Live reviews

REPORT: 34th Belgrade Jazz Festival, Serbia

Youn Sun Nah at the Belgrade Jazz Festival
Photo: © John Watson/
34th Belgrade Jazz Festival, Serbia
(Various venues, 25-29 October 2018. Review and photos by John Watson)

“I am a good potato – buy me!” That, said singer Irina Karamarkovic, is in effect what a young jazz musician is saying to the world when it comes to the tricky business of marketing their work.

The exciting Serbian-Austrian vocalist was speaking during a panel discussion on developing emerging talent, explaining how a young artist has to present herself to a jazz market already saturated with outstanding musicians.

There are certainly very good “new potatoes” among Serbia’s emerging jazz community, including Irina,and I’ll return to them.

But the Belgrade Jazz Festival also presents a well-balanced programme packed with well-established hot potatoes from the international scene. In this 34th festival in the Serbian capital, stars featured in an extraordinarily strong programme included Korean singer Youn Sun Nah, Cuban jazz veteran Chucho Valdes, American saxophonist Ben Wendell’s Seasons Band, Australian trio The Necks, U.S. guitarist Marc Ribot, legendary U.S. big band trumpeter Bobby Shew, German pianist Julia Hulsmann’s Octet, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava’s Quintet featuring American saxophone master Joe Lovano, and singer Kurt Elling with his band.

Youn Sun’s technically awesome and immensely expressive singing has long been one of my favourite features on the international scene, and her concert at the city’s large Kombank Dvorana venue was both exciting and powerfully moving. Singing selections from her latest ACT album, She Moves On, and from earlier recordings, Youn Sun’s range in both technique and emotion was extraordinary. Her dark, almost menacing version the folk song A Sailor’s Life was simply unforgettable.

She was followed at Kombank by Valdes and his Cuban Jazz Bata band. Although the show started rather slowly, with Valdes curiously passive at the keyboard, vocals from his band and powerful percussion quickly livened up the proceedings. They brought the house down with a spectacular dance routine, climaxing with the percussion instruments being thrown in the air and caught.

Enrico Rava with special guest Joe Lovano
Photo: © John Watson/
Most concerts in the festival take place at the Dom Omladine centre, which has a smaller theatre and a late-night club called Amerikana upstairs. The festival had opened with Ribot as the star guest in a new project with Serbian punk-influenced band Fish In Oil  – vibrant and excellently integrated. The Ben Wendell Seasons Band followed with a powerful, elequent set of original pieces by the saxophonist, but afterwards a set by Canada’s The Jensen Sisters (trumpeter Ingrid and saxophonist Christine), seemed rather anaemic. Ingrid, in particular, is a fine soloist, but the choice of mainly medium-slow tempos plodded rather heavily. By contrast, the LAN Trio, with UK saxophonist Julian Argüelles, Portuguese pianist Mario Laghina and Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken created gorgeous, vibrant sounds into the early hours.

Bobby Shew soloing with the Big Band RTS
Photo: © John Watson/
Israeli basist Omer Avital’s group Qantar opened in dynamic style, with a superb Middle-eastern inflection to their work, and The Necks created powerfully atmospheric sounds with their hypnotic patterns on piano, bass and drums. Julia Hulsmann brought a superb collection of singers and string players in her all-female octet, while the great trumpeter Bobby Shew created musical fireworks with the Big Band RTS, the Serbian national broadcaster’s excellent orchestra.

Kurt Elling was, as always, suave and entertaining and his UK pianist Jim Watson played some magnificent solos, but a major festival highlight in the same Kombank venue was another high spot: Joe Lovano as guest with Enrico Rava’s Quintet. A version of My Funny Valentine, with Rava leading, was magnificent.

The festival closed with a very worthwhile programme of young Serbian artists: Irina Karamarkovic, bass guitarist Uros Spasojevic, and the driving Ugljesa Novakovic Quintet. Karamarkovic was absolutely outstanding in earthy, passionate versions of her electrifying project Songs From Kosovo. A very hot new potato indeed.
Irina Karamarkovic – electrifying
Photo: © John Watson/

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