Review: Serbian Jazz Festivals

Bob Weir makes the journey to the Belgrade and Pancevo festivals and is rewarded with superb music and the best Q&A session he's ever attended

The Belgrade festival took the theme "Planet Jazz" to feature a wide spectrum of Serbian, European, Cuban and North & South American musicians. Over the five evenings (26-30 October), there were two dozen concerts, films, CD and book launches, interviews and talks by US journalist Tom Conrad, a photographic exhibition and foyer jam sessions by talented youngsters from Belgrade's music school.

Most events were packed. This was because, year-on-year, the organisers have the knack of assembling high quality programmes on a modest budget and low ticket prices. The festival focus was at the Dom Omlodine student centre in two halls plus two nights at the large Sava Centre concert hall for the biggest names.

There was enough musical variety to satisfy all tastes. Musicians seem to enjoy playing in Belgrade and invariably raise their game, no doubt inspired by the city's knowledgeable and enthusiastic audiences.

The festival always has a few concerts of such brilliance that they linger in the memory long after they finish. This year, that accolade certainly applied to remarkable presentations by Austria's David Helbock Trio, the Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison super group, the quietly compelling Tord Gustavsen Quartet, the phenomenal Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella's Cosmic Renaissance and an emotionally charged Rob Mazurek & Sao Paulo Underground (his father died three days previously, explaining the profound intensity of his playing). Not far behind were Serbian pianist Vlada Maricic with US trumpeter Brian Lynch (pictured above right) exquisitely blending jazz with Balkan folk and latin rhythms, Iceland's Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio, bassist Avishai Cohen's Trio, Aziza (another super group with Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke & Eric Harland) and an outstanding Portugese big band, the Orchestra Jazz de Matosinhos.

Other highly satisfying sets came from Cuban piano virtuoso Alfredo Rodriguez (pictured left), the Tineke Postma Quartet from Holland, entertaining chanson and flamenco from Spain's Antonio Serrano Quintet and an intriguing concert of highly individual jazz interpretations of Yugoslavian standards by former pop star Vesna Pisarovic. Among the several local combinations, the Schime Trio + One was an outstanding example of Belgrade's top younger talent playing memorable originals in a convincing post-Ornette Coleman style of their own. There was a happy bonus on the evening following the festival by Canada's L'Orchestre D'Hommes-Orchestres with their quirky, comedic take on Tom Waits material.

A few days later (3-6 November), another equally enthralling festival took place in nearby Pancevo, notable for its wide avenues and attractive Austro-Hungarian architecture (and superb fish restaurants). If anything, the programme was even more consistently exciting than at Belgrade. We had two concerts every evening in the centrally located cultural centre with after-hours jams, an excellent photographic exhibition by Holland's Joke Schot and more interviews and talks by Tom Conrad. Every show was top class with the sole exception of an off-form Lee Konitz backed by an increasingly disorientated Serbian Radio & TV Big Band (an excellent ensemble on previous appearances).

The first night started with the Myra Melford Snowy Egret quintet exploring interesting originals in "Cecil Taylor meets Don Cherry" territory. John Scofield (pictured right) followed with Steve Swallow, Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart, performing material from their current Country For Old Men album. Their distinctive take on familiar C&W classics was both creatively satisfying and very enjoyable.

After the Konitz fiasco, excellence returned with the Enrico Rava New Quartet including a standout contribution by guitarist Francesco Diodati. Rava was clearly inspired by his young trio, allowing them plenty of solo space and engaging with them on exciting passages of free collective improvisation. The third night had a lively set by the cimbalo duo of Miklos Lukacs and Kalman Balogh. The jazz highlight, however, came later from Serbia's Lazar Tosic six-piece band playing thrilling Hancock, Silver and Shorter numbers in Art Blakey style.

Pancevo closed with the proficient Sound Sculptures trio from Serbia and the James Carter Organ Trio playing Django Reinhardt pieces. It is a truism that Carter is at the pinnacle of current jazz saxophonists and, on this occasion, his virtuosity, energy and sheer enjoyment were so infectious that this concert must rank among the very best ever in the Balkans. Everyone left the hall smiling and buzzing with delight. Carter's trio had preceded their show with probably the top "questions and answers" session by jazzmen that I have ever attended.

Altogether, therefore, another wholly successful autumnal trip to Serbia for superb music, wonderful hospitality and unusually good weather.

There's more information at the festivals' websites: Belgrade Jazz Festival and Pancevo Jazz Festival.

Photos by John Watson

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