ROUND-UP REPORT – Skopje Jazz Festival 2016

Skopje Jazz Festival 2016
(Skopje, National Theatre, October 13-16. Report and photos by Henning Bolte)

Skopje/Скопје with its more than a half million inhabitants is the capital of the post-Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia bordered by Albania to the west, Kosovo to the northwest, Serbia to the north, Bulgaria to the east and Greece to the south.

Skopje Jazz Festival as well as its world music counterpart Offest held in spring are festivals with programming of great reputation and international status. To a high degree this is a merit of the pioneering and persevering force Oliver Belopeta, who directs both festivals and is the beacon of stability who has been running the festival as a private enterprise for more than three decades. Even more than other festivals in Europe, he has had to cope with severe cuts in funding from the state, the Republic of Macedonia. The festival also could not rely on its long time home venue(s) (Macedonian Opera+Ballet; Universal Hall) the reconstruction and refurbishment of which was not finished in time. As alternative the festival had to move to the neo-baroque style National Theatre of the Republic of Macedonia situated between The Old Bazaar and the modernistic city centre at Vardar River and to the nearby MKC Dancing Hall/City Hall Center for the night concerts. This placed significant pressure on this year’s edition, and yet the organization succeeded in presenting an attractive programme which not only sold well, but also had a diversity of emotion-laden and thought provoking contrasts, and faithfully reflected current international trends.

Quick summary: much to enjoy

There was the abundant and lush lyricism Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder and the subtle Jobim tribute of acoustic guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria sandwiched by the roots driven music of wildly rhythmical Franco-Serbian pianist Bojan Z, the pure and elegant North-American rediscovery sounds of Julian Lage Trio and the swirling domestic lines of Macedonian Goce Stevkovski 7tet featuring Dzijan Emin as one slice and the dynamic turbulences of Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break plus the wild ride of The Thing as the other slice. The dish was finalized by Pulverize The Sound’s harsh abstractness executed by trumpeter Peter Evans, electric bass beast Tim Dahl and genre defying percussionist/ drummer Shayna Dunkelman and the concluding melodramatic, grandioso Sun Ra inspired sweep of Thomas de Pourquery’s Supersonic. All was cream covered in between by the sweet and embracing pop of (still) young British soul singer Joss Stone.

First part, first night

Serbian-born French pianist Bojan Zulfikarpasic /zoolfee-karpa-tjeech/ opened the festival aptly based on with an always rhythmically strong solo set fuelled by his Balkan roots with lots of oxygen for the dancing flames firing the dark clouds above Europe. His performance was a productive elaboration of the contrasts, tensions and even clashes of the diversity of sources feeding ‘jazz in Europe’, the currently strong and darkening tendencies to close oneself up to a conjured threatening exterior included. His reference to he pioneering multicultural spirit of Don Cherry was significant and validly in place here. Vividly (non-Pavlov) he went into the current mind-set and moods. Also his concluding rewind and reworking of Ellingtonia revealed as a strong invigorating musical statement.

Julian Lage and Kenny Wollesen. With Scott Colley – partially hidden. 

The second concert of the opening night, a pre-premiere of the upcoming first European tour of trio of guitarist Julian Lage with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, seemed to be just the opposite. Lush just by its stripped down, purified form, it enchanted  right from the beginning. Was it music nostalgia, an unworldly attempt to revive the roots and core of popular North-American music? The honest playfulness, the subtle humour and sheer joy of the trio’s music made it an unequivocal statement of strong political significance in the current situation. With his deeply brimming beats Scott Colley gave wings to Lage’s strings, Kenny Wollesen powdered the skins and cymbals with his blue Japanese brushes, and Lage manifested himself as another new master of a delicate far reaching stroke on the electric guitar (Saitenstreichler). Great dynamics and wonderful understatement made it an exhilarating affair.

First part, second night

For Vinicius Cantuaria, one of the most profiled New York Downtown Brazilian voices, it was the third time performing at the Skopje Festivals. Earlier he had previously performed there with Marc Ribot and with João Bosco. The audience loved his loose, reduced and concentrated renditions of the notorious Jobim songs augmented by one playful and alluding Brazilian piece by John Zorn. It was an airy, in the best sense easy upbeat to the Polish Swedish combination following: Marcin Wasilewski and his long time trio fellows Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Miskiewicz augmented by tenorist Joakim Milder.

Piano trios cross through heterogeneous song material melting it into a new, flowing unity, and make the song(s) cling, sing and swing. The Polish trio unit is a longstanding affair – the three musicians have been working together from their teens – operating on an extraordinarily high level of skill and mutual understanding. It is not a question IF it will shine and entice but HOW its music will unfold, surge and burn!

Wasilewski’s sounds did completely forget that they came from touching keys. Full of suppleness the delicate waves sparked the light in the sound space. Michal Miskiewicz carved the sound lines with his percussion, let the air swell and ebb beneath the luminous sky. Slawomir Kurkiewicz was literally the dark whirring round middle. Joakim Milder, the experienced Swedish sax-man, has a lovely curving blue-grey sound – a sound dry and slightly muted yet of unadulterated lyrical tone (somewhere in between Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd). His addition to this strong unit revealed as ultimately striking. The four musicians music turned into a brilliant, exhilarating feast of sound. These musicians “sit” such deep in the music that the music often enough indeed “played itself”. It touched the sky and moved the rocks.

Second part

The second half of the festival presented music of a different character with a different approach in the field of jazz. The main difference lies in the way of dealing with sound, rhythm, melody and improvisation. It goes up especially for Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break from Chicago/Amsterdam, the Scandinavian trio The Thing and the trio Pulverize The Sound from New York – all three differing from the rest and considerably also from each other!

Made To Break, comprising Ken Vandermark (reeds), Jasper Stadhouders (el. Bass guitar), Christof Kurzman (electronics) and Tim Daisy (drums) has a dualistic extended approach comprising basic funk-/rock elements and superimposed layers of complex pre-structured and freely improvised elements that are switched to each other in a variably modular way. It turned out as an abrasive, driving variant of music. The group played amazingly tricky stuff above a relatively simple and hard repetitious beat. That provided some continuity but also generated monotony. At times it was altered by speeding up the tempo, increasing volume and old school soloing, which as a contrasting effect caused more tension and relief, made it more lively, more substantial opening up (still greater) potentials of the shifting parts.

Pulverize The Sound is a different thing. It is transgressing to the edges of instrument’s sounds in a speeding up, grinding down way yet always highly calculated, structured and virtuosic – a living contradictio in adjecto! The “pulverizing” in the group’s name refers to the process of crushing and beating to very small particles and also indicates a driving intention of grinding something into powder or dust. It is questionable if this result is achieved in the music or even CAN be achieved with (musical) sound. It should be considered as a metaphor for a rigorous approach, a procedure among others of extending, undermining, enhancing, pumping up etc. sound. It turned out that as a result sounds didn’t fall to mere dust but the playing of the trio opened up new dimensions to elaborate on (for the musicians). For listeners it meant to surrender to the sound clashes and discern kinds of order in it to hold on, fostered by the dense and intense playing of the group. Peter Evans has been doing that kind of approach on trumpet for years now in different combinations from solo to large ensemble thereby tapping into new territories for that instrument. Electric bass-guitarist Tim Dahl is a sturdy player with a massive violent attack. Whereas electric bass-guitarist Jasper Stadhouders of Make To Break is combining the rough grip with the bouncing trip, Tim Dahl is always and principally searching for and in the realm of the toughest and most tearing sound possible. Shayna Dunkelman appeared to be the most modest member of the trio witness to her carrying and accentuating percussionist approach.

Thomas de Pourquery Supersonic finally was something in between all acts of the festival in with its yelling, noodling and yodelling keyboard, emphatic vocals and horn choruses making the blitz. The company chased through a diversity of historical styles melding it into an appealing musical amalgam of operatic dimensions as a grooving, colourful escapist finale to the festival.

The Thing

High point of the second half of the festival chiefly because of the extraordinary dynamics was The Thing concluding an extended tour in Skopje. The Thing is a rather raucous affair unfolding a different kind of dynamics out of the group’s movements. It merges an expansion of Aylerisms and Blue Cheer’s hit(ter) “Summertime Blues” and some secret/mysterious Viking virtues. The threesome Paal Nilssen-Love (PNL), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (IF) and Mats-olof Gustafsson (MoG) acting in optima forma, crossed a plethora of temperatures, tempos and volumes, from shrieking to whisper mode, consistently and highly dynamical emerging from one another, including a ferocious and colourful rendition of its famous piece “Viking Disco”. At one moment you could imagine a sunken Viking ship elevating from the bottom of the Mississippi riverbed and some moments further you could imagine a bunch of berserks attacking a flock of buffaloes on the prairie to be ravaged subsequently by the furious beasts. PNL employed a rich palette of percussion with woodblocks and pandeiro, the Brazilian tambourin. There were lots of nuance, pressing energy, amazing dynamics and fabulous ways of orchestrating themselves out of the moment – being sharply on the crest of the wave, in the bottom of the downturn or in the flight of transition. All extremes were extremely in place, the impact of the whole being satisfyingly greater than sum of the parts.


Ten well chosen, well sequenced and well attended concerts in a big theatre hall in 4 days provided a rich, stimulating experience on the basis of a pretty up-to-date programming full of challenging contrasts – despite considerable handicaps to cope with is a respectful achievement still securing a remarkable place in the European landscape of festivals and keep Macedonian audiences connected to virulent and relevant developments in the field. Special mention deserves the as ever exceptional (care for) design including poster and program book – this time in hands of the Sito team from Ljubljana and Ivan Durgutovski from Skopje, lighting and sound at the venue and the photography as ever in hands of the amazing eyes of Žigan Koritnik from Slovenia.

Sunset at Kale Fortress, Skopje

Living with the magic October light of Skopje and its surrounding mountains and learning the very own logics of this city’s life, its flow, its navigation, its paradoxes, its sounds and air is a startling, thrilling and reassuring experience. It was the intense context in a great landscape with rich ancient traces.

Categories: miscellaneous

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