Review: Belgrade and Pancevo

Serbia's top jazz festivals entrance Bob Weir with high-quality programmes, great saxophonists and warm welcomes for foreign visitors

The proximity of Belgrade to Pancevo (only a half-hour bus ride) makes a late autumn trip to Serbia's two principal jazz festivals an attractive proposition. The consistently high quality of the programmes and the very reasonable ticket prices (by UK standards) are important additional reasons.

Belgrade (25-30 October) offered up to four bands and Pancevo (2-5 November) had two concerts each night. Both also had midnight jam sessions by talented locals and impressive photo exhibitions. Even the two-day gap between them was catered for by an off-festival concert by Hashima, Belgrade's outstanding up-and-coming group. The programmes cannily balanced top US names with some of the best on-form bands drawn from throughout Europe and Israel plus several special projects commissioned by the festivals.

A good example of the latter was the opening night at Belgrade - a tribute to local legend Micha Markovic who died earlier this year. He had a remarkable long career as saxophonist, journalist, teacher and key supporter of the Belgrade festival and the city's RTS big band. He was for many years co-leader with Steve Gut of Serbia's most successful jazz band. The concert featured his music played by students and the big band with heartfelt speeches by his friends and colleagues.

There were many brilliant performances but those by the three trumpeters Peter Evans (Belgrade), Avishai Cohen and Ambrose Akinmusire (Pancevo) stood out. They are all dazzling technicians but it was their inspired creativity and wonderful subtlety of expression that lingered in the mind.

Great saxophonists were ubiquitous. Belgrade had thrilling shows by Marius Neset, Emile Parisien, Joshua Redman and Donny McCaslin (pictured above right) and Pancevo presented Joe Lovano, Tim Berne (on one matchless double bill) and Daniel Erdmann (with Jim Hart on vibes). All were highly enjoyable with the sets by Neset, Redman, Lovano and Berne, in particular, at the peak of their powers.

Other top US attractions were Marc Ribot (pictured left) and the Young Philadelphians with energetic improvising strings in Belgrade and the supreme entertainer, soul singer China Moses, in Pancevo. Her passionate vocals on her co-written originals of varied quality were put over with a rather hammy delivery but the packed house loved it all.

Of the many Serbian bands, the strongly supported EYOT (Belgrade) and Fish In Oil (Pancevo) stood out. Both were versatile and adventurous with interesting new material. The guest addition of the Get The Blessing front line to the EYOT quartet raised the temperature and blended perfectly.

Among the rest, special mention is due to Jan Lundgren's piano, bass and string quartet tribute to Jan Johansson in Belgrade (pictured right). Their superb arrangements of lovely Swedish, Russian and Hungarian folk songs were performed with impeccable taste. An enterprising premiere of Artistry In Broken Rhythm complex originals and adaptations by the 11-piece Nicolov/Ivanovic Undectet had much to commend it. They drew on Stan Kenton and Miles Davis's Birth Of The Cool recordings with the common feature of broken rhythms. Insufficient rehearsal put a strain on the band, particularly for the co-leader drummer Srdan Ivanovic, but it was a brave and intriguing performance deserving future hearings.

Altogether a pair of high quality festivals with hardly any weak spots. Both were efficiently organised in excellent venues and were notable for the warm welcome extended to foreign visitors.

For information about next year's festivals, go to the Belgrade Jazz Festival and Pancevo Jazz Festival websites.

Photos by John Watson 

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