Belgrade Jazz Festival
(Various venues, 22-28 October 2019. Review and photos by John Watson)
How much, I wondered, is Stanley Clarke’s right thumb insured for? As he hammered it down with awesome power on the bass guitar strings, it occurred to me that it must surely be the most precious digit in the jazz business.
The American bass master was among an impressive collection of international stars in the 35th Belgrade Jazz Festival, alongside The Mingus Big Band, saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Steve Coleman, singers Dianne Reeves, Jazzmeia Horn and Leila Biali, pianists Michael Wollny and Ketil Bjornstad, bassist Henri Texier, jazz orchestra The Flat Earth Society, Ivory Coast flautist Magic Malik and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.
Add to those great names a host of fine musicians from the Balkans and around Europe – including the UK’s own Henry Spencer – and you have to conclude that the Belgrade jazz feast, under the direction of programme manager Dragan Ambrozic and promotion manager Milica Sevarlic, has developed into one of the most impressive festivals in the world.
A double bill of the Mingus Big Band and Charles Lloyd’s Kindred Spirits provided an evening of music which was beyond merely impressive – I felt I was floating on a cloud of joy as I walked away from the huge Kombank Arena. The big band’s treatment of classic repertoire including Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Gunslinging Bird was just magnificent, with superb soloing from saxophonists including Wayne Escoffery, Alex Terrier and Steve Slagle, trombonists Earl McIntyre, Conrad Herwig and Robin Eubanks, trumpeters Alex Sipiagin and Walter White, pianist David Kikoski, and bandleader bassist Boris Kozlov.
Charles Lloyd’s set was full of surprises, including a gloriously earthy 12-bar blues duet with guitarist Marvin Sewell – playing raw bottleneck style – and the leader on flute. The earlier numbers on tenor had been linked by a simple repeated note, recurring as a triplet in different keys and different tempi in each piece.
Michael Wollny’s playing never fails to delight me, and his trio was joined for the climax of the performance at the smaller Dom Omladine main hall by an excellent Japanese free improviser, Kazutoki Umezu, on clarinet and alto clarinet.
The festival programme was strong on vocalists. Dianne Reeves delivered a mainly-Brazilian set with her usual sophistication, aided considerably by Rio guitarist Romero Lubambo. Russian singer Tanya Balakirskaya performs her passionate original songs with the grace of a ballet star, using her arms and whole body to sweep the sounds around the stage, and her show with the dynamic Ilugdin Trio was a festival highlight.
Jazzmeia Horn’s light voice was not treated sympathetically by the PA mix, sounding too shrill, while Leila Biali’s repertoire and style were rather too light for a creative jazz festival.
The festival had opened with the beautifully textured arrangements of pianist Vladimir Nikolov in the band he co-leads with drummer Srdan Ivanovic, the Undectet. Their featured guest was the superb Ivory Coast flautist and vocalist Magic Malik, very much a part of the ensemble rather than a star in the spotlight.
A magnificently vibrant set followed from French bassist Henri Texier. One is tempted to tag him “veteran bassist” but he has far too much energy for that, and his band Sand Woman – with, as usual, son Sebastien on reeds – gave an inspired performance.
The club Amerikana in the Dom Omladine centre was the location for an intense show in the early hours by Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, with driving bass from Anthony Tidd and rapping from “wordsmith” Kokayi. Trumpeter Henry Spencer and his band Juncture also gave a splendid set, with strong solos from the leader and guitarist Ant Law.
The Dom Omladine centre was also the location for the launch of a new book of interviews with many stars, Jazz Face, written by festival artistic director Vojislav Pantic, published by Dallas Records. In Serbian, “jazz face” happens to mean “cool guy” – and there were certainly plenty of cool guys and ladies on the festival’s stages this year.