Blesok no. 86, September-October, 2012
Skopje Enriched by the World Jazz Horizons
The Skopje Jazz Festival (SJF) is a rare if not singular commodity in our country which seems immune to the economic as well as spiritual crisis. If we take a closer look at the program of this year’s edition, it seems that the festival has succeeded to elude the general apathy, melancholy, or overall lethargy – feelings which spread like viruses among institutions but also individuals. A crisis, no matter the context, is good for art, but not necessarily beneficial for the general state of culture. Luckily, this does not apply to the state of jazz in our midst. Namely, this year’s program, although non-commercial (which is even better when considering the possibility of maintaining the festival’s three decades long legacy), is quite exceptional, and as such, it points out that some traditions can in fact endure the cacophony of this region’s turbulences.
Fourteen concerts during the five festival evenings and large audiences – that could shortly describe this year’s SJF, which took place between October 19th and October 23rd, at three different locations, namely, The Universal Hall, The Macedonian Opera and Ballet, and The City Hall Center (for the midnight events), which in turn offered a wealth of sounds – innovative and traditional, open stage applauses, heaps of emotions and performance masterful energies.
The 31st SJF started its journey with avant-garde American jazz, to the surprise of many present in the packed auditorium of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet, with the concert of a great jazz name, the Chicago-based saxophonist Anthony Braxton. This is perhaps the elementary link that we may follow, and thus call this year’s festival ‘non-violent’. Thankfully so, this time, the festival made away with the glamorous, spectacular ‘red carpet’, which has lately become synonymous with the opening nights of Macedonian festivals and premiers. Therefore, despite the presence of the so-called Macedonian elites, cultural and political, the SJF offered something quite unusual for its opening, something that does not suit everyone’s taste. And this is quite important of an event, here and now, especially when attempting to conserve those precious few remaining aesthetic and cultural trademarks.
And Anthony Braxton, who has spent the better part of the last four decades creating his own unique musical language, his own authentic sound graphs, heavily influenced by the revolutionaries of European and American music, namely 20th century representatives such as Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage or Ives, gave us exactly what jazz aficionados and contemporary music followers had expected. Braxton’s inventive sounds satisfied those hungry for something different, while they disappointed those who had come to ‘party’ and have ‘fun’. His music asked of a complete and utter immersion and focus, i.e., a committed and careful listening practice. Thus, those who went along for the ride did listen and hear what he offered.
This concert marks Braxton’s second visit to Skopje, and as such it came in the format of a quarter, consisting of Taylor Bynum (trumpet), Erica Dicker (violin) and James Fei (alto saxophone); as such, it was a rare event, particularly for our midst. Even though some members of the audience, later on, during the intermission, had debated on whether Braxton’s performance was in fact jazz or if it was an event better suited for a festival celebrating contemporary classical music, as well as comments that suggested we ought to be listening to music that may liberate us from the pangs of our inhumane contemporality, and not partake on complex and stirring sounds, having Braxton as part of this festival was a true mark of exclusivity. Anthony Braxton himself, but also his band, have entered music as scientists would, certainly experiencing fully its stylistic and genre-based depths, thus choosing to ‘minimize’ its scope by experimenting in a rather pronounced and technical way. Braxton, who ‘took care’ of the electronics, together with his ‘crew’, dazzled us as instrumentalists, however, their approach to creating music, mostly based on the aleatoric system (‘chance music’) or the free system of creating that is never truly ‘free’ but rather disciplined and organized, should be respected and revered.
The festival then continued with a different musical spirit, livelier, more energized, better suited for the diverse audiences – namely, the concert of the Danish guitarist and conductor Pierre Dørge and his 9-member orchestra ‘New Jungle Orchestra’, which for this occasion was joined by the renowned flutist from India, Shashank Subramaniam. Although their music is a mix of several influences – jazz, yes, but also a number of varied musical cultures and traditions stemming from Asia and Africa – this band, nonetheless, carries with it a degree of individuality and familiarity. Some of its members, even Dørge himself, who proved an excellent leader, entertained the audiences also by engaging in humorous ways of playing their instruments and moving on stage. This particular showmanship was transferred onto a part of the music. However, the romantic themes stood out as far more appealing and convincing, as a composition created in honor of a former band mate, while sounding as a symphony with the clarinet playing the central role. Without a doubt, all members showcased their interpretative mastery; however, the appearance of Subramaniam, with his Indian flute, gave the performance a mantra-like dimension.
The second festival evening once again invited the music aficionados to the Macedonian Opera and Ballet (MOB). This time, we were made witness to an entirely different sound recipe. Firstly, on stage we got to see the trio of the Brazilian violinist Richardo Herz, joined by Pedro Ito on percussions and Michi Ruzitschka on a 7-string acoustic guitar; all in all, quite the combination, mostly due to the unusual mix of the instruments. Thanks to the SJF, musicians from Brazil have established a long history with our city and audiences respond to their rhythms with warmth and candor. This was the case with said performance, too. Herz’s violin, as announced, is indeed ‘polyphonic’, with the popular Brazilian forms gaining a different hue. As expected, Brazilian ballads were a part of the set, composed by Herz himself. He is the leader of the band, and certainly, the attention is mostly focused on him; however, the accompanying band members, particularly the guitarist, showcased immense technical skill. This trio promoted their most recent, fourth, studio album, titled “Aqui é o meu lá”, and even though the music it presented did not introduce any novelties or surprises, the atmosphere it created was rather pleasant and loose.
The second half of the evening was dedicated to music from Spain, another trio – Carles Benavent on bass, Tino Di Geraldo on drums, and Jorge Pardo on saxophone and flute. This time, as expected, jazz mixed with the rhythms of the widespread flamingo, interwoven with rock-en-roll elements. This band, which had originally been a sextet, with a vast experience of collaborating with influential jazz names, and which now functions as a trio, with its first studio collaboration being the album “Sin precedentes” (presented during the second festival evening), did not bring with them the expected freshness and diversity.
The SJF certainly stands synonymous with a rich tradition of excellent pianists, some legendary, and some, quite unpretentiously, right here in Skopje, became legendary. The third evening of this year’s jazz journey brought us one more exceptional pianist, this time from the middle generation of jazz musicians, who apparently successfully ‘walks the walk’ of his predecessors. The Swiss Malcolm Braff, born in Rio de Janeiro, but who grew up in Cape Verde and Senegal, brought with him, through his music, the experiences of the traditions he had come into contact with. In front of Skopje audiences, he had promoted his most recent creation, the album called “Inside”, one recorded for ‘Enja’, together with his trio, consisting of Reggie Washington on bass, and Lukas Koenig on drums. The audience had an emotional reaction, particularly during the romantic themes, when Braff’s piano sounded like a string orchestra. Quite expectedly, the audience sent the three musicians with ovations, and the encore performance quickly followed.
During the last few years, the sounds of the Scandinavian jazz scene and contemporary music in general, are ever more present at the SJF. As one of the most inventive artistically speaking, namely musically speaking, Norwegian artists and bands, keep inspiring us with their unconventional approach to music.
The second band performing during the festival’s third night was the Norwegian-Swedish formation “Atomic”, which as a true surprise for the SFJ’s regular audiences, did not sound anything like a Scandinavian band. The five members of “Atomic” play avant-garde jazz influenced by the American scene, thus their music does not carry across any of the trademarks associated with their birthplace. Even so, “Atomic”, particularly their drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, were quite engaged in their playfulness with ‘theme chasing’. In fact, they seemed to be constantly playing, particularly with the jazz standards, and thus justified that definition which they had themselves positioned out there, namely that the music they create “is part lecture, part urban sprawl”.
The next to last evening of the festival was dedicated to the American guitarist Pat Martino, who proved that Macedonia is amidst his many fans. Indeed, here as elsewhere in the world, Martino’s influence in terms of guitar playing is present, which in turn involves, traditional frames, a soft and immediate relationship with the instrument, and with music in general. After his superb concert, we heard the young trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire, one of those young emerging names, with an excellent future ahead.
This year’s SFJ ended in celebration of the spirit of one of the greatest jazz names of all times, the trumpet player Miles Davis. And what an ending it was. The American sextet ‘Miles Smiles’, consisting of top musicians, all somehow related to Davis’s legend, were sent out with multiple applauses after their performance on the stage of the Universal Hall.
Bearing in mind the names that belong to this band, the explosive ‘gig’ was quite expected, as well as the packed auditorium hall. Great jazz fans, Miles Davis fans, enjoyed the excellent atmosphere that this stellar band brought forth, consisting of Wallace Roney on the trumpet, Davis’s only student, then Joey Defrancesco on a Hammond organ, who thanks to Davis had come out of his shadow, Rick Margitza on sax, and Larry Coryell on guitar, who had recorded excellent sessions with the famous trumpet player, as well as, drummer Omar Hakim, the veteran of “Weather Report”, who appears on Davis’s legendary albums “Tutu” and “Amandla”. Although announced, Darryl Jones, Sting’s bassist and star performer, who had been playing lately with the rock-legends “The Rolling Stones”, did not come to Skopje, but his replacement, the bass-legend Ralph Armstrong, took on the role of band leader. On another note, he had played in Skopje a few years ago, together with the saxophonist James Carter.
The boys of “Miles Smiles” were real stars. Everyone in the band showcased their mad skills, particular to musicians of their status, bedazzling us with their solo performances. The mutual energy and communication which they shared on stage was equally impressive, and as such it transfixed the audiences. Their rich and vast experiences brought back for us the spirit of Miles Davis. His known musical characteristics, particularly those tied in to the fusion period of the 1970s and the 1980s, were strong felt, when he [Davis] had ‘electrified’ jazz, and had gathered around him many of jazz’s top names.
Skopje had the rare honor of hosting one of Davis’s most dear collaborators, and this concert of powerful music will long stay remembered. The last evening of the festival, one more name tied to the Miles Davis framework, marked the beginning of the closing ceremonies of the 31st SJF. The trumpet player Tomasz Stanko, otherwise known as ‘The Polish Miles Davis’, opened with his quartet from ‘Miles Smiles’, and with that provided a nuanced introduction into what would later on take place. Stanko and his band offered a typically European perspective of American jazz. Their music was well-packaged by what is usually called traditional jazz, meaning it did not offer any surprises in a formally related sense, but had created a beautiful and warm atmosphere. Particularly Slavko’s poignant trumpet, which had elegantly carried across the themes, releasing them in front of the others, so that they could be ‘picked up’ once again, with a hidden tension, and becoming edge.
The midnight concerts, on the other hand, offered a different kind of an atmosphere in the City Hall Center, and due to their quality, they could have easily been a part of ‘the main’ stage of the festival. Here, we had the chance to hear the Senegalese group “Le Sahel”, and then Anthony Joseph and “The Spasm Band” from the UK, with their free jazz and Afro-Caribbean fank, the British “Hidden Orchestra”, as well as Joe McPhee’s “The Thing”, otherwise considered a harbinger of the American jazz avant-garde, which left a powerful influence with the audiences present.
For those who had followed the complete program, this was a rather difficult, conditionally exhausting festival, which nonetheless brought with it a wealth of new, progressive, yet traditional sound values that opened our eyes to the world’s musical horizons.
Translated by: Bela Gligorova