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The Leopolis Jazz Fest: Back in the (Ex)-U.S.S.R.

Live, in-person jazz returns to the Ukrainian city of Lviv

Kamasi Washington at the 2021 Leopolis Jazz Fest
Kamasi Washington at the 2021 Leopolis Jazz Fest (photo: Danyil Tiurin)

This writer has always disliked first-person criticism. Readers don’t care about a writer’s subjective experience of art. The Leopolis Jazz Fest, however, has put me in a singular position—one that even I can’t generalize.

The past 15 months of watching concerts on Zoom would likely have rendered any live, in-person festival terra incerta. I want to acknowledge that before I state for the record that the 2021 Leopolis Jazz Fest—held in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, whose historical Latin name is Leopolis—was both my first jazz festival since the COVID-19 pandemic and the strangest I have ever encountered.

On the one hand, the programming was superlative. Artistic director Alexei Kogan, recognized as Ukraine’s nonpareil jazz authority, takes great pains to bring international talents to an international setting. (The only major ex-Soviet city that never belonged to the old Russian Empire, Lviv was instead a cultural crossroads, its landscape studded with Polish and Habsburg-Austrian architecture, among others.) This year it included Americans Kamasi Washington and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Scandinavians Kathrine Windfield (Denmark) and Jan Lundgren (Sweden), and Israelis Itamar Borochov and Avishai Cohen (the bassist, not the trumpeter), as well as British superstar Seal—headlining on the basis of his 2017 album Standards.

On the other hand, despite no expense being spared in pursuing quality, music was decidedly the festival’s secondary concern.

The Leopolis Jazz Fest was founded in 2011 by Mikhail Fridman, a billionaire Russian oligarch and Lviv native. A controversial figure who also founded Alfa-Bank, he is regarded in some quarters as a crony of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Arts festivals have long been a favorite philanthropic effort for wealthy men looking to keep their reputations above water.

That aside, this festival prioritizes its annual attraction of Ukraine’s and Europe’s politicos, diplomats, and foreign-relations experts. (President Volodymyr Zelensky had planned to come this year before other business waylaid him.)

For example: I was in a cohort of about 10 international journalists and policy wonks. There was a second cohort made of Ukrainian journalists. I was the only jazz journalist in either group.

The others attended policy briefings and meetings with elected officials. I went to master classes led by Washington and Marsalis, and checked out lesser known, more adventurous concerts on the festival’s secondary stage in Lviv’s central square. (France’s jazz-meets-electronica quartet OZMA was a high watermark.)

The main stage, where the principal acts performed each evening, was in the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Park of Culture and Rest near the city center. These were the concerts that all my colleagues attended with me. Oddly, though, the context—an English foreign-policy consultant with whom I palled around told me candidly that he didn’t know what good jazz was aiming for—meant that these certified intellectuals crowned me their arbiter of wheat and chaff. In other words, I was the one to decide whether they must see the show or could safely stay in the VIP tent chatting about trade deals and Brexit fallout.

Well, I’m pleased to report that the music was as good as its programming promised.

Borochov, the Israeli trumpeter whose quartet opened the main stage’s first night, played an atmospheric and moving set that betrayed a deep Middle Eastern influence, at times making his usually Miles-ian horn sound uncannily like a flute. Following him was Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa and his trio: less moody, but fuller of rhythmic intensity (and joy). Cohen’s trio performance showcased not only his second-to-none skills on the bass, but also his overlooked prowess as a composer.

Ukrainian artist Pianoboy could be baffling in his mashup of classic jazz and Ukrainian pop; one didn’t have to like his overlaying of an original tune with Miles Davis’ “Milestones” to be impressed by his ingenuity, however. Even the main stage’s least exciting act, Swedish pianist Lundgren (who fused European folk songs with jazz improvisation), could occasionally electrify, as when he souped up the theme from the 1969 film Pippi Longstocking.

The first half of Seal’s set—his standards—was less than thrilling. The pop sensation had enough ear and professionalism to grasp the meanings, rhythms, and phrasings of “Luck Be a Lady” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” but not the spontaneity. Not a single unrehearsed moment occurred. Yet he took the assembled glitterati by storm, especially the hordes of beautiful and expensively dressed young women (either models, power-broker trophies, or both). Between songs, Seal made a speech in questionable taste, about how we might view the recent pandemic as a blessing. Those who have read JazzTimes’ landslide of obituaries since last March might disagree. Still, it was hard to hold a grudge after he broke out his major hits, beginning with an acoustic guitar take on “Kiss from a Rose” and ending with his breakthrough smash “Crazy.”

Marsalis and the orchestra were dependably solid, jazz purism writ large and proficient. Kamasi Washington, however, was the highlight of the festival. Stripped down to an eight-piece band from his usual multitudes, he nonetheless built his trademark adrenaline-fueled wall of sound, riling up the crowd with powerhouse performances of “Fists of Fury,” “Announcement,” and the new “Sunkissed Child,” dedicated to his newborn baby. As the set was closing and the house was screaming, the English consultant said, “Now I think I get it.”

I hope some of this music reached other members of a festival audience that was little primed for great jazz.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.