|Gyan Riley and Julian Lage with John Zorn
Photo credit: © Armin Smailovic
Sarajevo Jazz Festival
(31 October to 2 November 2017. Days 1 to 3. Festival Round-Up Part One by Tony Dudley-Evans)
The Sarajevo Jazz Festival, with concerts each evening, is dominated by a clear philosophy. Rather than mixing the ‘big names’ on tour with up-and-coming artists, the festival’s focus is on building a coherent programme of challenging music.
Photo credit: © Armin Smailovic
The first three days have been devoted to John Zorn. He curated a programme entitled Music and Magic. It featured improvisations, compositions, film scores all played by many of Zorn’s musical associates in New York. It was introduced in very genial fashion by Zorn who didn’t actually play that much, but sat at the side of the stage clearly enjoying hearing his music being played expertly by the various groups.
DAY ONE – Tuesday 31 Oct
Zorn did, in fact, play quite a bit on the opening night, the Improv Night. The night consisted of a series of nine improvisations by duos, trios and quartets each lasting five or six minutes. The final improvisation was by all eleven players. The format made for a lot of variety and a lot of fun. Particular memories are of Zorn’s powerful solos on alto sax which alternated between screams and longish, almost boppish lines; then of John Medeski‘s whirling sounds on the Hammond organ combining with Ikue Mori‘s more high pitched laptop electronic sounds. This worked very effectively as a backing for Zorn’s alto solos.
It was fascinating to observe how the different groups built a coherent statement in their short improvisation and how each managed to conclude meaningfully and often quite wittily. The concluding move was often down to an individual, for example, the drummer playing a loud burst on the cymbals, or from Zorn a long note on the saxophone. I particularly enjoyed a dialogue between piano and guitar where the conversational flow came to a natural end without the need for a signal.
DAY TWO – Wednesday 2 Nov
Day two was largely devoted to Zorn’s compositions for various chamber groups and film scores. There was, however, also some very interesting improv; a trio set of alto sax (Zorn), bass and drums accompanying a very dark, both in colour and mood, series of images. The highlight of the day for me, however, was the set entitled simply Music with Rhythm Section. This again involved a series of relatively short pieces in which a lead player followed a score with the rhythm section improvising around the structured playing of that lead instrument.
We had two passages with Steve Gosling on piano, one with Alex Lipowski on vibes and one with Jay Campbell on cello. These players followed their written score while the bass player, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski, improvised in reaction to the score. They follow the score and react to it, so in a sense theirs is a structured improvisation and this allows the music to stop occasionally and move off in a different direction. It is thus different between structure and freedom in a band such as Tim Berne’s Snakeoil where this movement is organic and happens naturally as a passage develops. With Music with Rhythm Section the gear shifts are often clear and structured which allows a very pleasing variety.
I should add that the brilliantly dynamic playing of drummer Grohowski and bass player Blumenkranz made a major contribution to the excitement of this set.
DAY THREE – Thursday 2 Nov
The third and final night featured a wide range of groups for whom Zorn has composed. They ranged from Erik Friedlander on solo cello playing Masada, a guitar duo of Julian Lage and Gyan Riley, a six member vocal group performing madrigals written by Zorn (incidentally the only women in the Music and Magic programme), a solo pianist playing from the Bagatelles book, a contemporary jazz quartet and a hardcore Hammond organ trio.
The range of music on dispaly was truly amazing. Zorn has the ability to absorb a musical genre, to grasp fully its structure and conventions and at the same time to subvert those conventions. For me, the most striking of the five sets was the Madrigals set. It was not necessarily the set I enjoyed the most, but here was a set of music quite different from any of the others in the programme that seemed to work well within its own terms and conventions yet at the same time was recognisably a Zorn piece.
I really enjoyed the guitar duo of Lage and Riley playing material from the Midsummer Moons album on Tzadik; beautiful through composed pieces. I also enjoyed Brian Marsella‘s Bagatelles. These are series of around 300 short pieces by Zorn designed to set up improvisation. Marsella played about eight of these; interestingly, the format was very much a jazz format, statement of tune, solo, repeat of tune, but the language of the improvisation was different from jazz language, often building up into a manic series of lines. My only problem with the set was that these lines sometimes lacked coherence.
Nova Express impressed through the interaction between the members of the quartet, John Medeski on piano, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Trevor Dunn on bass and Joey Baron on drums. Wollesen’s first instrument is the drums and he has a very percussive approach to the vibes that fitted well with Baron’s drumming.
Simulacrum is probably the loudest organ trio one will ever hear! Its pieces are often short intense bursts of sound reminiscent of Naked City and I found the set lost momentum through its stop and start format.