ROUND-UP REVIEW: Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

Edward Perraud. Photo credit: Nada Zgank

Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016
(Ljubljana, Cankarjev Dom, June 29 – July 2. Review by Henning Bolte)

In his thoughtful round-up review of Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016, Henning Bolte takes a succession of themes: drums, fine arts, rising female stars…where the festival itself is in the course of its evolution…


New up and coming generations of musicians are rushing forward and taking over. This year’s edition of Ljubljana Jazz Festival – the oldest in Europe – had four musicians from older generations, namely Hamid Drake, Mark Helias, Ned Rothenberg and Günther ‘Baby’ Sommer, two drummers, a bassist and a reedist.


What stood out first in this year’s edition was a remarkably high amount of drummers/percussionists, 16 of them in 18 concerts. Also remarkable was the presence of many fine young female musicians. Five of them played a prominent role during the concerts: three pianists Eve Risser (France), Kaja Draksler (Slovenia/Netherlands), Hiromi (Japan), and saxophonist Anna Högberg (Sweden). Eve Risser and Kaja Draksler premiered a piano duo and both performed with a trio. Risser appeared with En-Corps, a longer existing French working band. Draksler met North American drummer Hamid Drake and clarinettist/ saxophonist Ned Rothenberg, also a world premiere. Draksler had already briefly collaborated with Drake a few months ago in Amsterdam (see review).

Malin Wättring, Anna Högberg, Elin Larsson
Photo credit: Henning Bolte

Anna Högberg Attack

Swedish saxophonist Anna Högberg presented her all female sextet Anna Högberg Attack comprising three horns, Elin Larsson, Malin Wättring and Högberg herself on saxophone, Lisa Ullén on piano, Elsa Bergman on double bass and Ann Lund on drums, a whirlwind of well-matched and strong young talent. To finish this list, Japanese pianist Hiromi had more mass appeal and was a big draw for the festival. The appearances of these musicians/groups definitely made a difference in a – still – male dominated territory. The difference was not only because of their mere presence, but mainly by their way of manifesting themselves and their appeal, their attitude and approach, their effect and impact. That the all-female group came from Sweden might not be a pure accident: the Swedish music organization has been addressing the gender balance issue for a long time now through programs and specific actions. Even a quota for subsidized Swedish venues was introduced.

Clusters of diversity

The festival’s 18 concerts covered a greater variety of the musical game called ‘jazz’. This variety can loosely be grouped in five clusters. Multidisciplinary Surnatural Orchestra from France (reviewed separately) is a special case. It is the only group that cuts through all except the Fusion cluster.

There was drummer Gard Nilssen’s fast forward driven Acoustic Unity spinning elements of bop, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman in a two horns (André Roligheten and Fredrik Ljunkvist) line-up. Anna Högberg Attack and Thomas de Pourquery’s Supersonic operated in that high-energy vein too See review.

With stark contrasts and massive loudness drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit beat that same track. Drummer Nasheet Waits’ Equality Quartet with bassist Mark Helias, altoist Darius Jones and young pianist Abel Marcel Calderon stood and stands for continued fresh and thrilling exploration on steady ground of and deep rootedness in Afro-American jazz tradition (from the south).

Then there were the three female pianists generating clearly different experiential qualities. The trio of Hiromi operated in a large-scale fusion mould, collating diverse stylistic elements on a speeded-up, rock-driven base. Igor Matković hit the same road fully shining with the soaring trumpet lines he infused into his highly present quintet.

Eve Risser (photo Henning Bolte)

The other pianists, French Eve Risser from Paris and Slovenian Kaja Draksler from Amsterdam could be found opposite these fusion salvos. From small(est) particles, gestures and motives her trio En-Corps with Benjamin Duboc and Edward Perraud playfully conjured up a highly suggestive magical world of sound. In a highly sensitive and responsive process the three musical personae of Kaja Draksler, Ned Rothenberg and Hamid Drake connected in their first meeting. By mutually carving their sparking off signatures into the air the threesome aroused vibrations of wondrous thriving textures and interlocking rhythms and voices.

Trio Draksler, Rothenberg, Drake. Photo credit: Nada Zgank 

It was looking forward then to the first meeting of both pianist in a duo performance. It was hard to predict what the four hands would do with 166 keys, what would happen, how it would work out. Risser and Draksler did both: they respected each other’s peculiarity and space and proceeding along a series of stark contrasts in temperament, temperature and attack they collaged each other’s snippets and contributions in attentive and clever ways. They emphasized it by a choreographic intervention. After the first two pieces they pointedly moved each other’s grand pianos close together before continuing.

Kaja Draksler and Eve Risser.

The resulting music was far distant from the original Afro-American jazz tradition. The jazz factor was the improvised character of the performance and the interweaving of both individual voices. Although the performance was not in concordance with the patterns of neither jazz nor classical music the audience warm-heartedly respected and welcomed the performance. It was a daring enterprise that proved to be another highlight of the festival.

Besides these three clusters of family resemblance two others manifested themselves at this year’s edition. One was the de-/reframing mode of the game represented by Polish pianist Marcin Masiecki and Portuguese electronics wizard Pedro Lopes. Marcin Masiecki is a highly versatile musician leaving his footprint in a variety of contexts, from experimental pop music to a classical festival of his own (running during the summer in Warsaw). He is a master of de-automatizing deeply ingrained conditioned patterns of behaviour in performing and listening to music (see review). He not only challenges the expectation patterns, the framing, tied to types of music. He has developed a way to bring those into slip by subtle means in his solo-recitals. He is juggling between de- and re-framing in a highly honest, humorous and serious way and is able to leave the audience in a state of astonished or even puzzled admiration. Masiecki’s moves are beyond the infinite different nuances of rendering van Beethoven’s scores. With him the audience will listen to its memories of van Beethoven and are enabled to recognize it during, in the listening itself. It frees and set free for new perceptions and ways of listening. Pedro Lopes is doing something comparable (the other way round) when working with his turntables, assorted electronic devices and physical percussive elements (see review). Het puts heterogeneity of musical sources in a new de-automatizing perspective in a sharp and highly entertaining way.

Hamid Drake. Photo credit: Henning Bolte

Solo concerts by Hamid Drake and Gunter ‘Beby’ Sommer

Last but not least there was the narrative mode most clearly brought into being the solo-concert of German drummer Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer and the solo-concert of Chicagoan drummer Hamid Drake (see radio portrait of Hamid Drake). Sommer’s recital touched upon the biographical significance of a number of influential drummers of the history of jazz, the shaping of his identity in life and in the performance (Baby Dodds, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Han Bennink, Paul Lovens). Hamid Drake performance was a rich intercultural journey into spiritual unity with a series of captivating momentum experiences. Both narratives had a strong and inevitable multicultural exchange dimension and traces of social struggle (of the past).


16 drummers for 18 concerts … and among those 16 drummers only one female drummer, namely Ann Lund of Anna Högberg Attack from Sweden. Lund played a rather important role in that group. Confident, driven by urgency and at the same time relaxed she fulfilled her role bravely and never overplayed. The way the other musicians in Högberg’s group played – more or less – can be traced back to their teachers and role models. It revealed that Lund with her own tight way of drumming has beaten her very own track. She is a distinctive and promising, up and coming voice.

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Ann Lund. Photo credit: Nada Zgank

The festival had two – very different – solo drum performances (Hamid Drake and Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer). Three drummers had their own group performing, namely Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity, Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit and Nasheet Waits’ Equality – some late repercussion of Art Blakey.

Three ensemble comprised two drummers: drummer Paal-Nilssen Love’s Large Unit had Andreas Wildhagen as second drummer, Surnatural Orchestra had Antonin Leymarie and Sylvain Lemetre on the percussive side of the orchestra and Slovenian guitarist Samo Šalamon’s sextet had Robert Dani and Christian Lillinger as drummers. Two drummers were figuring in two constellations: Edward Perraud in Eve Risser’s En-Corps and in Thomas de Pourquery’s Supersonic which meant acting in two different contexts, cope with quite different musical approaches. Perraud is an experienced musician who can accomplish that keeping his identity.

Some are in need of an abundance of drums and percussion devices some need little or less, some can bang on every can and others need an abundance of this and that (which is often not a musical necessity but a social one). Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer is a rare example of drummers/percussionists who lives, travels and performs with HIS skins and percussion devices. From Dresden in Saxony to Ljubljana in Slovenia was a relatively short distance by car compared to a lot of concert destination in the Deep South of Europe.

Myth and image construction/iconography

Jazz is a characteristically male dominated territory. Up to now it is clearly manifested in jazz photography. It established a strong guiding iconography to live by. It set and still sets the parameters for perception and description of jazz events and known figures, so called heroes. Like the electric guitar in rock music, the man with the horn, trumpet or saxophone, is the ultimate, central icon in jazz. There is a lot of myth and image construction still going on here. Historically there were also a lot of outstanding female musicians in jazz but they were/are less known than their male counterparts.

But for some time things are changing. There are no longer a few leading figureheads. Nowadays we have a diversified field with a lot of great players constructing their identity and image (themselves) in various ways. Also there are a lot of female trumpeters and saxophonists now, which makes the old image of the man with the horn waning. Most notable is the melt down of the image of the strong muscular baritone sax player. Nowadays there are slender young women who can blow on the ‘heavy’ baritone sax horizon wide and sky high.

The change is a slow, a non-linear process with a lot of disjunctions and contradictions. Due to a several factors it is still more difficult for female musicians to get into positions and get equal acknowledgement. But when they succeed they seem to be less inclined to occupy old positions or reproduce old patterns. As a matter of fact female musicians and composers introduced a lot of interesting musical innovations and extraordinary creativity in recent years.

What is even more remarkable in this context: Högberg’s group musically operates in the same territory as the most virile exponent of European free jazz, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. It is interesting to watch and experience how these young female musicians, Anna Högberg, Elin Larsson, Malin Wättring on saxophone, Lisa Ullén on piano, Elsa Bergman on double bass and Ann Lund on drums, have adopted this approach and give it a turn of their own. Elin Larsson turns into a wild beast of supernatural forces when blowing her horn. Same as two years ago when I saw her performing in Sweden she was again highly pregnant (see review). When watching and listening to Elsa Bergman it is immediately clear by which Norwegian bassist she has been inspired. It is a group of confident musicians, open-minded, serious and funny with a smile, who know very well what they are doing and who go for it full of joy. They are doing their won thing, tough with a certain kind of lightness. One of their pieces with an ostinato familiar to John Coltrane’s Chant Love Supreme appeared to be conceived the day before by Anna Högberg while spending time on the toilet. She sent it to her companions. They rehearsed it during the sound check and rendered it in a great uplifting way during the concert.


As in recent years Ljubljana Jazz Festival presented a rich and attractive context program with exhibitions, lectures, market and other audience related activities.

Lectures were held by Kevin LeGendre from London on the historical Carribean and South African influence in the London Jazz Scene, a lecture by Erling Aksdal from Trondheim on the jazz education and by Ičo Vidmar on the socio-economic dynamics and relocation mobility of New York jazz venues.

A recent album cover from Clean Feed

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Clean Feed Label from Lisbon/Parede and its 5-year partnership with the festival in Ljubljana an exhibition of the design of Clean Feed album covers was held. The first 100 were done by Rui Garrido, the subsequent 300 by Travassos (aka Jorge Trindade). The design is extremely divers but at the same time highly recognizable.

Fine artist Lena Czerniawskafrom Wroclaw, Poland, was invited by the festival to accompany the musical performances of the concerts by real time drawing like she did at several Melting Pot meetings of young European improvisers at Wroclaw’s New Forum of Music as part of the Jazztopad festival (see review).

Her work can best be described as visually designed reflection on the process of music making. It is conceived as a new bidirectional, interactive component. As such it differs from the usual picturing illustration of musicians. It is an accompanying activity in a different medium performed in real time together with the proceeding of the music. It reflects the fine artist’s perception of the music going on and its ‘translation’ in lines, dots, textures, shapes etc.. The perceptions have to be translated into a readable form. Like in improvised music the fine artists has to take decision how to focus, how to condense and how to give it shape (quickly). The work has a twofold character. It is visual reflection of a concrete musical performance process and it is an independent piece of visual art (see my article on the ‘musical work’ of fine artist Rita Draper Frazão).

Drawing of Günther ‘Baby’ Sommerby Rita Draper Frazão

Outcomes of the creative processes and the processes themselves can provide valuable insights into both sides of collaboration and also function as a fruitful, inspiring trigger in the discourse of the audience about the music they have experienced. Through dialogue, the perceptions of all three parties, musicians, fine artists and audience can be sharpened. Last but not least it can lead to new ideas, forms and ways of communication/collaboration. It is worthwhile to really develop this last aspect beyond just putting the drawings on a exposition panel or wall. It should more be a starting point for collaborative activities (more in a forthcoming article). When we are running out of words we can move on to draw. Together viewing the drawings then can bring us back to exchange with words and elevate this.

Zaključek (conclusion)

The Ljubljana Jazz Festival has not yet reached its full potential – it is still evolving what it does, and strongly. It picks up relevant developments at the cutting edge in the field and engages in beating new tracks. In that sense it is not simply ‘buying’ and programming parts of the traveling summer festival circus. On the contrary it shares “ownership” of interesting developments in the field with participating groups and individual musicians. In the course of this the (artistic) directors clearly guard diversity of the program as a key factor. Of special importance for the festival was its focus on two highly promising young pianists in truly challenging encounters as an alternative to the artist in residence concept.

Of high importance was the programming of Surnatural Orchestra from France, which opened the festival to more/new ears, hearts and souls. Hopefully the programmers will find troupes/artists of the same calibre who can carry on on this path. With its Ljubljana – Lisbon axis now in its 5th year it is truly European and a shining example of enriching collaboration. As an important landmark

Ljubljana will host the European Jazz Conference in September 2017

 Photo credits Henning Bolte and official photographers working for the Ljubljana Jazz Festival (Domen Pal, Nada Zgank)

Categories: miscellaneous

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