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JAZZx Festival

JAZZx Festival

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(Timisoara, Romania, 28 June – 2 July. Review and photos by John Watson)

“We Jazz Together” – that was the theme of the JAZZx Festival, held in the beautiful Romanian city of Timisoara. You may agree that it’s as good a slogan as any for such an international event.

The programme, performed in a lovely city square decked out with 3,000 seats, was decidedly eclectic, ranging from the sophisticated melting of cultural boundaries with John McLaughlin’s Shakti, the intense piano creations of Tigran Hamasyan, the powerful and atmospheric work of UK group Mammal Hands, and also embracing Romanian improvisers and commercial soul and pop acts.

Timisoara, on the River Bega and not far from the border with Serbia, is currently a European Capital Of Culture, and many of the historic Austro-Hungarian Empire era buildings in its centre have either been pleasingly renovated or are in the process of such transformation. Conquered by Austria after being first seized by the Ottoman Turks, it became the first city in the Habsburg monarchy with street lighting, and many of its narrow streets and attractive squares merrily benefit these days from multiple illuminations, creating a safe and celebratory atmosphere.

Ezra Collective shining brightly at the JAZZx Festival. 
Photo copyright John Watson/

Romanian group Acetoba opened the festival with an enjoyable contemporary set distinguished by some thoughtful interplay, but it was somewhat less atmospheric than its promise in the programme to deliver music as “an experiment in creation, influenced by undefined states left by the spaces in oblivion . . “ I suspect the promise was delivered tongue-in-cheek.

But then came a captivating performance by Norwich-based Mammal Hands, and my goodness how this group has developed in cohesion and sophistication since I first heard them just a few years ago at the Ipswich Jazz Festival. 

Their works from their new album Gift From The Trees (Gondwana Records), reviewed for LJN by Rob Mallows are absolutely gorgeous – dramatic, full of harmonic surprises and rhythmic intensity.

Saxophonist Jordan Smart, pianist Nick Smart and drummer Jesse Barnett have created one of the most compelling groups on the European scene, creating music with tremendous depth as well as rich textures. 

The first of several commercial rock-soul bands in the festival closed the evening, with American singer Thundercat – and though lacking the sophistication and variety of creative jazz, the group did benefit from spectacularly intensive drumming from Justin Brown. 

On the second night of the festival Romanian pianist Andrei Petrache led his trio, with bassist Alexandru Marin and drummer Philip Goron,  in a programme blending the delicate sensibilities of much Scandinavian jazz with more intense Balkan rhythms and harmonies. Petrache’s reflective composition “Thinking Of Iceland” summed up their openness to contrasting cultures.

U.S. organist Delvon Lamarr was due to follow with his trio, but he had to cancel his European tour after his wife fell ill. The two European pop groups which completed the evening with covers of Top 10 hit and show songs are perhaps best unmentioned. But I cannot resist adding that if a singer and his group are going to attempt “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, it works much better with the right notes and the right chords, and if you are going to substitute the notes and the chords it’s desirable that they should at least match up harmonically. What a mess.

The festival got back on track musically the next evening with Romanian guitarist VanDerCris and his group, blending Balkan-tinged themes with deep fusion grooves.

Tigran Hamasyan at the JAZZx Festival. 
Photo copyright John Watson/

They were followed by Armenian-bornpianist Tigran Hamasyan, based in LA for 20 years, with high-impact, rhythmically complex and highly compelling themes. I was hoping he would perform some works from his new album StandArt (Nonsuch Records), which blends his musical roots and later electronic inspirations with classic jazz themes. But the muscular music he performed at Timisoara was more than satisfying.

Then came Shakti, celebrating 50 years of creativity, with McLaughlin in supremely joyful interchanges with tabla master Zakir Hussain, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, percussionist Selvaganesh Vinayakram , and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan. They were having a ball.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear all the different line-ups of Shakti (and Remember Shakti) over the decades, and I’ve always found their music extraordinarily uplifting. Their latest performance of well-loved Shakti classics and new compositions from the latest album “This Moment” (Abstract Logic Records) was similarly inspiring, and they had a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowds of thousands packed into Liberty Square.

Shakti greet the thousands of fans packed into Liberty Square in Timisoara. Photo copyright John Watson/

Their tour, which opened with two nights in London, continued in Hungary, Germany and the Netherlands before switching to the USA.

The penultimate night of the festival opened with appealing songs from Romanian vocalist Luiza Zan, from her new CD “In My Village” (own label). The night was then dominated by two very powerful UK groups, with booming beats from The Comet Is Coming (with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings in blazing form) and the bouncy and much more melodic Afro-roots vibe of Ezra Collective. Both bands had the massive crowds of young fans bopping.

The festival wrapped up on Sunday 2 July with lovely harmonising from a- cappella group Blue Noise, and smooth soul from French group Ibeyi, withtwin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz.

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