Conference Report

Bulgarian Showcases at the Europe Jazz Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgarian Showcases at Europe Jazz Conference

(National Palace of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria, 22-25 September 2022. Report by Tony Dudley-Evans)

“The Hajigrudev/Beleva Duo caught the interest of many promoters.” Hristina Beleva (gadulka) and Vasil Hajigrudev.
Photo by Francesco Martinelli

This year’s Europe Jazz Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria presented a showcase programme, giving Bulgaria as host country the opportunity to present a snapshot of the jazz scene in their country to festival and club programmers. 

Ten bands performed in the main programme and six in the fringe programme.  In addition there was one concert in support of Ukraine with Ukrainian musicians: trumpeter Dennis Adu and Dmytro Arksentiev on electronics.

 In an illuminating and informative presentation drummer and ethnomusicologist Borislav Petrov gave an overview of the development of folk jazz in Bulgaria over the last 50 years.  He spoke of the development of big band jazz in Bulgaria in the 1930s and 40s, the banning of jazz in the Stalinist period and the favouring by the Communist authorities of Bulgarian folk music that brings together elements of Roma and Turkish music to create a characteristically Bulgarian and Balkan sound. 

Wedding bands of which the most known outside Bulgaria is that led by Ivo Papazov built on and developed that tradition making particular use of the varied rhythms of Bulgarian folk music.  These bands gradually began to incorporate elements of jazz harmony and rhythms to create a characteristic Bulgarian or Balkan approach to jazz, which even had an influence on New York jazz in groups such as Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio and Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio.

The evidence of the showcase is that Bulgarian jazz has moved on from the more upbeat and jazz influenced Wedding Band style to using the rhythms and melodies of folk music in a variety of more subtle ways.

Perhaps the most folky was the duo of Vasil Hajigrudev on double bass and Hristina Beleva playing the gadulka, a string instrument held vertically and bowed horizontally by the player.  Their set featured a variety of material, with some pieces showing a strong jazz influence while others showed a more classical influence, all within the context of an approach informed overall by local folk music.   There was a lot of improvisation in their playing with a theme plus improvised solos pattern in the jazz style.  The Hajigrudev/Beleva Duo caught the interest of many promoters.

Rhodopology. Photo by Francesco Martinelli

There was also enthusiasm for the Rhodopology group, a saxophone, piano, bass and drums quartet with Borislav Petrov, here as drummer, providing the intriguingly complicated rhythms of both jazz and Bulgarian folk.  Here the overall sound and themes were those of jazz, but with subtle hints of the folk tradition.

The Bodurov Trio led by pianist Dimitar Bodurov began their set with the piano bass drums trio playing along with a pre-recorded vocal sample which may have been a slightly manipulated Islamic chant or a Roma vocal.  Thereafter the trio played more of a jazz set with free-ish elements.

The kaval instrument was heavily featured in certain of the showcases, notably in that by the Zhivko Vasilev Quintet.  It is a type of flute originating from Turkey and played all over the Balkans; it is open at both ends and played at a slight angle to the mouth.  The group led by Vasilev on kaval also included cello, piano, double bass and drums, and its music integrated very effectively elements of jazz, classical and folk music.  Again the influence of folk music was quite subtle.

Jazzanitza. Photo by Francesco Martinelli

Vasilev also played kaval in the Jazzanitza, a quintet led by the drummer Borislav Petrov, who incidentally played in the UK with the Dutch Tin Men & The Telephone group.  They played the final main showcase set, and finished with a wedding song to which all the Bulgarians present danced, and were joined eventually by other delegates.

In the fringe programme Oratnitza showed the most folk influence combining heavy beats (less Bulgarian!) with songs sung with great precision and charm by two female vocalists.

The blending of jazz and folk was probably the most interesting aspect of the showcases, but a number of the bands presented good contemporary jazz in which the influence of folk music was either non-existent, or so subtle that I missed it.  Via Mavis is led by Viktor Benev on the malletKAT, a kind of vibraphone that can also produce a keyboard sound. The combination of this instrument with bass and drums created a special sound and an adventurous approach to improvisation. JP3 was a piano bass drums trio playing good, uncomplicated modern jazz.  The 3uP trio combined the beatboxing and electronics of Pavel Terziyski with the piano of Antoni Donchev and the flugelhorn of Rossen Zahariev.  This was probably the most adventurous set of the showcases from a contemporary jazz point of view, though I found Terziyski’s redundant gestures irritating.

3up. Photo by Francesco Martinelli

Two general points:  Bulgarian jazz has clearly some way to go on the issue of gender balance; there was just one woman player in the main showcase programme: Hristina Beleva, the gadulka player in the Beleva Hajigrudev duo.  There were more women in the fringe, but no women instrumentalists. 

The rooms used in the National Palace of Culture, a massive and confusing building built towards the end of the Communist period, were amazing and seemingly good acoustically for amplified music.

A final point: all the showcase sets lasted 30 minutes which enabled the organisers to present a significant number of bands.  Most of the groups approached their set in the same way as they would do a normal 50/60 minute set, meaning that they could play just just just three or four tunes. Two or three bands adopted a different approach, and played shorter tunes, so they could fit in many more of them. To me, this idea was more successful in building momentum and in grabbing the audience’s attention.       

LINK: A to Jazz Festival, Sofia

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