Blesok no. 92, September-October, 2013
Sound Reviews

Skopje Jazz Festival – A Fertile Soul Bearing Rare Fruit

Tina Ivanova

One more edition of the Skopje Jazz Festival is behind us. Like a butterfly, each edition pays us a quick and seemingly fleeting visit, in all of its color and beauty, always eluding our catch. At its core, music resembles one such being, ephemeral, fleeting, though the moment of contact comes across as an image-filled eternity, mediated by sadness, happiness, cruelty, romanticism, clarity, abstraction. Skopje has long been a departure point for the great musical names which have long made the Skopje Jazz Festival one of their ‘favorite’ concert stops. They depart for their homes, somewhere ‘out there’, in the US, Norway, Great Britain, France, Israel, or continue their tours on other stages, while we go back to our daily lives. Still under the influence of their art, this day-to-day existence seems far prettier. Until we come face to face with some local political conundrum, which in turn crushes our spirit, thus forcefully asking us to forsaken the music whose beauty we’d experienced not that long ago.

This past October, the Skopje Jazz Festival (SJF) brought us once again the magic of the world’s musical legacy. During its five days (evenings), different cultures and cultural presentations enlivened our stages, brought forth by artists such as Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, John Abercrombie, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Holland, who selflessly shared themselves and their art with the audiences. This year too, the Macedonian Opera and Ballet, the Universal Hall, and the City Hall Center, carried through questions on whether the Macedonian jazz ambience changes, whether it follows the emerging world trends by foregrounding looser and more avant-garde concepts vis-à-vis the more classical jazz mannerism expected by the wider public. Yet, such debates run out of steam until the moment when the Festival chooses to join in on the general populist tastes, fueled by seeming extravagance, sensationalism and spectacle. Until, in fact, it chooses to forsaken its long-established quality status.

What matters, however, is that this year’s SJF attracted younger audiences, i.e., new generations of good music aficionados that replaced the politicians who used to populate the seats, not that long ago. One of the most significant attributes, still, for the Festival itself, but also for Macedonian culture in general, was the visit by a team from the French music TV channel Mezzo, who recorded almost all of the concerts. To those familiar with the world music scene, this station records and televises only the best of concerts in the field of jazz and classical music.

It is always trilling to attend a concert by artists from the Bristol musical scene, since we are dealing with one of the world’s most important music centers, a milieu that time and time again gives birth to progressive, innovative sounds products, generally speaking, as well as in regards to jazz. The opening night of the 32nd SJF (17 October 2013, MOB) brought us a sample of Bristol’s flavors, whose sounds came from two almost oppositional creative spheres – two improvisers, the legendary Evan Parker (saxophone) and Zlatko Kaučič (percussions), as well as the new exciting band, “Get the Blessing”, a product of the famous trip-hop band “Portishead”. More than enough reasons to be there, at the Macedonian Opera and Ballet (MOB).

The start of the Festival, much like last year, avoided the spectacles of ‘modern’ pop culture, which has of late become the staple of our (Balkan) cultural ‘sensations’. Namely, it was in tune with quality music of the new sound horizons. Seventy-year old Evan Parker and sixty-year old Zlatko Kaučič, undisputed jazz legends, particularly in the area of free-jazz and improvisation, and who come from different cultural backgrounds yet grew up on the 1960s and 70s European avant-garde, decided to merge their innovative ideas and present them as such to the public. Their Skopje concert, though not to everyone’s taste and liking, brought forth lots of energy, exceptional skill of interpretation, and, certainly, a host of novelties, particularly in regards to the instrumental technique. Parker, on his saxophones, and Kaučič on percussions, including pots, pans, a tooth-brush, toys, i.e., all that can be used as a percussion pieces, for example the so-called ground drums, created a cornucopia of sounds, which when read between the sound lines, reveal a rather simple melody. They give in the moment, breathing in unison, sharing their fantastic ideas with those who’d manage to inhabit their world. And there were not many of those, if we can judge by the reactions; a member of the audience voiced the following sentiment, channeling Sandy Brown: “I’ll defend till my dying breath his right to play as he chooses, but I exercise my right not to listen to him”. Nonetheless, Parker and Kaučič create strong and brave sounds whose specificity and surrealism interject, thus offering themselves up in the format of a big band orchestra.

After a focused concentration, necessary to follow these two living legends, the audiences could finally stop and loosen up to the beats of the English quartet “Get the Blessing”, which lives up to the claims made about it in the Festival’s program as one of the most original bands in the UK. This indeed is to be expected, since Bristol gave us the trip-hop sensations of the 1990s, namely the extraordinary Tricky, “Portishead”, and “Massive Attack”, who are now followed by the progressive sounds of “Get the Blessing”, a musical group that numbers among its members former “Portishead” artists – bass player Jim Bar and drummer Clive Deamer, as well as Jake McMurchie on the saxophone, who had also collaborated with “Portishead”, and Pete Judge on the trumpet. It’s a collaboration that the critical public would describe as progressive, noise, trash band, particularly in reference to their debut album “All is Yes” that they showcased from the Skopje audiences.

Congratulating Parker on the fantastic concert, bass player Jim Bar, who also assumes the role of band leader, stated that while they create their music they tend to imagine Hollywood blockbuster films. Their uncanny English humor, with all of its accompanying satire, spread even further than the Hollywood big budget flicks, spinning short and surreal tales on the new lions in Skopje, on the size of Alexander the Great’s statute, on Einstein’s childhood.
The musical concept of this band fuses many sound expressions, yet the unexpected concert dynamics, ranging from the exciting and energetic rhythms up until the calmness of a moment, would help ground the audiences. Perhaps the realization that the bass player and the drummer are in fact “Portishead”-born, the two played an excellent rhythm section, while the wind instruments accompanied them through romantic ideas.

Certainly, this jazz-rock band will remain in our memories: boys adorning elegant black suits and white shirts, something uncannily different from what the Skopje jazz stage has seen lately.
Three different worldviews, three different musical inclinations, three different experiences, awaited us during the second and third evening of the SJF (18 October, at the MOB, and 19 October, at the Universal Hall, 2013). We traveled through icy Norway with Sidsel Endresen; we traveled all the way to eclectic New York City with John Abercrombie, only to come back home, to warmer climates, through the project “Balkan Fever”. And such cultural variety is just one of this Festival’s many attributes: if real life travel to said destinations is impossible, we can at least journey, eyes wide shut, through the provenance of music.

Guitarist John Abercrombie, who performed on the second night of the Festival, created an entirely different atmosphere than that of the opening night, though employing the same tactics of free improvisation and jazz variations. Again, there was a recognizable name from the world of music, and not just jazz, a walking-talking legend that even populist audiences know of, i.e., the contrabassist Dave Holland, who we heard at the end of this year’s festival. Which is why we’d almost anticipated brilliance, when he graced us with his presence, and that of his quartet, including Marc Copland (piano), Drew Gress (bass) and Joey Baron (drums).
This does not mean that we attended regular concert. Though the sound expression was recognizable, Abercrombie and his exceptional instrumental ‘gang’ knew how to get our adrenaline going, even solicit open stage ovations. This subtle guitarist, who had also influenced Pat Metheny for example, as well as a myriad of other guitarists, seems entirely devoted to sound, its modification in the melody offerings, with technical skills as a mere means for furthering the sound style that had become his signature sound.

And before Abercrombie’s performance, during this second festival night, we had the chance to listen to Sidsel Endresen, a sixty-year old beautiful vocalist from Norway, her second time in Skopje; this time, Endresen performed together with the experimental and extreme guitarist Stian Westerhus, who was also in charge of the electronics. Norway, at least based on what’ve had the chance to hear from the performances at the SJF, is known for its exploitation of new sound horizons, almost a leader in innovation. Such was the case with this performance, since Endresen and Westerhus, though under the influence of certain 1980s Post-punk and New Wave bands, create a new, unique collage of inspirational sounds. This concert, nonetheless, echoed the coldness of Norway as it strongly searches for warmth.
Endresen and Westerhus are an excellent creative team and they staged a performance that our audiences will long remember. Namely, we paid witness to a musical drama with an exceptional artistic concept which brought us an entirely novel experience. Sidel’s vocals, with their mild huskiness and bluesy growls, accompanied by Westerhus’s guitar, enriched by the electronic effects, which he also played with bow, at times sounding just like a mandolin, created an ambience imbued with melancholy, yet pierced by sound thunders, connoting the chaos that is reality, that is to say, acting as a counter-point to the romantic New Wave sound.

The third festival night gathered audiences in the Universal Hall, where the Macedonian Philharmonic, conducted by Kristjan Järvi, brought us the “Balkan Fever” project, and its chief protagonists: our guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski, Bulgarian kaval-player Teodisij Spasov, and Serbian-born, now American-rooted guitarist Miroslav Tadić. For our audiences, this trio of instrumental virtuosos is quite established, due to their long-lasting collaborations. Quite expectedly, the venue was too small to fit all of the interested parties, which in turn helped the new musical concept receive positive reviews. After each number, the musicians on stage were showered with thunderous applause and ovations, so that the end of the concert was followed by three encore performances, i.e., “Gipsy Dance”, “Kalajdjisko Oro”, and the long-anticipated “Gipsy Magic”.
A part of Stefanovski and Tadić’s known pieces, several Macedonian folk songs, Spasov’s compositions, all contributed to the repertoire, now arranged for a symphonic orchestra. If we take into account the musical legacy of these three soloists, endowed by unquestionable skill that never eludes audiences, coupled by the creative merger with the Macedonian Philharmonic and conductor Kristjan Järvi, the son of the famous Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, then the result should not come as a surprise.

It took nerves of steel and immeasurable patience to withstand the concert of the avant-garde jazz-saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, who took the stage on the forth night of the SJF (20 October 2013, the Universal Hall). His extreme musical concept, for those who did not know what awaited them, came as a great surprise, but in a negative sense of the word. Merely half of the audience could bear the first fifteen minutes, as they’d leave to give their ears a rest, while the remaining half withstood, patiently, yet admitting to a complete arrest of focus and concentration.

However, it is no small token that Roscoe Mitchell was a part of this year’s SJF (this was not Mitchell’s first visit); we are dealing with a living legend, a man whose entire life has been about innovation, education, over a 100 albums and performances as part of different formations; in other words, a rare musician who approaches music as a scientist. Despite the fact that Mitchell creates for those committed to musical innovation and challenges, to musical explorers and sound chasers, this seventy-three year old sage played with so much passion, strength of character and emotional range that he deserves nothing but our respect. Though his approach to music is rather singular, Mitchell anticipates sound, carrying it further into space.
Though originally envisioned as a trio, due to trumpet-player Hugh Ragin, Mitchell performed in a duet with the trombonist Tyshawn Sorey, who accompanied Mitchell on the drums and the piano. Sorey is another extreme musician who can stand his ground with Mitchell, and follow his twisted ideas. Though in the beginning their respective instruments sounded as if out of tune, slowly the music gathered form, whence each played tone was no accident, whence each sound found its place amidst the ambience.

After a lengthy pause, sometime before 11 pm, the already worn down audience, finally had the chance to hear the American jazz diva Cassandra Wilson, who as accompanied by the “Harriet Tubman” trio, with Brandon Ross on the guitar, Melvin Gibbs on the bass, and JT Lewis on the drums, promoting their new project “Black Sun”. Every festival has its star, despite the richness the journey they take us on offers. This time round it is the blues aesthetics of Wilson. Due to her charisma, the power her voice lends, everyone come under her spell. Playing the guitar herself, accompanied by her band that echoes the legendary Afro-American activist Harriet Tubman, Wilson, through music which resonates as a distant cry from the sweat of the cotton fields, brings to life the struggles of African-Americans for civil rights in the present-day social context.

With her deep voice, vibrato and clear phrasing that comes back as a boomerang, Wilson’s vocals, reminiscent of Nina Simone’s, captures in and of itself. However, Wilson was not the chief protagonist, but rather an equal member of the band of the fantastic “Harriet Tubman”, something that the audience did not expect. And their specific country/blues expression laden with folk ornaments, reminiscent of the hope for a better tomorrow, was far from the classical vocal jazz that the Skopje audiences looked for. Even so, the concert was followed attentively, with accompanying ovations.

The Festival ended with concerts by two more exceptional talents – the young Lebanese Ibrahim Maalouf (trumpet) and the English legend Dave Holland (counter-bass; 21 October, 2013, at the Universal Hall). Maalouf and his septet, whence the wind corpus reigned supreme, showed a powerful and inspirational sound that moved from subtle to rebellious dynamics. What is characteristic for Maalouf’s music, besides his authentic playing technique, is his uncommon mix of sampling different sound cultures, which is to be expected in part if we take into consideration his background, as well as his journeys outside his native land, particularly when encountering European cultural values.

Jazz aficionados, nonetheless, could not withstand their excitement for the Dave Holland performance, though this was not Holland’s first appearance at the SJF. This experienced player who has influenced not only other bass players but all of contemporary jazz musicians, brought with him a mild, romantic sound; we cannot say that such melodies were lacking with him in the past, however, what came across this time was Holland’s mature expressions that stem from his long-lasting communication with multiple audiences. This time around, he did not assume the role of front man; rather, all members of the band – Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano), and Eric Harland (drums) – assumed leading roles, yet all their looks were focused on Holland. With a degree of elegance, the band presented their “Prism” project, though in structure lacking of that typical in-your-face bravado, for those who know how to listen, the album contains many musical secrets.

Together with the midnight concerts that took place in the City Hall Center, the 32nd Skopje Jazz Festival brought us 13 events. And this year, the journey consisted of a lengthy, exhausting yet miraculous ride through the world’s sound roads. This Festival, which in our midst is the only free zone, provides a fertile ground for the fruits of the world’s musical legacy. An educational and not just sensational experience. Namely, it is a space that does not only reaffirm the already known names, but also an ambience that presents the new world tendencies in the field of music. Or, in the words of the famous composer Igor Stravinsky, music is the only area that man realizes in the present moment: hence, each edition of the SFJ mirrors the current moving forces in this parallel world we’ve come to call music.

Translated by Bela Gligorova

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