Review: Belgrade & Sarajevo jazz festivals

Bob Weir reports on two Balkan events that perhaps uniquely among jazz festivals bring together ambassadors and gypsies, high society and the struggling poor, infants and geriatrics, Christians and Moslems, intellectuals and fad-following teenagers

There is still a frisson of excited anticipation when I arrive in these faraway cities steeped in ethnic and cultural diversity, even after eight successive annual visits.

Perhaps this is because the jazz festivals in Belgrade, Serbia (25-28 October) and Sarajevo, Bosnia (30 October-4 November) are regarded as major events in their respective social calendars with wide appeal across the boundaries of age, social status and religion.

I know of nowhere else, certainly not in a jazz context, where you are likely to rub shoulders with ambassadors and gypsies, high society and the struggling poor, infants and geriatrics, Christians and Moslems, intellectuals and fad-following teenagers. Or is it because they have in common such a high level of enthusiasm for and knowledge of the music?

Whatever the reason, there is so much top quality jazz packed into a few days at each location and such generous hospitality for foreign visitors that an exhausting but intensely enjoyable time is guaranteed.

Belgrade had two or three major concerts each night in the sociable Dom Omladine Cultural Centre, apart from the opening show in the larger Sava Centar arena. There was a jazz-lite start by veteran pop singer Bisera Veletanlic backed by the more contemporary sounds of Darkwood Dub but the locals enjoyed it immensely.

The all-star Miles Smiles (with Wallace Roney, Rick Margitza, Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Coryell) was the real McCoy, exciting all-round soloing on numbers associated with their ex-employer/patron. The European Saxophone Ensemble of 12 talented youngsters from across the continent provided adventurous interval music.

The second night was even better and one of the festival highlights. The Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Quintet performed an impeccable programme of both leaders' originals in the spirit, but not the style, of Wayne Shorter. The Backyard Jazz Orchestra, another pan-continental large group, blended the Balkan musical heritage with contemporary jazz in a very exciting and inventive manner.

Jerry Gonzalez Y El Comando De La Clave, even in the absence of the incapacitated leader, jammed on thrilling latin grooves with Cuban pianist Javier Masso "Caramelo" outstanding.

The Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet came to Belgrade amid great expectations and although he and his skilful band played well I found his apeing of Miles's posture and style rather trying at times. By contrast, Ursula Rucker's low-key, poetic singing with just guitar and bass accompaniment was wholly captivating.

The Serbian Jovan Maljokovic Balkan Salsa Band covered Cuban and lots of other musical styles with the chanson numbers featuring Ana Sofrenovic as the high point. The fast emerging US quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing were wild, adventurous and often humorous but there was no doubting their quality potential.

Supplementary attractions in Belgrade included hard-hitting post-bop from the Blazin' Quartet (with an idiosyncratic guest appearance by local rock legend Rambo Amadeus), Das Kapital's fire and brimstone treatment of Hanns Eisler songs and Christmas carols, brilliant free-improv by Poland's Mikolaj Trzaska & Rafal Mazur and the eclectic Danes Ibrahim Electric.

There was an interesting seminar on current jazz recording by the journalists Tom Conrad and Joe Woodward (both USA), Chema Garcia Martinez (Spain) and the JJ photographer and Edition Records partner Tim Dickeson. Tim also collaborated with Adriano Scognamillo and Fuji Fujioka for a hastily assembled exhibition of their classy jazz photographs and posters. Visits to the atmospheric Vox blues and Bigz jazz clubs were also somehow squeezed in for wee small hours, rakija-fuelled socialising.

The Sarajevo concerts took place in the Bosanski Kulturni Centar and Pozoriste Mladih with late night jams at Club Monument, all within easy walking distance. The programming skill here was to contrast each night a big-name attraction with one or two bands reflecting local musical flavours with occasional forays further afield.

The Bad Plus were in scintillating form playing all new material with great energy and imagination. Miles Smiles, in a smaller venue than in Belgrade and when I saw them at summer festivals, seemed energised by the occasion and they cooked up a storm.

Bojan ZI had not heard Bojan Z (pictured, by Zijah Gafić) play solo for a few years and his subtle piano explorations were a delight. He was joined for a few numbers by the classic sevdah singer Amira. These melancholic ballads reach deep into the Bosnian soul and had my friend Voja Pantic (who first heard the songs on his grandfather's knee) both in tears and shouting with exhilaration.

Accordionist Richard Galliano brought his La Strada Quintet to play Nino Rota film songs in the most beguiling manner. Dhafer Youssef's extraordinary singing and spirited oud playing fitted perfectly with his hardcore jazz trio. His duets with a fellow Tunisian clarinettist on a sequence of trance-like Sufi compositions were very different but equally thrilling.

Supporting concerts by the traditional Taksim Trio from Turkey, Badi Assad's contemporary vocal/guitar sambas from Brazil and a beautiful programme sung by Vladimir Mickovic with his Arkul Orchestra of Jewish sephardic laments brought to Bosnia from Spain centuries ago were all thoroughly enjoyable. Less so for my taste were Erika Stucky's eccentric scatting and yodelling (although my companions thought her brilliant) and some unappealing Fender Rhodes (pictured) playing by Bozan Z as part of the trio Zurn. That group's Canadian trumpeter Miron Rafajlovic played very well, as he did during the early hours jam sessions.

The minor miracle for both festivals was the organisers' achievement in assembling such high quality programmes in the face of an increasingly difficult financial climate. Belgrade had only half the budget of two years ago yet I and others I spoke to reckon it was probably the best all-round presentation since the event was revived in 2005. Sarajevo was even more cash-strapped and appears to triumph solely through the indomitable will of its artistic director Edin Zubcevic.

Details of next year's festivals can be found at and

Relax with the luxurious print edition of Jazz Journal and enjoy more jazz news, reviews, features and debate.

post a comment