Belgrade Jazz Festival Back on the Map
A brief history of the Belgrade Jazz Festival is helpful in understanding its uniqueness, importance and formidable spirit. Founded in 1971 in Yugoslavia—a country whose status as a buffer zone between the West and the Eastern Bloc allowed for healthy jazz trafficking—the festival went on hiatus from 1991 to 2005. A dramatic comeback in the past seven years has placed the fest squarely in the ranks of programs to look out for during the European/Scandinavian autumn circuit.
For the 2012 edition on Oct. 25–28, a pair of exciting American acts—trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano’s compelling Sound Prints group, and a band led by mature-beyond-his-years trumpet dynamo Ambrose Akinmusire—were among the festival high points. The “greatest discovery at the festival” award went to the madly witty, fresh and flexible American band Mostly Other People Do The Killing.
During the festival’s four-day spread, before settling into the primary venue of the multifunctional Dom Omladine Beograda cultural center, a grand opening took place at the sprawling Sava Center, across the Danube in the newer section of Belgrade. From Serbia’s past and present came openers Darkwood Dub—a popular and established semi-prog rock band—and the appealingly dusky crooner, veteran Bisera Veletanlić. During intermission in the vast bar area, an entr’acte performance by the young and talented reedy confab called European Saxophone Ensemble, which played artful charts by Ingrid Laubrock and others, was more intellectually stimulating than the all-star blowing session road show Miles Smiles. Though blessed with the ever-engaging trumpeter Wallace Roney and organist Joey DeFrancesco, the project suffers from a rudderless format.
In general, the Serbian musical mix was a healthy cross-section of players. On the final night, we caught the showy, breezy groove-lube of veteran saxophonist-bandleader Jovan Maljokovic’s Balkan Salsa Band with the almost startlingly versatile chanteuse Ana Sofrenovic. From a younger, more venturesome corner, the clever postmodern antics of the young Blazin’ Quartet were noteworthy; they’re a multi-ethnic band based in the Netherlands, featuring Serbian limber drummer Srdan Ivanovic and the fine trombonist Michael Rorby.
Serbian bassist Nenad Vasilic led a bold and original quartet late on opening night, moving from melodic gleam to free play as Serbian-bop ornamentation came from saxophonist Vladimir Karparov and impressive accordionist Marko Zivadinovic. Serbian trumpeter Lorenz Raab also kept an elastic stylistic vantage point in his band’s set with touches of gypsy brass band flair, odd-metered slink and the sound of a boldly manned tuba, courtesy of Michel Godard.
Provocative sounds pulled into Belgrade from other global corners, as well. Trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez canceled due to a visa snafu, but the inspired sub, saxophonist Inodiel González, perked up ears.
From Poland, we heard a thrillsome example of inspired free-improv empathy from powerful saxophonist Mikolaj Trzaska and Rafal Mazur on acoustic bass guitar (a refreshing timbre). Das Kapital pumped out a visceral-vintage punk jazz sound, riffing on the 1920s- and ’30s-period themes by famed German composer Hans Eissler, a hip and happy mixed-era experiment.
Via good impressions large and small, in terms of jazz festivals worth noting, Belgrade is firmly on the map.