Alto Sax Reigns Supreme At Belgrade Jazz Fest

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The theme at this year’s Belgrade Jazz Festival was ‘The Future Of Jazz’. And it would seem that this future, on the evidence of this showing at least, is in the hands of alto saxophonists – from the youthful promise of Italian Francesco Cafiso and the cultured tones of German Christof Lauer, to Miguel Zenon providing some latin fire and finally Rudresh Mahanthappa, literally blowing the audience away with his passion and power.

For someone so young, Cafiso has seemingly been around a long time. Witnessing him in concert the first few times was to observe a player with great talent, though lacking in focus. I would hear Charlie Parker with strings and then a few straightforward bebop shows. He also sent me an album. Again, it was more or less straight jazz, but with little of no originality.

Fortunately, things have changed dramatically and for the past three years Cafiso has been working hard on his composition and, more importantly, his direction. For this live performance he drew largely on the recent La Banda album – echoing the sound of marching bands and pastoral villages of Cafiso’s youth, punctuated by his brilliant alto playing (and one lovely flute solo). It’s hard not to be excited by this music that sweeps you up and carries you along. His sidemen, not household names by any means, are possibly the finest he could have chosen for this project – Mauro Schiavone (piano), Humberto Amésquita (trombone), Giovanni Amato (trumpet), Peitro Ciancaglini (bass) and Jonas Burgwinkel (drums) – each in accompanying in total sympathy as, at long last, Cafiso finds the path that will enable him to realise his potential.

Christof Lauer (pictured top), working in conjunction with arranger/conductor Reiner Tempel and the Radio Television Serbia (RTS) big band, presented a tribute to Sidney Bechet – Petite Fleur. The RTS is one of the best ensembles operating in Europe and the excellent charts and adaptations of classic Bechet cuts by Tempel were stunning. Lauer himself is an excellent alto player and having already played this same show many times he has honed his performances to near perfection. ‘Si Tu Vois Ma Mère’, ‘Honysuckle Rose’ and ‘Petite Fleur’ were all afforded a contemporary feel, with Lauer’s solos almost unrecognisable from Bechet’s original scores.

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Other performances that stood out included those on the opening Serbian Night, featuring a trio of excellent bands. Guitarist and composer Igor Mišković’s Hasima led the way with their cutting edge improvisations and a series of quirky soundscapes reminiscent of art house film scores. Naked, a Balkan jazz/folk/fusion band, with the amazing Đorđa Mijuškovića on violin, then unveiled a bevy of infectious beats and folk-rooted tunes, before percussionist Vladimir Kostadinović provided a more straightahead take on Serbian jazz in the company of Jure Pukl on sax.

David Peña Dorantes, a Spanish pianist playing with percussionist Javier Ruibal and dancer Leonor Leal, was the surprise of the festival – his jazzy flamenco compositions were both lyrical and dramatic, pulling in strands of classical elements of classical. Dorantes’ touch on the piano was sublime and, while the dance element was sparse but dramatic, Leal conveyed more with a few hand movements and hip turns than dozens of US songbook singers can in a lifetime. The deep night session from Austrian singer Lia Pale was another highlight, her fragile voice, stark appearance and the heartfelt poems of Rainer Maria Rilke transformed into song were perfect for the late hour.

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Next up were the often spellbinding SupersilentArve Henriksen’s (pictured above) long-running group with electronics players Helge Sten and Ståle Storløkken. The trio weave a gritty mass of layered electronics, with Henriksen blowing horn over the top, alternating his voice between scream and murmur. Avalanches of sound suddenly die away, only to reappear stronger and more insistent moments later. It’s not always an easy listen, but this is the music’s essence and for those brave enough to stick it out it this was very rewarding.

The penultimate of the alto sax concerts was delivered by Miguel Zenon (pictured centre), a very assured and smooth player, though this was a slightly bland outing, marred by his own meddling with the acoustics in front of the microphone (no monitor and standing six feet away when puffing).

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However, the best was yet to come. The midnight show by Rudresh Mahanthappa (pictured above) was simply colossal. Playing music from his Charlie Parker tribute Bird Calls, he took no prisoners, the sweat pouring from his face as he squeezes these tunes until they bled. Opening number, based on the original ‘Donna Lee’ was a 20-minute cascade of blazing solos, each one undercutting the last, shrill and vaguely middle-eastern at times, every note perfectly chosen and played. This was Parker pushed to the absolute limit. One of my highlights of the year; amazing and liberating.

– Story and photos Tim Dickeson