Late-Night Sets Energize Belgrade Jazz Festival

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Marc Ribot performs at the 2017 Belgrade Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Tim Dickeson)

The Belgrade Jazz Festival is the ideal destination for after-midnight partying. Many such weekenders put their attendees to bed around this time, or even at 11 p.m., but each evening of this five-day Serbian event (Oct. 26–30) boasts a double bill concert that begins at 11 p.m., and maintains its energies until 2 a.m., or sometimes later. This is the festival’s most exciting scene, in terms of the atmosphere of the upstairs Amerikana bar and the selection of acts programmed in that space. At 7.30 p.m., there are a pair of acts giving concerts in the larger downstairs theater at the city centre’s Dom Omladine (Youth Centre), and on two of the nights, the festival moves to the much larger concert hall, Sava Centar, across the river in the new part of the city.

One of the most exciting Amerikana bar sets came courtesy of Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians, his large band devoted to that city’s distinctive soul-pop scene, its repertoire taken mostly from the early 1970s period. This source material is funked (and punked) up via Ribot’s crazed psychedelic guitar solos, as well as the dual bass articulacy of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Al MacDowell. For fuller authenticity, this European tour also included a three-piece string section. Stoking on the drums, Grant Calvin Weston completed the circle of rhythmic extremity and detailed power.

MacDowell handled the strummy, fuzzed high end on his piccolo bass, while Tacuma delivered the ballast funk-thumbing. Ribot’s signals to the string section generated an amount of tension, as the cues were clearly in-the-moment, based around the energies of each soloing player, and the spontaneous decision over the perfect instant to leap back into a song’s main theme. The strings moved between scything joint parts and individual solos, the latter heading out into far-flung zones of improvisatory freedom. That’s the joy with this band: the spring off from a foundation funk into a derailed freedom, sometimes barely hanging onto the song structure, but always bolting back in at the last moment, to trounce the audience with a dancing groove.

It all sounded genuinely on the edge of chaos, but revolved around Ribot’s relaxed strength of leadership. Frequently, the vocals bordered on being humorous, as Weston took the falsetto notes, in contrast to his leader’s punky shouting, “Love Rollercoaster” (by the Ohio Players) being the prime example of the set, interspersed with Ribot’s frayed solo fills. ‘Let’s get down,’ screamed drum colossus Weston repeatedly, as he stomped around the stage at the close, absolutely committed to this demand.

Straight afterwards, another fine set followed, but this was an example of curious timing, something that happened several times during the festival. The intimate duo between pianist Kris Davis and percussionist Billy Drummond should really have taken place in the early evening rather than straight after Ribot’s set, with the crowd on a wired-up high, many of them departing soon afterwards. By this time, it was around 1 a.m., and the performance was destined to be both quiet and musically challenging (to some).

Nevertheless, the pair carefully constructed a minimalist aura, revolving around the very gradual increase in piano and drum activity, often involving virtuoso repetition of hard, hammered building blocks. The speed and complexity eventually became quite remarkable. Around midway, several Thelonious Monk themes began to emerge, and this became one of the subtlest homages possible, as his material was radically re-vivified, in ways never heard previously.

Two days later, another impressive late-night set took a detour towards free-jazz, with the Portuguese tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado’s Motion Trio taking their time to ignite, but always benefiting from the constant invention of drummer Gabriel Ferrandini.

Saxophonic virtuosity was in abundance throughout the festival. The Norwegian Marius Neset had played a late set on the opening night, speaking loquaciously, at the same time as being governed by intricate thematic constructions. A few nights later, the French soprano player Emile Parisien led a quartet of his own through the convolutions of his own remarkable freebop material. Although excellent in other settings, it’s now clear that Parisien is at his most vital when leading his own outfit, with footwork to match the almost unbelievable horn contortions.

Rooted in Sidney Bechet though he might be, Parisien is also attuned to free-jazz extremity, with extra melodic folk content. Suddenly, he could become capable of a dogged repeat of a hardened structure, almost in head-banging mode, before capering off into the stratosphere once again.

In the Sava Centar, the big-name saxophonists ruled over the festival’s last two nights. Joshua Redman concocted an unusual set list that included originals and standards from different eras, opening with “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and continuing with his own “Back From Burma.” Starting with chunky solo bass from Reuben Rogers before a steady groove developed, the tune was warmly enveloped by Redman’s tenor. “Interval Training” emanated waves of cyclic progression, growing into a honk-fest, and the set climaxed with “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin.

On the festival’s closing night, still in the Sava, Donny McCaslin operated at a similarly high level, partnered by keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Jonathan Maron and drummer Zach Danziger. The leader revealed a particular rapport with Danziger, at least on the physical plane, as he frequently stalked up to the drum kit, blowing full-on within an effects hailstorm, prompting the next rhythmic escalation. Meanwhile, Lindner’s work on his array of synths and pedals is becoming ever more sophisticated.

The cavernous acoustic of the hall revealed a strangely disembodied quality to the effects surround, creating an interesting aural experience that was doubtless not intended. This didn’t interfere with McCaslin’s pugilistic groove momentum, his solos emerging from a ghostly whirlpool. David Bowie’s “Lazarus” grew to an emotive peak, with another tenor/drums face-off, McCaslin crouched low, horn thrust forward. Another Bowie number, the less obvious “Look Back In Anger,” hurtled along with a Fender Rhodes solo and a closing vocal singalong on the last choruses.

The final night’s post-midnight gig traditionally concentrates on local Serbian bands, and there were a pair of exciting examples lined up for this session. Space Tigers usually have a trumpet, alto saxophone, guitar and drums lineup, but their regular trumpeter was replaced at late notice by a second altoist, thereby creating a grouping that recalled the Spy vs. Spy combination of Tim Berne and John Zorn, or the twinned altoists of the English band Led Bib. Space Tigers locked into a metallic cross-hatching of rock-funk patterns, maintaining this hard intensity throughout their set, either with jointly entwining altos or with solo horn stretches, attaining a pinnacle of piercing precision.

On a more mood-shaping front, Tapan is an electronics duo, augmented by guest players, not least the saxophonist Jamal Al Kiswani, intent on mood-swathed North African pulsations, woven with spiral horn constructions. Their performance was a hedonistic climax to five days of dynamically varied incarnations of jazz. DB




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