Live reviews

Belgrade Jazz Festival 2023

Belgrade Jazz Festival
(Dom Omladine concert halls, 24-29 October 2023. Festival round-up and photos by John Watson)

Oded Tzur
Oded Tzur. Photo copyright John Watson/

“I never thought we would be playing at a time like this,” said Israeli tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur. “But the music is about love.” 

He didn’t have to spell out what he was referring to, nor was he going to entirely avoid mentioning the devastating situation in his home country. “To say nothing is not enough,” he told his audience. The music, as always, would speak for itself. And what powerful, passionate music he and his quartet create – tonally glorious, and delivered with unmatched sensitivity and technical brilliance.

Tzur is undoubtedly the most original saxophonist to emerge on the international scene in recent times – with the soft, delicate texture to his tone, a quality saxophonists know as “sub-tone”, wrapping the natural metallic resonance of the instrument in a feathery, flute-like envelope of sound.

For a saxophonist to deliver this sound on the lower register of the instrument is not uncommon, but Tzur manages to create it across all the registers, even to the highest notes.

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Since I first heard him in concert (at the Pancevo Jazz Festival in Serbia), he has further developed a more fiery dimension to his playing – at his Belgrade Festival concert there were raging passages of long notes which reminded me principally of John Coltrane’s classic “Alabama”.

Tzur, based in New York for several years, has a really marvellous group in pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Cyrano Almeida, and they performed themes mainly from their new ECM album My Prophet, as well as works from earlier discs such as Here Be Dragons and Isabella.

Isaiah Collier Band on stage at Belgrade Jazz Festival
Isaiah Collier Band. Photo copyright John Watson/

The 39th Belgrade Jazz Festival featured, as it always does, a huge variety of contemporary bands at the Dom Omladine concert halls – established artists plus many rising stars, naturally including many groups from the Balkans.

The main hall (Velika sala) featured musicians including U.S. pianist Gerald Clayton, Polish pianist Leszek Mozdzer in duets with soprano saxophonist and fellow Pole Adam Pieronczyk, Norwegian free-improvisation specialist Paal Nilsssen Love with his Large Unit, Serbian saxophonist Max Kochetov with Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, American trumpeter Dave Douglas with his Gifts Trio, and Austrian saxophonist Fabian Rucker.

Upstairs in the large clubroom Amerikana, the programme offered Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, New Zealand-born saxophonist Hayden Chisholm (who is based in Belgrade), and American saxophonist Isaiah Collier with his band The Chosen Few, plus a host of emerging contemporary groups and free-improvising artists.

And for the last night of the festival there was a temporary switch to the larger concert hall MTS Dvorana for U.S. guitar legend John Scofield’s Trio and Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista’s group.

Pohjola’s quartet – pianist Kirke Karja, Danish-born and UK resident bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Olavi Louhivuori – played works from their new album Monkey Mind (Edition Records) with tremendous drive. The trumpeter has a superb sense of structure in his solos, delivered with real passion and technical mastery, particularly in the thunderous tune “Party In The Attic”. A real highlight of the festival.

Verneri Pohjola playing trumpet close-up
Verneri Pohjola. Photo copyright John Watson/

Kochetov’s collaboration with trumpeter Bosso was a delightful opener for my visit to the festival – beautifully crafted lines on soprano saxophone blending perfectly with Bosso’s gloriously warm sound. Mozdzer, his face completely hidden by a curtain of long hair, opened his duets with Pieronczyk in a rather restraIned way, but the performance caught fire with a dynamic Brazilian theme, with small chains on the piano strings for rhythmic emphasis.

I tend to find many free improvising groups rather predictable, ironically, and though I had higher hopes for Paal Nilsssen Love’s Large Unit, little of great value seemed to emerge. And when the group began a Japanese-inspired theme, high pitched notes on the accordion were amplified so loudly that it became too painful to stay in the hall.

The following night Rucker’s quintet offered nothing but brilliance – a huge variety of contemporary styles, and brilliant co-ordination between the musicians.

Powerful as Rucker’s group was, American rising-star tenor player Isaiah Collier’s quartet The Chosen Few offered an overwhelmingly supercharged performance upstairs in Amerikana. I never had the chance to hear John Coltrane live, regrettably, but Collier completely evokes the immense spirit of Trane’s sound and classic quartet concept, and it was wonderful to hear it revived. Sensibly, the young tenorist presented original pieces rather than themes from Trane’s own repertoire, and it was immensely effective. The rhythm section of pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Micah Collier and drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode created a glorious storm of sound for the saxophonist to majestically re-create Trane’s sweeping lines and massive tone.

The performance by trumpeter Dave Douglas and his Gifts Trio – guitarist and electronics performer Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang – offered moments of musical pleasure, with Bhatia creating electronic soundscapes to underpin the acoustic instruments. But this style has been done much more effectively for many years by Scandinavian musicians include trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset. Douglas’s somewhat awkward attempt to re-think Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Take The A Train” simply ended up derailing it.

John Scofield playing guitar on stage at Belgrade Jazz Festival
John Scofield. Photo copyright John Watson/

On the final night, at MTS Dvorana, the entertaining Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista and his quartet impressed with smooth versions of compositions by Ennio Morricone, and much good humour. Guitarist John Scofield sounded a little ill at ease in the performance which followed, though he and his trio – bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart – have won widespread acclaim for their new ECM album Uncle John’s Band [read more on this with Morgan Enos’ LJN interview with John Scofield]. 

There were, however, two particularly outstanding pieces: Carla Bley’s “Lawns”, and a strongly funky tune called “Mask”.

Scofield’s voice sounded somewhat croaky when he made his announcements, but he declared that the trio would be “happy to play all night, but you have to go to bed.” 

In fact, the audience had the choice of going back to Dom Omladine for late night performances by French artists, with the imaginative singer Leila Martial performing duets with cellist Valentin Ceccaldi, and saxophonist Sylvain Rifflet and his quartet Troubadours very effectively blending jazz improvisation with exotic Eastern sounds.

LINK: Festival website

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