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ROUND-UP: 2018 Ljubljana Jazz Festival

A highlight of the 2018 Ljubljana Jazz Festival:
Pianist Tine Grgurevič aka Bowrain
Photo credit : Nada Zgank

Ljubljana Jazz Festival
(27 to 30 June 2018. Festival Round-Up by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Ljubljana Jazz Festival won the 2018 Europe Jazz Festival Award for Adventurous Programming, and the award was presented at a short ceremony led by EJN President Ros Rigby and Network Manager Giambattista Tofoni. The award was for the 2017 programme, which was curated by Festival Director Bogdan Benigar and fellow Artistic Director, Pedro Costa, from Portugal and Clean Feed Records.

Interestingly, this year’s programme, which was curated by Bogdan with Edin Zubčević from the Sarajevo Jazz Festival, made a number of significant changes to the shape of the programme. The first was to shift the focus from indoor venues to an outdoor stage, and the second was to increase the proportion of Slovenian players within the overall programme.

The outdoor programme worked well in the garden just outside Cankarjev Dom, the main concert venue, and drew good crowds with lots of young people. The garden itself is very beautiful with splendid large trees that create an atmosphere in themselves and it was wonderful to sit in the open air listening to music in the bright sun and later in that special light and atmosphere created by the setting sun.

The outdoor programme concentrated on Slovenian artists, though not exclusively. The highlights were the three piano trios, December Soul, Rok Zalokar’s Port Songs and Bowrain. Bowrain were particularly interesting with its use of electronics to create a relaxed vibe in the dying light. This trio, like so many of the bands on the outdoor stage, mixed Slovenian players with players from other European countries, notably Italy and Germany, so its pianist/leader Bowrain and the guitarist Mario Babojelić are Slovenian while the drummer Robert Nitschke is German. December Soul (Italian/Slovenian) are a good example of the subtlety of contemporary piano trios in jazz; I thoroughly enjoyed their set, but a friend told me that he would have preferred to hear it in an indoor venue.

There is, in fact, an impressive policy of placing some more challenging bands on the outdoor stage.  Lore, a quartet with musicians from France and Italy as well as Slovenia, played a set that moved between free playing with delicate folk melodies that evoked the countryside with occasional bird song references. This contrasted with more extrovert bands, such as the Slovenian led Aleš Rendla Sextet and MTF featuring Sub-Lime, the second of which had a flamenco dancer performing with a rapper.

A group in the Abeceda programme
performing in the Cankarjev Dom gardens
Photo credit: Nada Zgank

Between sets on the outdoor stage there were in the garden a number of very spirited short performances by small groups of young players as part of a programme called Abeceda (ABCD). This culminated in a performance by the whole group, over 25 in number, on the last morning. They provided a set of organic improvisations with a relaxed approach that included the throwing of frisbees and a ball that went down well with a crowd that included gamboling children.

Two of the performances scheduled for the outdoor stage had to be moved indoors as a result of flight delays and a potential rainstorm. I would have loved to hear Hermia Ceccaldi Darrifourcq (France and Belgium) and the Finnish/Swedish Elifantree on the outdoor stage in order to gauge the reaction to these more adventurous groups. Both nonetheless gave strong performances indoors.

Of the other international acts, the Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain Chris Potter Trio in the main indoor venue were most impressive with wonderful conversational interaction between all three, but especially between Hussain and Holland. Rohey, from Norway, played on the outdoor stage and captivated a large audience with their mix of jazz and soul. Dhafer Youssef, however, disappointed in the indoor venue; there were some stunning oud solos and vocals from Dhafer, but too often the music went into a repetitive jam. There was, however, some fine playing from the Azerbaijani pianist whose name I couldn’t catch.

Portico Quartet played a very enjoyable late night set that showed they have moved back towards their original style with the use of the hang drum. The music works through the contrast to the ambient sounds of the saxophone, the keys, the hang drum and the bass provided by Duncan Bellamy‘s forceful drumming with its influences from drum and bass and hip hop.

The link with Portugal through Pedro Costa brought the 15-piece L.U.M.E band to the festival. Its music, all composed by its pianist-leader Marco Barroso, is full of energy and joy plus great solos, and moves between a big band approach and what we might call a jazz orchestra approach with intricate arrangements.

The festival finished with a very strong double bill upstairs in the CD Club. Shake Stew, from Austria, arrived on the back of a six festival tour of Canada and looked exhausted. But their set was the perfect example of all that is good in contemporary European jazz, great material, great solos and an interesting line up with two drummers and two basses, both moving between double and electric bass. Vasco Atanasovski’s Melem, plus guest Bojan Z, long based in France, but originally from Serbia, rounded off the evening with a set that combined jazz with traditional Balkan musc.

Two final points: Dr. Francesco Martinelli gave a fascinating talk on the influence of Islam and the Arabic language on early US blues and jazz, and I was sad to miss the opening act, the Slovenian Drumming Cellist, as a result of a flight delay.

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