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Skopje Jazz Festival, October 20-24, 2011

In Macedonia, jazz matters more

Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis at Skopje Jazz Festival, Oct. 2011
Miroslav Vitous, Skopje Jazz Festival, Oct. 2011
Pat Metheny, Bill Stewart, Larry Grenadier, Skopje Jazz Festival, Oct. 2011
Vijay Iyer, Stephan Crump, Marcus Gilmore, Skopje Jazz Festival, Oct. 2011

From the air, no place looks like the western Balkans. Flying in to Skopje, Macedonia from Zagreb, Croatia, you pass over Montenegro and Kosovo. The gray and black mountains below look like an alien planet. You cannot imagine that those sheer cliffs and dark valleys are inhabited. Then you notice the tiny silver squares along the rivers and clustered in the valleys, glinting in the sunshine. People live there.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, also has its own look. An earthquake destroyed most of the city in 1963, and it was rebuilt in gray Communist concrete. But the old stone bridge over the Vardar River, off the main town square, is pretty. The bridge takes you to Čaršija, the Old Bazaar, which was spared by the earthquake. Narrow cobbled streets twist among mosques, Orthodox churches, jewelry shops selling “gypsy gold,” and kebab joints.

The main square is a jumble of diverse statuary (Justinian, Mother Teresa, some Orthodox saints). Exactly in the center is a brand new landmark, an enormous 95-foot bronze statue of Alexander the Great on a rearing well-endowed stallion. It seems to loom over all of Skopje, its message unmistakably nationalist. (Macedonia became independent in 1991.)

Unlike other major cities of the former Yugoslavia, there are no visible scars from the wars of the 1990s in Skopje. The war was not fought here. You do not come across ugly carcasses of bombed out buildings, as in Belgrade and Mostar. There are no pits and bullet holes in the facades of churches, as in Dubrovnik. There are no plaques on the sidewalks where children died from sniper fire, as in Sarajevo. Yet the wars left economic and political wounds in Macedonia. The party now in power is increasingly authoritarian. Media outlets and journalists critical of the government are under duress. In July 2011, A-1, an outspoken independent television station, had its license revoked. There are growing international concerns about the silencing of dissent and abuse of power in Macedonia.

In such a place, a major jazz festival takes on special significance. Jazz festivals celebrate an open art form that belongs to the world. Therefore they implicitly challenge concepts like nationalism. The people who present and support the Skopje Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2011, are enormously proud of it and view it as the city’s most important annual cultural event. Like most jazz festivals, Skopje’s spirit and driving force begins with one person. He is Director Oliver Belopeta. Skopje may be on the far edge of the grid, but over the years Belopeta has earned a reputation for creative left-of-center programming.

In 2011 there were three nights in Universal Hall, which holds 1600 but feels more intimate because it is almost a theater-in-the-round. There were two nights in the 850-seat Macedonia Opera and Ballet, a modernist white structure just across the Vardar River from the main square, below Čaršija. At midnight, there were concerts in a downtown movie theater. Most of the midnight bands operated in a loud no-man’s-land between garage rock and free jazz, and drew raucous younger crowds.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet opened the festival in Universal Hall. He is a towering figure and one of the greatest living jazz composers, but for years his public performances have been futile exercises in self-indulgence and perverse enigma.

Shorter plays a set straight through. The occasional short pauses seem to come from momentary puzzlement rather than plan. There is no sense of an emerging design. Each part, of varying length, is a frustrating suspension, an introduction to something that never begins. Or sometimes it begins and does not end. Or sometimes it does nothing but end, over and over. Shorter’s highly capable sidemen are limited by their assigned roles. Bassist John Patitucci thrums a fierce vamp. Pianist Danilo Perez clangs tight cycles of chords or rattles tremolos. Drummer Brian Blade rumbles and spits and sometimes explodes. Their three streams might be drawn into something large and meaningful if the leader’s playing were stronger. But Shorter, frequently switching between soprano and tenor saxophones, capriciously stops and starts, repeating himself, his tone thin and quavering. More people walked out of the Shorter concert than any other at the festival.

Five days later, Pat Metheny gave a rousing final concert. He had never played Macedonia before, and he told the audience he “had some catching up to do.” He played music from every era of his 40-year career. He is newly reunited with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, and they are more of a “jazz guitar trio” than Metheny’s previous three-piece band with Christian McBride and Antonio Sánchez. The first six pieces were concise, focused jazz improvisations, displaying Metheny’s special gifts as a story-teller and his gleaming, uplifting electric guitar sound. They played the title track from his first album as a leader in 1976, “Bright Size Life,” and “Unrequited,” which he recorded with its composer, Brad Mehldau, in 2006. They also played Metheny’s chordal tour de force, “Soul Cowboy,” which he recorded with Grenadier and Stewart in 2000.

It was not until the seventh piece that he cut loose. Halfway through “Question & Answer,” Metheny changed guitars and turned on his digital devices and went way up high and wailed, multiplying himself electronically into layers of wild keenings, screaming the theme again and again like a mantra of ecstasy. The audience erupted because this is what they had come for. Then he brought everyone down from those heights with two acoustic guitar ballads, starting with a gentle, hovering “Find Me In Your Dreams.” Then he trotted out his weird 42-string Pikasso guitar for one number. He even came prepared with a road version of his Orchestrion, with its electrically/mechanically activated vibraphone, bottles, drums, accordion, other mysterious devices and light show. The Orchestrion could only come from a jazz musician with too much disposable income/venture capital, but its flagrant gimmickry is fascinating, and its virtual symphony was a crowd-pleaser. Metheny played three encores. “And I Love Her,” on solo acoustic guitar, from his latest album What’s It All About, was like a caress to everyone present. It completed his “catching up.”

Between Shorter and Metheny came examples of the insightful programming that has made Skopje a respected festival. Charles Lloyd played Universal Hall with his New Quartet. Every Lloyd concert is a one-of-a-kind event. (As he says, “It’s a different night.”) In Skopje, his mood was profoundly contemplative and inner-directed. On one level a Lloyd concert is an immersion in a specific sound, one of the most mellifluous tenor saxophone tones ever invented, an emanation straight up from the soul. “The Blessing” and the half-century-old “Dream Weaver” were riveting in their quietness. Sometimes the liquid flowing can solidify into hard quick runs without warning, outbreaks of passion, like on “Passin’ Through.” But even then the spell is not broken.

The New Quartet is Lloyd’s best band ever. Every piano solo Jason Moran took was an inspired fresh response to his momentary musical environment. Reuben Rogers’ intricate bass lines always illuminated the emotional narrative. Eric Harland was an ongoing source of creative kinetic power on which the other three fed. The encore contained “Somewhere” and “Come Sunday,” both hushed and rapt.

Two nights later in the Macedonia Opera and Ballet, Vijay Iyer generated a much spikier, edgier energy. A piano has a different, piercing sound when he plays it. Even a ballad like “Abundance” is cut from steel. No Iyer concept, including that of abundance, is without ambiguity. Virtually all of the time-honored patterns and connecting tissue of the jazz piano tradition are absent from his work. His constellations of novel ideas create their own world, and his fingering is sure and hard and clean.

A project by Miroslav Vitous, “Remembering Weather Report,” was one of the surprises of the festival. Vitous was a charter member of Weather Report, and his new quintet revisited tunes like “Scarlet Woman” and “Seventh Arrow.” The ensemble was Vitous on a compact bass connected to electronics, Franco Ambrosetti on trumpet, Robert Bonisolo on soprano saxophone, Aydin Esen on keyboards, and Robert Gatto on drums. Esen’s Yamaha Motif XS7 and Korg Triton Studio and Vitous’ arco juiced bass set the context for the music, a churning sea of electronic sound. Bonisolo (an exciting player, as yet unknown) and Ambrosetti (one of the great unsung trumpet masters of jazz) cut through this thick mix, the former with penetrating thrust, the latter with poignant calls. This forward-looking band also played some old standards, but “Autumn Leaves” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and “Stella By Starlight” were reimagined, broken into fragments and scattered into new designs.

Nils Petter Molvær’s set was also surprising and also depended on the conflict between a haunting, mysterious trumpet (the leader’s) and an electronic soundscape (overseen by off-stage sound engineer Johnny Skalleberg). But Molvær’s electronic washes were orders of magnitude more intense and encompassing than those of Vitous. For this multi-media show, the band played in darkness, in front of a huge video screen (the work of Tord Knudsen) with vast evolving abstract designs and the players, shot by Knudsen’s thermal camera, in silhouette. It was all a singular sensory concert experience. The first 2/3 of the uninterrupted performance swept you up in its vast turmoil, but the last 1/3 began to drag as you got accustomed to the wall of sound and the flickering visual imagery, and wished for more development or at least more variation. Still, the soaring, shattering climax left you awed and spent. The brief encore was a complete departure, a quiet, stark Molvær trumpet etching, a perfect ending.

The boldest, freest, most radical set of the festival came from Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis. Their concert began with small intrusions on silence. Lewis, at his Mac laptop, generated soft murmurs, like the cries of distant birds carried by the wind. Occasionally, he lifted his trombone to emit a little squeak. Abrams finally joined with one barely audible piano chord. Mitchell offered a few isolated notes, on piccolo, then alto saxophone, then flute, then soprano saxophone. Patiently each player came to life. Abrams spilled; Lewis blustered; Mitchell trilled. Three dissimilar lines of thought were juxtaposed. Individually, they did stunning things. Abrams made a few quick gestures and an elegant free form emerged. Mitchell’s cries became stark, pure human lyricism. Together the three created a fourth entity, an unprecedented whole, that was gradually revealed. It was selfless music that felt its way like movements of being.

The most interesting opening act was Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions. The rhythm section (Alp Ersonmez, bass; Ediz Hafizoglu, drums; Izzet Kizil, percussion) created whirlwinds of complex metrical energy and tenor saxophonist Ersahin, with clarion melodies, rode ride down the middle of it all.

Among the midnight headbanger bands (Zu from Italy, The Ex from the Netherlands), the one with a concept was Fire!, from Sweden. Mats Gustafsson bent over his “live electronics” like a very mad scientist, twisting knobs, causing his machine to howl like hordes of the damned, to oscillate and drone and hum at deafening amplitude. Little loops recycled in numbing monotony, the bass (Johan Berthling) caught in one simple thundering figure, the drums (Andreas Werlin) randomly blasting. Then Gustafsson picked up his tenor saxophone and erupted in maniacal vertical skronk.

To go to a Fire! performance directly from a Charles Lloyd concert is a shock to one’s sense of self. That was the point. The experience was strangely liberating, purification through suffering before being granted release. Fire! are Dadaists. After their first “song” Gustafsson announced, “We are Fire! We have no fucking idea what we’re doing but we like it…sort of. We are trying to play slow but we don’t know how. We would now like to play the same piece for you again. Thank you.” Of course, what they played was a different piece…sort of.

There is a special sadness to the end of a jazz festival. Skopje was only five nights, but they were intense. On the last night, after Pat Metheny, many people lingered outside on the steps and lawn of Universal Hall. It was the only night without a midnight concert. Everyone in the milling crowd looked slightly lost. The music was over. They were not ready to go home.

Originally Published