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Belgrade Jazz Festival 2022

Belgrade Jazz Festival

(Dom Omladine Beograda, Belgrade, Serbia. 26-30 October 2022. Review and photos by John Watson)

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Serbian saxophonist Luka Ignjatovic and the group Schime with the strings of Muzikon at BJF. Photo copyright John Watson/

So many European festivals have lost funding this year, as political crisis piles on economic crisis and governments cut back. The Belgrade Jazz Festival was no exception, though the budget cuts came at alarmingly short notice, and not only from the Serbian authorities, but from the governments of other countries which would normally part-support the visiting artists.

Despite this, the Belgrade festival was an artistic triumph, with a quite extraordinary programme under the circumstances, featuring artists including Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson, saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins of the USA and the UK’s Nubya Garcia, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa.

There were several superb large ensembles: the Orchestre National de Jazz from France, the Serbian RTS Big Band, and the Serbian string orchestra Muzikon. It was this last orchestra, combining with the Belgrade quartet Schime fronted by the excellent alto saxophonist Luka Ignjatovic, that opened this year’s festival in the main Dom Omladine concert hall, in a performance of new and energetic works, blending the powerful drive of the jazz group with the sweeping sound of the strings. Pianist Sava Miletic, bassist Boris Sainovic and drummer Peda Milutinovic combined with Ignjatovic to create a wonderfully integrated sound. Schime and Muzikon’s new album “Melange” (Sokoj Records) is a delight.

Nubya Garcia at BJF. Photo copyright John Watson/

Omar Sosa’s group inspired a fiery performance from the RTS Big Band when they appeared at the larger MTS Dvorana venue. The RTS band is an all-purpose outfit for radio and TV work, but they were fully committed to the relentless drive of Cuban jazz. Oddly, though, they were kitted out in formal suits – they do come from a very different musical world to the Cubans, but jazz is looked at as well as listened to, and they would have looked more relaxed without grey jackets and red ties.

The most musically satisfying performance in the entire festival, to my ears, came from the Orchestre National de Jazz and their work “Rituels”. Artistic director and composer Frédéric Maurin led the ensemble through densely complex and richly voiced arrangements, much enhanced by four outstanding singers as part of the orchestra: Leila Martial, Elinoa, Linda Olah and Romain Dayez.

Cohen’s quartet, appearing at Dom Omladine, started their concert in moving form with an almost heartbreaking version of “Will I Die Miss, Will I Die?” from the ECM album Cross My Palm With Silver – gorgeous long trumpet tones evoking the trauma of war. But the bulk of the concert was taken up by pieces from their new ECM disc Naked Truth, and seemed to be struggling for cohesion, each member of the band in his own space rather than creating a unified creation. Lars Danielsson’s group Liberetto – with UK guitarist John Paricelli, pianist Gregory Privat and drummer Magnus Öström – was, by contrast, superbly integrated, and though some pieces seemed a little bland there was much vibrant playing to enjoy.

Free improvisation and related styles had a good showing this year. The trio of UK drummer Paul Lytton, trumpeter Nate Wooley and saxophonist Ken Vandermark was the most loosely structured; Italian drummer Enrico Morello’s Cyclic Signs took Ornette Coleman’s style into a further dimension; and the trio of Portuguese trumpeter Luís Vicente concluded the festival with an imaginative set of original pieces.

Steve Bernstein (slide trumpet) with Sexmob at the Belgrade festival. Photo copyright John Watson/

Sexmob, led by American Steve Bernstein on the rare slide trumpet, was non-stop vibrant, in a wild, nutty and engaging way. The theme from the 007 film Goldfinger – from their album “Sexmob Does Bond” – was hilarious.

American altoist Immanuel Wilkins is being talked of as a major star of the future, and his quartet certainly had plenty of drive behind his “stream of consciousness” soloing, though I would have liked to hear greater use of space and a clearer structure. His drummer Kweku Sumbry, however, kept up an intense dialogue with the leader to great effect.

Garcia’s band also had plenty of drive in their concert at MTS Dvorana, with the saxophonist’s very simple themes forming a muscular structure to music that embraces influences from John Coltrane to Garage Band styles.

Omar Sosa, who appeared with the RTS Big Band in Belgrade. Photo copyright John Watson/

LINK: Belgrade Jazz Festival website

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