Zorn-centric Marathon Unfolds at Jazz Festival Ljubljana

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John Zorn performs his Hermetic Organ piece earlier in June at Jazz Festival Ljubljana, an event that unspooled 14 sets of the composer’s Bagatelles rendered by various New York musicians.

(Photo: Nada Zgank)

Jazz Festival Ljubljana owns the distinction of being Europe’s oldest continuously run jazz festival—originally started in nearby Bled. And for its 60th edition, artistic directors Bogdan Benigar and Edin Zubčević organized a characteristically diverse program, going deep with a marathon of John Zorn’s music at the front-end of the six-day event.

Last year, at Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon, Portugal, a slew of the saxophonist/composer’s projects were given full sets during the 10-day festival. In contrast, the Ljubljana installment crammed 14 disparate sets into a four-hour extravaganza—with performances ranging from 10–20 minutes. The latter format proved more dynamic and revealing, allowing listeners to absorb the impressive breadth of music from the composer’s Bagatelles book—some 300 compositions—and the rich variety of approaches taken by a stellar array of musicians.

On June 19, the night prior to the marathon, Zorn presented an iteration of his Hermetic Organ piece—an improvised work performed on a the magnificent pipe organ inside Gallus Hall, one of the numerous spaces located within the sprawling Cankarjev Dom cultural center, a Communist-era structure opened just prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Zorn took advantage of the instrument’s massive low-end, creating swirling walls of sub-bass frequencies, which he punctured with striated, jet-engine cloudbursts. Throughout the performance, he increasingly peppered the crushing sound swells with welcome interjections—upper register shrieks and terse post-bop melodies—on the alto saxophone. While the performance occasionally suffered from some spells of churning torpor, Zorn eventually found a sweet spot, especially when he harmonized his horn with brass-like peals on the organ.

The following night in the same theater, some of New York’s best musicians ripped through his Bagatelles with impressive efficiency. One-minute set changes rolled on without a hiccup; the only stumble came during the duo performance by cellists Michael Nicholas and Erik Friedlander, when the former broke the low C string on his instrument mid-piece. Yet, after a confused pause, he resumed and finished the set with only three strings, impressing both Zorn and the crowd. Aggressive sets by the New York post-punk trio Trigger (organist John Medeski, drummer Calvin Weston and guitarist David Fiuczynski) and Asmodeus (guitarist Marc Ribot, electric bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski) underlined a progressive-rock tendency in some of the composer’s recent material, where muscular virtuosity trumped instrumental subtlety.

More rewarding were sets that incorporated greater dynamic range, space and melodic elucidation, particularly a gorgeous duo set from long-time collaborators pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, which blended the precision and sterling articulation of the classical tradition with the fire of probing improvisation. A rousing solo set from pianist Craig Taborn offered colliding high-velocity, shattered glass lines and rhapsodic valleys, all crisply, rigorously voiced. Ikue Mori delivered a lovely laptop set, melding her characteristic insect-sounds and electronic swoops with electronic keyboard-like melodic patterns from Bagatelles pieces, while trumpeter Peter Evans unleashed his sizable arsenal of extended techniques in a breathtaking solo piece that flowed fluidly between tart lyricism and abraded abstractions.

There also were pieces that deployed jazz orthodoxies, whether the loose-limbed counterpoint between guitarists Mary Halvorson and Miles Okazaki (in a quartet led by the former) and crackling post-bop piano ferocity of Brian Marsella’s agile trio with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Dunn.

The festival opened with a punishing set by drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s Brazilian Funk, which reflected little of the titular style directly, but unleashed loads of ferocious grooves, with the drummer and electric bassist Felipe Zenicola sculpting frenetic thunder over which saxophonist Frode Gjerstad and cuíca experimenter Paulinho Bicolor found an unexpected upper register connection, and guitarist Bartolo splattered jagged shards of atonal scratching.

A number of Slovenian artists performed throughout the festival without leaving much of an impression. But pianist Kaja Draksler—a native now based in Copenhagen after a lengthy spell in Amsterdam—gave the best performance of the festival with her unconventional octet, finessing gossamer-fine chamber pieces, mostly built around the poetry of Robert Frost. Singers Laura Polence and Björk Nielsdottir shaped gorgeously gentle melodies, toggling between folk and operatic modes, but all sung with a looseness befitting the music’s translucent opalescence. Reedists Ada Rave and Ab Baars, and violinist George Dumitriu layered gorgeous beds of color atop the airy rhythms coaxed by drummer Onno Govaert and bassist Lennart Heyndels, as Draksler tended to stick to the background, directing the ensemble with elegant chording.

On one particularly stunning piece, most of the ensemble situated itself among the audience, as an introduction featuring the leader on kalimba and the two singers elucidating melodies in wonderfully slack harmony opened up for a ravishing violin solo during which Dumitriu produced a luxuriant drone on one string and viscous, extravagantly textured melody on another. The set concluded with a tuneful meditation that crested with a knockout tenor solo from Baars, clearly channeling the gospel cries of Albert Ayler—within a decidedly European folk setting.

Here’s hoping that promising young Slovenians manage to achieve Draksler’s wondrous heights in the coming years. DB




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