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Gala Kamo Jazz Festival 2023 in Timisoara, Romania

Gala Kamo Jazz, 32nd edition
(Timișoara, Romania. 23-24 September 2023. Festival round-up by Oliver Weindling)

The W. L-R: Bruno Heinen, Andrea di Biase, Heidi Vogel, James Kitchman

For too many years it has been too easy for us in the far west of Europe to undervalue the jazz scene in Romania. Under communism, jazz bubbled somewhat underground, but it has now been blossoming, both in terms of musicians and audiences. Timisoara in the west of the country is no exception. There are three annual festivals in the city as well as one in Garana nearby in early July.

Timisoara has been helped this year by the city’s status as European Capital of Culture. It is a cultural melting pot as shown by the architecture and history: part of the Banat region, with still strong Romanian and Hungarian communities as well as, in the past, Jewish, German, Roma and Austrian. It has always been very creative. Indeed it was the birthplace of the sculptor Brancusi, and Bartok was born just down the road.

However, for many of the best musicians under Communism before 1989 the only way to develop was to ‘escape’ to the west. Several of these ‘exiles’ were celebrated over the weekend, as well as reflections of the present scene and its international connections. And, even if the festival concentrated on music not from the region, it never seemed far away.

The Gala de Blues Jazz Kamo is the second oldest jazz festival in Romania and has been going for 30 years. Since the death of Kamo, the founder, in 2010, it has been run by bassist Jonny Bota, a versatile multi-instrumentalist, who also runs the jazz course at the university.

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Kamo was a member of the Bega Blues Band, one of the stalwarts of the festival, with Jonny Bota himself on bass and another ‘exile’ Ioan Radu Minda, now resident in Vienna, on drums. The band has been around for 40 years (i.e. from the Communist era). Well anchored by the rhythm section, they had us bobbing around in our seats. If we had not been in the formal surroundings of the Banat Philharmonic Hall, we would certainly have been dancing. Toni Kuhn is another of the older inspirations of jazz in Timisoara, who was performing here on keyboards.

Drummer Eugen Gondi has been living in Amsterdam since 1986. He played in a trio with Lucas Sugingar on guitar and Hilmar Backer on bass. It was a set oriented towards ECM repertoire, with tunes such as ‘James’ by Pat Metheny, and also a few originals. Though it had a bit more edge than might sometimes be expected from ECM artists!

Vali Farcas is another who left Romania in the 80s to pursue a career without the authorities breathing down his neck. He’s now based in Bavaria. His set was a sort of “rock fuzz” vibe but performed with the proficiency of a classical player. So, we were wholly mesmerised by his technique and the variety of sounds that he is able to produce. An intense and rewarding 40 minutes, with as much to appreciate as many sets over an hour long by others.

Jonny Bota appeared again, along with Ioan Minda on drums, in the quartet of Mike Krstic. Krstic is a pianist from Belgrade – and a father figure of the music there – with the rhythm section augmented by Mika, Mike’s son, mainly on guitar. Belgrade is closer than Bucharest, being just over a couple of hours away. So, it was actually a relatively ‘local’ band! More of an adept modern jazz quartet, playing a few originals but also standards such as Bye Bye Blackbird. Mika also played a couple of tunes on piano himself, showing his versatility and own virtuosity.

The festival wasn’t only focussing on legacy, however. It opened with RC and the Melody Makers, led by Razvan Cojanu on bass with an Italian/Venezuelan band of two saxophones, bass and piano. A decent range of good quality contemporary jazz to get the festival going.

But perhaps the highlight – and indeed the prime motivation for me to be there – was the final group on the second night. An extended version of Bruno Heinen’s band The W – Heidi Vogel, Andrea di Biase and Gene Calderazzo – enhanced by James Kitchman on guitar and a string quartet for the last couple of tunes. It’s perhaps appropriate for Bruno to come to Timisoara, as his trio arrangements of Bartok of recent years attest. Sinuous wordless vocals by Heidi Vogel integrated well with the guitar of Kitchman and the piano of Heinen. The different parts wove together to create a sumptuous silken rope.

But we were then lucky enough to have the band enhanced by a string quartet, led by London-based Sasha Bota. Initially acting as a foundation on which the rest of the band could build from, by the end Bota himself launched into a couple of extraordinary solos, with perhaps hints of the strong folk tradition of the region. He himself manages to take advantage of a strong classical technique, which seemed to allow him to be relatively unconstrained.

It’s exciting to know that there is such an appetite for high quality jazz in Romania. I have been hearing good reports of other festivals, in Bucharest, Sibiu and Bran. So, to find new locations to hear jazz, and to misquote Horace Greeley, maybe the best advice is to “Go East, young man”.

LINK: Gala Kamo Jazz on Facebook

The W plays the Vortex on 14 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

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