own ego. Horn still works on the surface, but at 28 she has a special vocal instrument and large potential.
Gilad Hekselman executed a high-level guitar recital in Velika Sala, but the best example of a bold booking and an artist “you didn’t know you needed to hear again” was Steve Coleman, an influential alto saxophonist, bandleader, and thinker who’s more written about than heard. His ensemble Five Elements played late in Sala Amerikana, a perfect shadowy nocturnal setting for their quirky, challenging music. Sean Rickman on drums and Anthony Tidd on headless electric bass unleashed an onslaught of rhythmic forces. Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson shrieked in rough unisons to their own separate rhythms. Rapper Kokayi sounded like he was speed-reading the shifting contents of his mind, but his hookup with the band was real. Coleman’s ideas have more structure than most free jazz, but his asymmetrical forms and provisional chords keep the listener off balance.
Next, the Serbian bands: One was very good and one was groundbreaking. The Rastko Obradović Quartet played music so clean and poetic it deserves to be recorded by ECM. The Nikolov-Ivanović Undectet, a 12-piece ensemble, played arrangements by pianist Vladimir Nikolov, the subtle touches of color and texture in his charts reminiscent of Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. Like them, Nikolov is inspired by the stirring sonorities of French horn, tuba, and accordion. But he blends Balkan metrical and tonal elements into his mix, and they introduce their own exotic aura. The Undectet has a new album, their second, Frame and Curiosity. This project should claim a place for Serbia among the most creative current large jazz ensembles in Europe.
In closing, the many other European countries that sent important ensembles to Belgrade:
Poland. Alto saxophonist Maciej Obara has just released his second excellent ECM album, Three Crowns. His concert in Sala Amerikana proved that recordings can only approximate an artist’s impact in a live setting. Obara played just two songs, “Sleepwalker” from his first ECM album and “Mr. S” from Three Crowns. From these sources he derived a vast two-part 80-minute spontaneous suite of perpetually evolving turbulence. His swirling, dizzying saxophone figures gradually became knowable as lyricism. “Mr. S” was for the great Polish trumpet player Tomasz Stańko, who died in 2018. It began with a thread of melody, transitory as life, and eventually became a furious anthem of celebration. Here is another name to watch from this band: Dominik Wania. He is the next badass Polish pianist after Leszek Możdżer and Marcin Wasilewski.
Italy. As a member of Enrico Rava’s recent ensembles, Francesco Diodati has proven that he is the most talented new guitarist in Europe. In Belgrade, with his own band, he proved that very few current jazz projects produce as many fresh ideas per minute as the quintet he calls Yellow Squeeds. In this group (trumpeter Francesco Lento, pianist Enrico Zanisi, tuba player Glauco Benedetti, drummer Enrico Morello), no one solos and everyone never stops soloing.
Russia. The Dmitry Ilugdin Trio from Moscow played Dostoyevskian jazz: powerful, dark, passionate. It was startling that a piano trio could generate so much physical force. On three songs they were joined by a remarkable vocalist, Tanya Balakirskaya. She is a method actress even before she is a singer. The slow ballet of her movements and her haunting voice drew you into her private spiritual domain. Balakirskaya’s Russian version of soul contained both angst and liberation.
Germany. Michael Wollny’s band is probably the loudest piano trio since the Bad Plus, but his cultural touchpoint is Paul Hindemith, not Nirvana. His methods involve heavy left-hand background sound blocks and stark right-hand foreground melodies, any of which can give way at any moment to thunderous tremolos. Wollny and his drummer Eric Schaefer are into shock and awe. Like Maciej Obara, Wollny is an artist whose highly regarded records (on the German ACT label) only imply his excitement in person.
France and Norway. Freaks and Ketil Bjørnstad are no doubt rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Freaks had originally been scheduled to end BJF, but for the 35th anniversary a seventh night and one more event was added: a solo piano concert by Bjørnstad. Freaks, led by manic violinist Théo Ceccaldi, is a deafening (or sometimes whispering) punk-jazz chamber ensemble. This sextet is joyfully perverse and highly skilled on its instruments, which they need to be in order to create so many forms of mayhem. Bjørnstad was erudite, measured and cultivated. He played Mozart, Joni Mitchell, and a long episodic original tribute to his ECM producer Manfred Eicher. By placing these two acts back to back—Freaks as uproarious climax, Bjørnstad as thoughtful epilogue—BJF demonstrated the creativity of its programming, and also revealed the boundless diversity of the music we call, for lack of a better term, jazz.