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ROUND-UP REVIEW: 21st Pancevo Jazz Festival, Serbia

Cecile McLorin Salvant with drummer Jeff Hamilton, bassist John Clayton
and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Photo credit and copyright John Watson/

21st Pancevo Jazz Festival, Serbia
(Pancevo, Serbia, 1-4 November 2018. Review and photos by John Watson)

Monsters are in town! The great singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, appearing with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, was asked: “What is it like to be working with such monster musicians?” Big band co-leader and bass master John Clayton immediately cracked her up by making a monster face and clawing gestures with his hands.

Along with drummer Jeff Hamilton, they were taking part in a question-and-answer session before their concert at the 21st Pancevo Jazz Festival. The small town of around 60,000 residents, just north of the capital Belgrade, punches way above its weight when it comes to presenting magnificent international artists at the Culture Centre, a medium-sized theatre and exhibition space. Salvant and the big band were another sell-out triumph for the festival, with many fans happy to pay to stand and watch the show. It was indeed a superb performance, including a smooth version of The Beatles’ And I Love Him, a touching interpretation of the ballad Where Is Love from the musical Oliver!, and a fabulously raunchy rendition of a Jelly Roll Morton rarity, I Hate A Man Like You. Marvellous, too, to hear the great tenor player Rickey Woodard in the big band, especially his blistering duet with veteran fellow tenorist Charles Owens.

There were plenty of other monster musicians in the festival, some internationally-known, some rising stars, and some superb players from Serbia itself. The festival opened with Austrian trio Café Drechsler, led by tenor saxophonist Ulrich Drechsler, with bassist Oliver Steger and drummer Alex Deutsch. The group creates simple, but very effective, funky themes – all freely improvised. Imagine dancing to free improvisation? With this group, it would be possible. Then came a real highlight: Italian trio Petrella, Mirra and Rabia, with the astonishing virtuoso trombonist Gianluca Petrella, vibraphonist Pascale Mirra and percussionist Michele Rabbia, creating intense, passionate and beautifully integrated pieces.

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa with Rez Abassi and Dan Weiss
Photo credit and copyright John Watson/

U.S. saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa brought his recent project the Indo-Pak Coalition to Pancevo, with guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss. Not everyone likes the altoist’s multi-noted approach, but I do – he spins furiously complex lines which are always powerfully emotional and to my ears completely captivating. The Schime Trio plus One, a Serbian-Italian mix, is actually a quartet: altoist Luka Ignjatovic, bassist Boris Sainovic, drummer Peda Milutinovic, plus Serbian pianist Sava Miletic and guest pianist from Italy Enrico Zanisi. They created a truly vibrant set – driving, imaginative and full of musical surprises. It would actually have been a superb set to conclude the evening, as sets by two excellent but quiet performers followed: the great guitarist Ralph Towner, and the unusual Israeli quartet of tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur. Towner, playing solo on classical guitar, created versions of originals and standard songs that were simply sublime and supremely articulated, including his own Blues As In Bley, My Foolish Heart, and I Fall In Love Too Easily.

Ralph Towner in his solo set at Pancevo
Photo credit and copyright John Watson/

The evening concluded with the ultra-gentle sounds of Tzur and his musicians: pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Colin Stranahan. Tzur creates ethereal melodies using breathy high notes, yet is able to bend the pitch – a remarkable technical achievement – producing a sound rather like the Japanese end-blown flute the shakuhachi. There were more heated moments, too, but the themes and improvisations were generally as soft as blown feathers. The rhythm section, when given plenty of space, was marvellous.

The festival was another triumph for the Pancevo team, including the festival’s artistic director Vojislav Pantic and the centre’s music programme director Boban Tanasijevic.

A photography exhibition by John Watson, The Jazz Moment, was staged as part of the festival.

Categories: Live reviews

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