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Vilnius Jazz Festival 2021, Lithuania

Vilnius Jazz Festival (15 to 17 October 2021)

Report by Tony Dudley-Evans

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Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit, Vilnius 2021. Photo credit: Vygintas Skaraitis

The Vilnius Jazz Festival has a strong focus on free jazz and improvised music, and has built a sizeable audience that understands and appreciates the many positives of this style of music.  This year the festival went a stage further in presenting several large improvising ensembles: two from Lithuania, the Nojo Airlines Ensemble and the Improdimensiya Orchestra, and two from other European countries, the Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble (L.U.M.E.) and Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit drawn from the Nordic countries.

There was also good exposure for young Lithuanian players, in the late night club sessions, the Vilnius Young Power Competition and the student membership of the Improdimensiya Orchestra.

I was only able to attend from the Friday, so missed L.U.M.E on the Thursday night. The Friday night was built around the participation of Dalius Naujokaitis-Naujo, a Lithuanian drummer who settled in New York in 1995, and has become a key member of the free jazz scene there.  He often returns to play in Lithuania, and on this occasion he was joined by Jonathan Haffner, a saxophonist who regularly collaborates with him in New York.

Ava Mendoza (centre) and Suo Suo. Photo credit: Vygintas Skaraitis

The first set was with a quartet, Suo Suo, featuring the very interesting guitar solos from rising star Ava Mendoza.  In this set we witnessed for the first time the rather manic presence of Naujokaitis-Naujo leaping up and down at the drums, and occasionally picking up the trombone.  Mendoza’s inventive rock-influenced lines on the guitar dominated a powerful set of high energy music.

The second set by a group with the name, Now We Are Here, was also organised by Naujokaitis-Naujo and Haffner.  It was dedicated to the memory of Lithuania’s poet and film maker Jonas Mekas, and featured the emotional songs in Italian of Guiseppe Zevola, a former colleague of Mekas’, and some fine piano work from Ginté Preisaité.The stage was then transformed to accommodate up to 60 performers with the Nojo Airlines Choir drawn from crew members and passengers from various countries, and a huge ensemble with a large sax section, two tubas, a euphonium, fiver drummer/percussionists, a conga player and the Suo Suo quartet.

Nojo Airlines Choir . Photo credit: Vygintas Skaraitis

This set combined powerful and ecstatic free ensemble playing led by Naujokaitis-Naujo using the methods of conduction cueing solo and small group improvised passages mixed in with full on blasts from the ensemble and the choir.  All this was combined with a zany humour of which we first received hints of in Naujokaitis-Naujo’s stage presence in the opening set by Suo Suo.  So we had more of Zevola’s emotive songs in  Italian, a hilarious air guitar interlude backed by loud interruptions from the ensemble and a declaiming of the constitution of the self-declared Independent Republic of Užupis, the ‘alternative’ district of Vilnius performed with great panache by a young vocalist, again with powerful ensemble backing.  It all built up into a tremendous climax with the whole ensemble involved; breathtaking stuff that received an immediate standing ovation.
There was something of the same intensity in the concert on the following day by Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit, a 14-piece ensemble.  Here the music moves between structure and freedom with ensemble passages leading into solo, duo and trio improvisations that gradually bring in other members of the ensemble.  The Large Unit does not, however, follow the conduction method, but has on certain tunes defined roles for the soloists who enter at a fixed point.  On other tunes the soloists are free to enter when it seems appropriate.  In these passages we heard very interesting pairings: guitar + drums, flute + e flat clarinet, trombone + tuba, accordion + electronics.

L-R: Agusti Fernandez, Liudas Mockūnas, Christian Windfeld of Improdimensija orchestra. Photo credit: Vygintas Skaraitis

The set by the Improdmensiya Orchestra was less intense, but no less absorbing.  Again the pattern was a combination of structure and freedom with the conductor controlling and cueing the movement between ensemble passages and solos.  The 14-piece ensemble plus the conductor, Arnas Mikalkénas, was drawn from students from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LAMT), but also included saxophonist/clarinettist Liudas Mockũnas, Lithuania’s leading improviser.  The focus in the ensemble passages was on the textures and layers generated by the brass heavy line up of the ensemble.
There were of course also excellent small group performances.  The improvised set from a trio with Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández, Liudas Mockũnas and drummer Christian Windfeld was particularly good.

Three young Lithuanian groups, 21st Century Quintet, Luvhurts and Kontrazztas participated in the Vilnius Jazz Young Power competition. Each played a well structured set, again moving between composition and free playing.  The winner was Luvhurts decided by a vote of a jury and the audience.  Festival director Antanas Gustys explained that nearly all the bands that have participated in the competition over the years have made a career in the music, and indeed one winner, the excellent Sheep Got Waxed group, has established something of an international reputation.

The programme is the work of director Antanas Gustys who leads a very efficient group of workers, mostly volunteers, I suspect.  The main programme took place in the slightly faded traditional Russian Theatre of Vilnius that has excellent acoustics just right for the music presented there..  It is interesting how old style theatres with a proscenium arch often have these desirable acoustics.  The late night sessions took place in Paviljonas, a fashionable club that attracts a younger audience.  Interestingly, no compromise was made in that venue as the style of music was dominated by improvised music.
Vilnius Jazz Festival is an extremely innovative festival well worth visiting, particularly as the programme allows time to explore the lovely city of Vilnius stunning in its autumn colours.

Tony Dudley-Evans was a guest of the festival, and was invited by the festival and the Lithuanian Cultural Institute. 

LINK: Vilnius Jazz Festival website

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