Review: Belgrade Jazz Festival 2014

Bob Weir enjoys Danilo Perez, Charles Lloyd and Paolo Fresu at the 30th Belgrade jazz festival, where good attendances were encouraged by a keen pricing policy

This was the 30th anniversary of the Balkans' premier jazz festival and the 10th of its revival after the 1990s hiatus caused by the former Yugoslavia's civil wars. Running from 24-27 October, it was the best programme of the decade despite serious delays in budgetary approval due to a change in government. Apparently, the last band was finalised only a couple of days before the start. The organisers deserve plaudits for their heroic efforts. The guest of honour, appropriately, was Alexander Zivkovic, the festival's first artistic director who was a renowned jazz impresario until his recent retirement.

The programme was the usual canny mix of modern mainstream and cutting-edge experimentalism - prominent US names to talented locals, with the emphasis on the best available on-form performers. Most of the two-to-four concerts per night were held in the congenial Dom Omladine cultural centre with nearby concert halls used for a couple of the biggest attractions. There were pre-festival events by the well-drilled Serbian radio and TV big band playing Basie-influenced material by 90-year-old Vojislav Simic and an official opening at the city's major casino featuring an excellent Spanish group.

Brilliant pianists were prominent this year. Danilo Perez with his companions from Wayne Shorter's regular rhythm section (including John Patitucci, pictured above right), Sylvie Courvoisier in tandem with her virtuoso violinist husband Mark Feldman, the dazzling Dominican Michel Camilo, Denmark's Jakob Anderskov playing exciting new material with a string trio and local hero Vasil Hadzimanov with New York saxist David Binney all gave exhilarating performances. Other major attractions included the atmospheric Nils Petter Molvaer duo with Berlin techno innovator Laurens von Oswald, infectious electronic grooves from Nils Wogram's band Nostalgia, free-form African rhythms by the Wolfgang Puschnig-John Sass-Mamadou Diabate 'Mutua' trio, the long-established quartet of Paolo Fresu (pictured left) in joyful mood and the freewheeling Red Trio from Portugal.      

There were two outstanding Serbian bands. The Max Kochetov Quartet included the very promising young bassist Petar Krstajic who is soon to take up a Berklee scholarship and the prospect of a successful musical career. Serbian Jazz, Bre! was one of the festival's biggest hits. They impressed last year but are now in transition, replacing their former violinist with saxophones and very exciting new material intended for an eagerly awaited new album. Their leader, Ivan Grlic, is also a talented photographer so they illuminate their performances with his back-screen video graphics. They are certainly an emerging young band to watch out for.

The consensus view of the press corps (30-strong and twice as large as in previous years) favoured Charles Lloyd (pictured right) as the highlight of the entire festival. Seventy-six years old but as inventive and accomplished as ever, Lloyd played beautifully in his characteristically angular manner with impeccable support from Gerald Clayton (p), Joe Sanders (b) and Eric Harland (d). The concert was set up perfectly by an earlier showing of the new feature-length film on the saxophonist's life story, Arrows Into Infinity, with some marvellous footage of his formative bands.

In addition to this packed programme of concerts there were workshops, impressive student bands in the foyer and an after-hours club with a good local band and frequent sitting-in by the festival's stars. Attendances were consistently high, helped by low ticket prices. A double concert ticket was only about £7 and all 13 cost less than £40. This bodes well for the future especially as the organisers are planning attractively priced all-in packages to attract more visitors from abroad. Details of these and next year's programme can be found by keeping an eye on

Photos by John Watson

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