Belgrade Fest Celebrates Global Jazz in Exciting Atmosphere


Rob Mazurek performs at the 2016 Belgrade Jazz Festival in Belgrade, Serbia.

(Photo: Tim Dickeson)

Perhaps the Belgrade Jazz Festival would be considered something of a fresh discovery to many visitors arriving from outside of Serbia. But this fest has been around a long time, and the edition that took place Oct. 26–30 was the festival’s 32nd.

The programming by Dragan Ambrozic and Vojislav Pantic struck a fruitful balance between local performers and visiting acts (both American and European). Musical styles were also wide-ranging, but all settled firmly within the jazz zone, with only the occasional sideways straying toward blues, rock or electronica.

This is a festival with welcome space for contemplation between its sets, two bands playing from 7:30 p.m. in the main theater of the Dom Omladine, and another pair starting at 11 p.m. At this fest, the music lasts until at least 2 a.m., as was the case on opening night.

On two of the evenings, the much larger Sava Centar was used for the earlier performances. The bigger theaters each have their own degrees of formality, but the scene in the upstairs studio space at Dom Omladine frequently encouraged a looser, more exciting vibe.

One of the best sets of the festival came courtesy of Rob Mazurek and the Sao Paulo Underground, a trio born during the years of that Chicago-grown cornet player’s residence in Brazil’s megalopolis.

He was joined by drummer Mauricio Takara and keyboardist Guilherme Granado, although all three are heavily immersed in synths, vocalizing, samplers and shaken percussion. This was as much a ritual as a concert, an alliance between warped electronics and organic/shamanic chanting and droning. Perhaps the closest spiritual comparison could be with the old Codona trio of Don Cherry, Colin Walcott and Naná Vasconcelos.

The band’s gradual build-up increased via bass line synth pulses, breaking into a stretch that sounded like Mexican Morricone, eventually striking Brazilian ground. Mazurek moved to the acoustic piano, creating an electroacoustic swirling, abstract tune punctuated with a touch of samba drumming.

On cornet, Mazurek shifted between two microphones, one of them treated with maximum reverb. The always-engaging pieces alternated between ambient evocations of Candomblé ritual and densely motoring electro-free blurtings. Sometimes the music would wander, seeking its source, and then a new patch of vibrant invention would be discovered.

On the festival’s second night, the Croatian singer Vesna Pisarovic presented a Yugoslavian songbook, dedicated to the popular hits of the 1950s and ’60s. She began her career as a chart-oriented performer, but has more recently swerved toward strangeness, with bassist Greg Cohen arranging off-kilter incarnations of this repertoire.

Even with no knowledge of that particular pop era, it was possible for the listener to untangle the connections between catchy lines and new-fangled jazz perversions. Thus, the songs entered a marvelous world of co-existence: hummable, romantic and melancholy, with an overlay of unusual voicings, notably the songs tackled with just saxophone and trombone accompaniment.

Pisarovic started out understated in her presence, but eventually introduced quirky gestures, theatrical expressions and even singing-in-tongues, taking on other personas within a song. (An eccentric hit parade entry!)

The Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella is best known for his virtual co-leader work with trumpeter Enrico Rava, but his own Cosmic Renaissance outfit tends to probe completely contrasting spaces.

Whereas Petrella’s work with Rava invariably involved virtuoso acoustic solo acrobatics with tight blowing precision, his approach within this personal forum is less showy, more contained within a group concept.

Petrella’s playing is coated with electronic effects, and his expression is smeared, ambient and environmental in nature, following after Sun Ra’s more out-there escapades.

The music was suspended around drifting riffs, with beats and bass lines emerging and then floating away into the ether. Around midway, the set awakened into a unison emission from Petrella and Mirco Rubegni’s trumpet, pausing for a swirling spell, then weighing in alongside a massive, bassy push. This tactic worked repeatedly, so powerful was its attack.

The All Included quintet are a mixed Scandinavian combo, founded by saxophonist Martin Küchen, and featuring the preposterously blustering trombone of Mats Aleklint, both players hailing from Sweden.

This band provided another festival highlight, with slow-motion Ayler-esqe simultaneity, Chinese gong subtlety, fast and furious slide action and incisive trumpet and saxophone solos. Flustered mute babble suggested an agitated apiary, as a flaring trumpet solo swooped above puffballing drum-thunder.

The final night offered a showcase of Serbian bands, the Szilárd Mezei Septet impressing with constructions that allied the nature of improvisation with the palette of a modern classical ensemble.

The leader’s viola was joined by flute, trombone and bass clarinet in the front line, creating an unusual sonic spread. The set opened with cool, flitting abstraction, then developed a rolling momentum, heading towards a violently bowed bass solo, as Ervin Malina stood completely alone while he dragged and groaned to startling effect.

The Schime Trio +One operated on a visceral, technique-loaded, power-themed level, inviting keyboardist Sava Miletic to join its core of saxophone, bass and drums.

A bass line power-pulse drove the tunes, with Luka Ignjatovic’s alto leading an abundance of swiftly repeating cycles, hard-nosed with rapidity. The staggering chops didn’t impede the music’s ongoing brutality and unstoppable push. DB

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