European Jazz Network Gathers in Sofia, Bulgaria

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Vasil Hajigrudev and Hristina Beleva perform as a duo during the European Jazz Network’s September gathering in Sofia, Bulgaria.

(Photo: Pavel Koev)

Every year members and guests of the European Jazz Network, which was formed in 1987, gather in a new city on the continent to network, engage in discussions and check out showcases of music from the host country. This year the event took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sept. 22–25, two years after it was originally scheduled. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, so this year’s event was a long time coming for the host city. Bulgaria has never loomed particularly large in the European jazz ecosystem.

During the wrap-up session, Dragan Ambrozić, program manager of the Belgrade Jazz Festival in Serbia, delivered some poignant remarks about what it mean for the annual gathering to finally take place in a Balkan country. Even though I’ve been living in Europe for four years now, as an American I had failed to grasp what the occasion might mean to citizens of Balkan nations. While jazz’s reach extends all around the globe, inspiring countless musicians to learn the tradition, the difficult work of fostering jazz communities in less familiar locations is usually a thankless task. Indeed, Mila Georgieva, the co-organizer of Sofia’s A to Z JazZ Festival who served as organizer of the gathering (on behalf of the A to Z Foundation), was moved to tears as she thanked the assembled guests. For those struggling to share how jazz has taken root in Balkan countries, it was clearly a moment of validation, and it was hard not to be touched by the emotions on display.

The conference took place primarily at the National Palace of Culture, part of a massive brutalist building that opened in 1981, the 130th anniversary of Bulgaria’s anniversary. The imposing edifice, which seems to shut out most natural light, couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of most participants. Following various panel discussions and lectures that occurred in the space during the day, showcases of Bulgarian jazz took place at a couple of venues also housed by the building: the mirror-laden nightclub called Sofia Live and a theater called Azaryan Theater. While the numerous groups that played throughout each afternoon and evening featured skilled players, little of the music conveyed much personality. For this listener, the most inspired and interesting performance came from the duo of Vasil Hajigrudev on double bass and Hristina Beleva on gadulka, a traditional bowed Bulgarian instrument that looked like a lute, but sounded more like a fiddle. Their set featured a number of concise duets marked by some lyric improvisation and some singing by the latter on one tune. The performance was rooted in local folk traditions, but with a contemporary elasticity that reached beyond the past with a relaxed virtuosity both inviting and gripping. I saw solid sets from trombonist Gueorgui Kornazov’s New Generation Quintet and a trio set by electric vibist Viktor Benev, bassist Evden Dmitrov and drummer Martin Hafizi, but most of the music didn’t feel quite ready for prime time in terms of conception. More disturbing was the lack of female musicians featured. In fact, Beleva was the lone female instrumentalist to perform in the showcases.

There is no shortage of excellent musicians from the Balkans, including Bulgaria, a reality vividly explained in a briskly paced presentation by Borislav Petrov, a drummer and educator. The most famous Bulgarian jazz musician remains Milcho Leviev, the pianist and composer who formed one of the country’s first jazz bands — Jazz Focus ’65 — during a time when the Communist regime still rejected the genre as a degenerate symptom of Western decadence. He fled the country in 1970 and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Don Ellis and Billy Cobham, among others. But the Bulgarian music most listeners know is either Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices), the otherworldly female vocal choir marketed to the West by Swiss producer Marcel Cellier, and Ivo Papasov’s Wedding Band, the maniacally talented clarinetist who jacked up the traditional music heard at Bulgarian weddings into a high-velocity genre of its own. The band’s international fame, however, was largely thanks to another Western producer, Joe Boyd, who released two brilliant albums by the group on his Hannibal label. While the music of Papasov and numerous others pursuing the same stylistic aesthetic incorporated plenty of wild improvisation, the tricky extended time signatures left little room for swing rhythms.

It became clear to me that the gratitude shown by Ambrozić and Georgieva indicated that if the Balkans could be more involved in more regular international exchanges, the quality and innovation of local musicians could also increase. While the Internet has made access to all kinds of music a breeze over the last couple of decades, there’s something to be said for direct experiences with boundary-pushing ideas. Most of the posters advertising upcoming gigs at Sofia Live featured fusion acts from the U.S. and Western Europe, an influence reflected in much of the music I heard during my visit. But if Bulgarians could experience a broader array of sounds from abroad, the proverbial bar would certainly be set higher.

There were other lively and touching moments during the conference, including a memorial ceremony for the late English music presenter John Cumming, a founding member of the EJN whose reach was incredibly broad. Ros Rigby, a former EJN president and program director of Sage Gateshead in England, and Nadin Deventer, artistic director of Jazzfest Berlin, both shared memories of Cumming’s generosity and enthusiasm. A keynote speech from the Belgian philosopher Alicja Gescinska raised questions about the benefit of music to society, a topic extended the following day in a debate moderated by ICP Orchestra manager Susanna von Canon. Gescinska cited various 20th century philosophers who were ambivalent about the power of music, including a mention of George Steiner, who wrote of the Nazi genocide: “How can men come home from their day’s butchery and falsehood to weep over Rilke or play Schubert?” While nobody suggested jazz was some kind of fascist tool, it certainly raised some important questions at a time when the world has felt especially off-balance. DB




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