Review: Belgrade and Pancevo Festivals

Two Serbian jazz festivals impress Bob Weir with their operational effficiency, outstanding programmes and low admission prices

It seems evident that the best and most durable international jazz festivals need the experience, taste and energy of an artistic director such as George Wein, Claude Nobs and John Cumming. Both Serbian events are fortunate to have Vojislav Pantic in this role. He has been at the helm of Belgrade (28 October to 1 November) since its revival in 2005 (latterly in an unpaid capacity for complicated political reasons) and newly appointed from this year at Pancevo (5-8 November). He and the managing teams are able, year after year, to assemble outstanding programmes with budgets and admission prices ridiculously low by western European and US standards.

Belgrade packed in three or four concerts each night from 7.30pm to well after midnight with jam sessions to follow. Pancevo had just two nightly concerts plus a late jam. Each had a cultural centre base for most performances to produce an amenable festive atmosphere. Attendances were consistently high with a notable preponderance of young people.

With the theme "Future Of Jazz", Belgrade kicked-off with three of the most promising local bands. Hashima, featuring guitarist/composer Igor Miskovic (pictured above right), blended diverse elements in a wholly original manner - high on energy and excitement. Naked ranged from infectious Serbian wedding band melodies and rhythms to superior free jazz improvisation with pleasantly surprising results. Mindedness, led by inventive drummer Vladimir Kostadinovc, took Monk/classic Blue Note styles into interesting new areas.

Saxophonists dominated this year with concerts for the altos of Miguel Zenon, Francesco Cafiso and Rudresh Mahanthappa (pictured left) and the tenors of James Brandon Lewis, Tony Malaby and Christof Lauer. A more varied selection of contemporary reed players is hard to imagine. They were all in great form with the unfortunate exception of Zenon whose low-key session was marred by poor sound balance. Lauer with the RTS Big Band playing adventurous interpretations of Sidney Bechet numbers, Mahanthappa with his originals based on Charlie Parker compositions and Cafiso emerging as a quality composer to match his alto sax virtuosity were the highlights.

There were three very enterprising female singers. Local dynamo Jelena Jovovic (she runs jazz clubs and jam sessions and teaches vocal jazz) sang standards and blues with a sequence of guests including the UK's Steve Fishwick. Austrian Lia Pale was captivating with settings of German poems arranged and composed by her pianist and ex-leader of the Vienna Art Orchestra, Matthias Ruegg. Ursula Yovich, Australian of Serbian and aboriginal origins, was equally impressive with wonderful soulfulness, energy and humour.

The two remarkable pianists, Hiromi and Dorantes, illustrated the unexpected highs and lows of a jazz festival. The Japanese superstar, always brilliant at several previous hearings, chose this time to be accompanied (the term is used loosely) by the ultra-loud and flashy rock drummer, Simon Phillips. Her playing was good but it was overwhelmed in the atrocious sound mix by the distracting percussionist. In contrast, the Spanish flamenco pianist was subtle and endlessly inventive with the bonus of dramatic flamenco dancing on several songs by the delightful Leonor Leal.

There were also sessions by Susana Santos Silva (Portugal), The Firebirds (Denmark), Soyut Boyut (Turkey), Super Silent (Norway) and Cul-de-Sac (Croatia) to show, along with the headliners, that the "Future Of Jazz" is in good hands.

Pancevo is a pleasant enough town (apart from occasional smog and power cuts) an hour's drive north-east of Belgrade. This was their 18th jazz festival but my first. I was impressed by the quality of the four-day programme and the operational efficiency.

The start could hardly have been better. Maja Alvanovic's Majamisty Trio, who made their UK debut at Norwich and London's Pizza Express this summer, were impressive on numbers by Bill Evans, Erroll Garner and Marcus Miller with a few of the leader's attractive originals. They set the scene perfectly for what turned out to be the outstanding concert of my visit. Kurt Elling gave a masterclass of jazz vocal technique and sensitivity which included a moving tribute medley to the late Mark Murphy.

The following evening had a well-balanced concert by The Bad Plus (in subdued but wholly absorbing form) and a more energetic set by Get The Blessing. Both bands played fairly short pieces, were carefully programmed and excelled at group interplay. They deserved their enthusiastic receptions with the GTB's Jim Barr having no trouble silencing a couple of rowdies with his sardonic putdowns.

Gary Bartz (pictured right) was paired with Oregon for a night of nostalgia and musical contrasts. The saxist's quartet, smartly suited and booted and together for 17 years, were spontaneous (no breaks for announcements) with bluesy, Rollins-like relentless creativity. The even longer established McCandless/Towner quartet had a more considered approach but in their way were just as enjoyable as Bartz, especially when Ralph Towner was featured on guitar and piano.

Other Pancevo attractions included sessions by Belgrade music school students, Serbia's Max Kochetov, whose thrilling alto-sax also featured at the nightly jam sessions, and an excellent exhibition of Jazz Journal's Tim Dickeson's jazz photographs. These were just two of the half-a-dozen or so jazz festivals around Serbia in the late autumn with others in nearby Croatia and Bosnia. They make a visit to the Balkans very rewarding for adventurous jazz fans who are advised to keep a watch on the relevant websites for next year's programmes and dates.

Photos by John Watson

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