Review: San Sebastian Jazz Festival

San Sebastian's 48th Jazz Festival offered up a diverse jazz menu, says Bob Weir, including a vital Lee Konitz and a Marathon from John Zorn

Spain's premier festival on the relatively prosperous Basque coastline is in its 48th year and thriving. This most picturesque and welcoming event offered 84 concerts over five days on nine stages (five of them with free entrance). Even after discounting the DJ sessions (continuous from 5pm to well after midnight) and the variable Spanish pop bands, there were still difficult choices for jazz fans because there was usually overlapping of the top attractions. Fortunately the venues are all within easy walking distance of each other.

The standout concert this year was undoubtedly John Zorn's Masada Marathon. Twelve groups playing in succession for nearly five hours with the briefest of breaks between them sounds like an ordeal. In fact, it was thoroughly enjoyable and hardly any of the capacity audience left during the performance. That was down to the compelling quality of Zorn's compositions and the flawless nature of their interpretation by 32 star musicians. It is difficult to spotlight individual contributions but the playing of Dave Douglas (t) (pictured below), Mark Feldman (vn), Marc Ribot (elg) and exuberant Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptiste was truly inspired.

Perhaps next in appeal was a mesmerising session by back-in-form Lee Konitz (pictured right). He played his usual standards with relaxed passion, his delicate and unexpected turns of phrase still managing to take one's breath away. Passionate delivery was also the keynote of Gregory Porter's bravura performance on the opening set of the festival. Diana Krall, who can sometimes seem a bit bland, was invigorated by guest Marc Ribot, contributing his idiosyncratic blues solos whatever the song. The Steve Swallow-Carla Bley quintet's quiet and reflective appearance was equally compelling.

Other unmissable jazz sets were delivered by Vijay Iyer, the Dave Douglas and Pharoah Sanders groups, vocalists China Moses and Youn Sun Yah and the energetic if sometimes mechanical pianist Hiromi. Of the pop artists I saw, Jamie Cullum (attracting 50,000 fans on the beach) and Elvis Costello gave highly professional performances. A couple of midday concerts on the lawn of the attractive Basque Culinary Centre by Serbian Matija Dedic's trio and Secret Chiefs 3 (from the Masada event but playing their own rather different Middle East-flavoured material) rounded off this most enjoyable festival.

With generous sponsorship from Heineken guaranteed for at least another two years (and hopefully a continuation of the free beer for the press), this most diverse and well-organised event is sure to remain one of Europe's most desirable destinations for peripatetic jazz fans. The website to watch is

Photos by Tim Dickeson

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