Jean John – The Port of Life
ZKP RTV Ljubljana – RTVS 114441. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
Slovenia to New York… a personal narrative of immigration and acculturation. Drummer, composer and bandleader Jean John’s ambitious work The Port of Life – dedicated to all the immigrants of this world – fulfils his belief that music should always tell a story and create an experience.
Born Žan Tetičkovič, in Ptuj in Slovenia, Jean John relocated to the United States in 2010 to further his artistic ambitions, and desired to communicate “the whirl of emotions in trying to find and establish the existence in a new culture”. He was inspired by numerous visits to Ellis Island (famously New York Harbour’s largest immigration station, between 1892 and 1954), and the information he garnered there, specifically relating to his Slovenian ancestry, enabled him to assimilate both the emotional response and compositional direction for his first studio recording. Seeing the island as “an ultimate landing point with no return, a place where new life and dreams could either come true or forever vanish”, the project title became obvious.
The composer selected several musicians, including sparkling pianist Marko Črnčec (Churnchetz) and dextrous London-based vocalist Alba Nacinovich, plus the Janus Atelier String Quartet, to realise this expansive production which is inspired by the worlds of jazz and classical music. At its heart is the six-part, 65-minute Acculturation Suite, segued by mainly solo instrumentals; and importantly, John bookends this with the hustling rhythmicality of Dusk and warm reassurance of Dawn – pieces which, he explains, contrastingly reflect the multiculturalism of big cities and the perfection/singularity of nature and his homeland.
Port of Life’s textural richness is arresting – from John’s heavy Farewell to his parents, where animated strings-and-horn arrangements evolve to convey a passage of both apprehension and forward-looking fervour, to Euphoria which ripples with syncopated jazz excitement, characterised by Tomaž Gajšt’s trumpet and flugelhorn improvisations, and ornamented with Žiga Murko’s electronics. The individual Transitions (including an audio excerpt of typically sound reasoning and empathy – on immigration – from former US President, Barack Obama) offer a change of dynamic from the busyness of the work’s main movements, with dispirited Collapse – defined as “a stage in which all my hopes and dreams break down” – suggested by the heightening intensity of the full ensemble and Alba Nacinovich’s shrill wordless vocals.
Amongst the lively and full arrangements are (unsurprisingly, given the subject) moments of self-doubt and longing. Alienation, in particular, portrays a melancholy beauty through ruminative piano figures and shared violin-and-vocal expressions, but then snaps into a tenacious determination to succeed through vibrant, purposeful orchestration (John rarely showcases himself at the kit, though is clearly a driving force). Adjustment finds the writer integrating himself into big-city life, the bass-and-piano-riffed, unison-disco-strings groove creating great spotlights for tenor saxophonist Lenart Krečič and electric guitarist Jani Moder; whilst twelve-minute A New Beginning dusts off any remnants of uncertainty through varietal instrumental episodes which convey arrival and acceptance, concluded by John’s percussive climax to his emotive, well-crafted soundtrack.
Created over a period of six years and sumptuously packaged – its large hardback covers designed by Marko Damiš revealing supporting, descriptive pages of poetry and original photography by Andrej Lamut – The Port of Life feels very special. One full listen, and then numerous repeat visits, confirm that it truly is.
The official US album release concert is on 16th June 2017 at the National Sawdust venue, Brooklyn, New York.
Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, musician and jazz writer who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com