Pancevo Jazz Festival
(Culture Centre, Pancevo. 3-5 November 2023, Review and photos by John Watson)
I’m going to let you into a little jazz secret. If you go to the small Serbian town of Pancevo, just north of Belgrade, you’ll find in early November one of the most extraordinary festivals on the international scene.
In past years I’ve heard and photographed artists there including American stars Joe Lovano, Ralph Towner (solo, and earlier with Oregon), Charles Tolliver, Cecile McLorin Salvant with a big band, John Scofield, Chris Potter, Steve Swallow, China Moses, Ambrose Akinmusire, Gary Bartz and James Carter. And many more.
That, however, is not the little secret I’m talking about. For – as a bonus to the festival – if you walk down the path on the side of the River Tamis you’ll find a small pontoon marked Sajka, with what looks like a doorbell to ring. Press it, and a little boat will come from the other side to take you to what could well be the greatest river fish restaurant in the world. It’s a culinary experience not to be missed. Those of us from the visiting jazz media of many countries certainly don’t miss it.
And the jazz festival is well worth catching too, of course, as well as the fish. This year the programme featured fast-rising pianist James Francies from the USA, saxophonists Andy Sheppard from the UK and now living in Europe, Maciej Obara from Poland, and Francesco Cafiso from Italy; the Flat Earth Society Orchestra from Belgium; pianist Yonathan Avishai and his trio from Israel, and many more outstanding artists from Europe and the Balkans.
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Sheppard’s trio, with pianist Rita Marcotulli and bassist Carlos Bica from Italy, was simply exquisite – opening with notes that were almost whispered, and developing into gorgeous themes with superb structure and passionately-delivered cascades of notes. Andy’s playing has never been less than impressive, right from his early days on the Bristol area scene, but he continues to develop in artistic strength and technical prowess on the tenor and soprano.
Maciej Obara has a very different style – creating torrents of wildly intense free improvisations as the introduction for quite awesome rhythmically driven quartet pieces with real shape and compelling musical interest. His interplay with pianist Dominik Wania, bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Jon Falt was immensely thrilling.
While I felt completely engaged by the group performances of Sheppard and Obara, I found myself simply admiring – and considerably so – the set by Cafiso with pianist Alessandro Lanzoni’s Trio (bassist Matteo Bortone and drummer Enrico Morello). Very fine musicianship, of course, and often beautiful, lyrical themes, but I had the sensation of being outside the music and looking in as a distant observer. Something of a musical mystery.
The Flat Earth Society Orchestra is always hugely entertaining – brass and reeds playing pulsating riffs with a rock or latin beats, and wild free improvising from members of the band. Director Peter Vermeersch creates arrangements which develop exciting styles from the Belgian brass band tradition, and there were spirited and at times ferocious solos from, among others, saxophonists Benjamin Boutreur and Michel Mast, and vibes player Wim Segers. A solo tuba feature by Berlinde Deman was off-the-charts hilarious – great blasts from low and high, and wild vocal whoops mixed with the notes.
I heard James Francies live in concert and photographed him earlier this year at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Eastside Jazz Club in the band of bassist Michael Janisch, with the great Eric Harland on drums and Walter Smith III on tenor. Previously, I had heard him on disc with Pat Metheny on the live album Side Eye, NYC, on which he extensively played synths, and Francies has since made albums as a leader for Blue Note.
I was particularly looking forward to hearing him as a group leader in Pancevo on the final night of the festival. With guitarist Mike Moreno and drummer Damion Reid, Francies created a deeply funky soundscape – and I do mean deep. His thunderous bass synthesiser dominated, while he filled in the chords on a conventional electric keyboard and alternated with rapid runs on the grand piano. Unfortunately, much of the piano sound was lost in the mix, drowned by the bass synth and by Reid’s powerful and relentlessly heavy drumming. Maybe it sounded better from the mixing desk mid-way in the hall and further back, but the audience in the forward rows had paid for tickets too.
Francies’ themes were engaging without being particularly melodic, and more breathing space in the themes would have been agreeable. But I did like his arrangement of “My Favourite Things”, with the melody broken up into eight bar segments and eight bars of strong improvised bass lines linking them. Guitarist Moreno soloed with skill and passion on this piece, and blended perfectly on others.
They were preceded on stage by a very different pianist, Yonathan Avishai, who I have heard at festivals in the past with Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen. The pianist’s set was much, much more subdued – very subtle themes, sensitive, but often lacking in melodic engagement.
In the centre’s foyer, impressive Serbian bands provided entertaining “after hours” sets, but the Saturday night free-stage show by young Austrian quartet Ensemble Kuhle Wampe – brought in at the last minute to substitute for a group hit by illness – was a total delight, with imaginative creations from their new album Extended (Ost.musikfonds) including recorded passages of political statements in English, including the brutal “There is no alternative.”
However, I cannot say that – for dining – there is no alternative to Sajka, for there are two other fine restaurants nearby on the town bank of the river: Sharan and Windmill. My nose, though, leads me over the water . . .
John Watson stayed in Pancevo as a guest of the festival. But he paid for all his fish.