Review: Skopje Jazz Festival 2014

Bob Weir, on his annual Balkan jaunt, stops in Macedonia and finds the Terri Lyne Carrington Quartet underwhelming but is amazed by Australian piano trio The Necks

The festival's founder and director, Oliver Belopeta, has the knack of compiling programmes of adventurous contemporary bands from all around the world and this, his 33rd, running 16-19 October, was no exception. Macedonia is a poor country and although Oliver has some commercial and government support, he also relies on aid from foreign embassies to subsidise their own country's groups. This year help came from the US, Poland and Sweden - a strategy that UK festivals might consider.

There were three concerts on each of the four days in three medium-sized halls in the city centre. Attendances were uniformly high and enthusiastic, demonstrating the sophisticated tastes of Macedonians for what was often difficult and challenging music.

It was unusual to have three headlining female singers. Eliane Elias was a reliable "banker" who attracted the largest crowd. Her long set of familiar standards and Brazilian bossa nova, with several as tributes to Chet Baker, were delivered in entertaining fashion both vocally and on piano. She even had the crowd singing in Portuguese on her encore, The Girl From Ipanema. The other two singers were more adventurous and experimental. Youn Sun Nah used her remarkably flexible voice, unique style and passionate delivery for a satisfyingly varied programme with stimulating support from Swedish guitarist, Ulf Wakenius. Sainkho Namtchylak (pictured left) was equally original as a superb overtone singer and improviser. She could emote like Billie but also undertake wordless excursions using Tuvan throat singing, ranging from a whisper to a scream. She was partnered in a reunion with New York avant-gardist Ned Rothenberg on woodwinds.

The US contribution was the Terri Lyne Carrington Quartet playing material to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ellington/Mingus/Roach album Money Jungle, with Matthew Shipp (pictured above right) solo and Wadada Leo Smith with sound-shaping support from Hardedge. All in different ways, they were a bit disappointing. Carrington seemed surprisingly disengaged with perfunctory drumming and only her altoist Antonio Hart raising the temperature. Shipp and Smith played short sets of less than an hour, again suggesting a lack of commitment. Both programmes were dominated by single long pieces, fragmentary in nature and lacking obvious structure and development. I have heard both play much better.

There was no such problem with the European groups. Obara International were an excellent example of Polish “new jazz” (with a Norwegian rhythm section) playing exciting arrangements of their original compositions and a scintillating interpretation of Komeda's Kattorna. The 24-piece Swedish Fire! Orchestra (only made possible with significant government support) were both poetic and apocalyptic, making original use of influences as varied as Carla Bley's Escalator Over The Hill, Sun Ra and Chris McGregor. ECM precision and atmosphere came from the Nik Bartsch Ronin Rhythm Clan octet. Their hypnotic minimalism on two long pieces, played in near darkness, were totally absorbing. Belgium's Dans Dans played fresh-sounding progressive jazz-rock with compelling guitar soloing by Bert Dockx. The hot UK band Red Snapper were just as appealing on their individual brand of Afrofunk dance music.

The best is saved until last. It was my first live hearing of Australia's The Necks (pictured below) and it was an amazing experience. On the surface the slow development of a single hour-long piece by a piano trio (which sounds like no other) could be tedious because very little seemed to be happening. Yet there was an almost imperceptible building up of intensity and drama by minimal harmonic development which induced a trancelike atmosphere and the realisation that they were drawing on many musical traditions. They have been together for over 30 years and it showed in their empathetic instrumental blend, which at times produced a ghostly organ or vocal-like drone. No electronics were used in the making of this music!

Altogether a most stimulating and enjoyable festival. For next year's programme keep an eye on

Photos by John Watson

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