Cécile McLorin Salvant, Oded Tzur Quartet and Rudresh Mahanthappa power up at Pančevo Jazz Festival

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The unfeasibly warm November weather was matched by the heat generated by this small but perfectly formed festival 30km from Serbia’s capital Belgrade.

The opening night featured a blistering set from Gianluca Petrella joined for the first time by Italian compatriots Michelle Rabia (percussion, electronics) and the brilliant vibes player Pasquale Mirra. I saw Petrella and Mirra as a duo in the summer, which was great, but here with the added colouring and time keeping of Rabia, the set was on another level. Petrella is an ebullient player commanding the stage and coaxing the best from his band. However, Mirra almost steals the show: his solos are intoxicating, either playing unbelievably fast runs – his hands and mallets a blur over the vibraphone – or he can be subtle and soulful as he bends the notes around Petrella’s plaintiff trombone.

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Rudresh Mahanthappa also put in a huge shift. His current band the Indo-Pak coalition (above) featuring Rez Abbasi (guitar) and Dan Weiss (tabla) played songs from his Agrima album. For all the sweat and effort this trio seems to lack the fire and sheer power of his Bird Calls band and ultimately I left feeling a little disappointed, not in their individual playing but in the total musicality of the set.

The double bill of Ralph Towner (below) followed by the Oded Tzur Quartet left one in no doubt that jazz can still surprise and delight in spades. Towner, playing solo, is still the master of his instrument. At 78 his memory may not quite be what it was (he alluded to this in a pre-concert talk) but his ability to play and draw the audience into his quiet, delicate soundworld is undeniable. ‘Dolomiti Dance’ and ‘If’ were touching and ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ was just sublime. With the audience attentive and spellbound this was a beautiful concert.

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The following performance was a real ‘wow’ moment. I knew nothing of the Israeli saxophonist Oded Tzur (below) but seeing that Nitai Hershkovits (former Avisahi Cohen sideman) was on piano one suspected it would be something special. Tzur has an incredibly different way of playing his sax – apparently stemming from his love and study of Indian music – he uses slow gentle blowing to generate a thin and ethereal sound which he can slide between notes – similar to a fretless bass glissando. Obviously a whole concert based on this one trick would be a little boring but Tzur is a master at bringing it in just at the right moment. The first song – slow and mournful introduces this sound – which Hershkovits took over on to the piano and the cross cultural marriage is made. Tzur can blow too, as can the rest of the band – Colin Stranahan on drums and Petros Klampanis on bass solid behind the two soloists up front. ‘Single Mother’ and ‘Whale Song’ are both beautiful and descriptive pieces - an ideal entry point for this fascinating music.

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The last night of the festival brought together the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band and Cécile McLorin Salvant (picture top) as special guest. At the pre-concert talk John Clayton elaborated on how much work goes in shaping the music to fit the style of the singer and allowing room for them to ‘make the song personal’.

The first half of the concert gave the orchestra the chance to shine on their own but it was the latter part of the second half when Salvant took the stage that the evening really lit up. She’s a brilliant interpreter of the classics and with this excellent band behind her its not hard to see why she is probably the top female vocalist in the world today. Her choice of material is wide and refreshingly different - The Beatles ‘And I love him’, ‘Where Is Love’, from the musical Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘I hate a man like you’, Ruth Brown’s ‘I Don’t know’ and Judy Garland’s ‘The Trolley Song’ – this was a great set beautifully delivered.

For a small city just a stones throw from Belgrade this is a gem of a festival – the venue is compact and intimate and the tickets a few euros each. The festival consistently books top quality artists and never fails to entertain the sell out audiences. The Pančevo Jazz Festival is always the first weekend in November.

Story and photos Tim Dickeson