This year's autumn jazz festivals in Belgrade and Pancevo (just 25kms away from Belgrade) showed once again the passion and reverence the Balkan countries have when it comes to jazz. Both events featured a mix of top American and European names, with a broad range of lesser known and breaking through artists. The possibility to discover an as yet unknown talent is always a distinct possibility.
Two artists appearing at the Belgrade festival who definitely fell into this category were Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and Austrian pianist David Helbock – both highly impressive composers and performers. Rodriguez, who was spotted by Quincy Jones at the Montreux young pianist competition a few years ago, has all the hallmarks of fellow countrymen Roberto Fonseca, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes, but retains his own sound. His trio's performance was one of the highlights at the Dom Omladine Youth Centre in the heart of the city.
Helbock (a multiple Montreux piano competition winner), who impressed with the band Random/Control at this years Bolzano Festival, showed that he's also someone to look out for in the future. Here with his trio of Raphael Preuschl on bass and Reinhold Schmolzer on drums, the music was heady and intricate – the interplay between them mesmerizing – the themes of the music inspired by the worlds of myth and legend.
Of the bigger-named artists appearing in the much larger seated Sava Centre across the river in New Belgrade. Dave Holland's Aziza (with the imperious Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland) were fabulous – at times hard-driving rock, at others more free-flowing jazz – the band and particularly Potter shone on every number. It was equally wonderful to hear Loueke just let rip on a number of occasions.
Avishai Cohen was in slightly reflective mood, some might say 'laid-back'. But what his set may have lacked in outright energy was more than compensated for by the superb band he has assembled (Omri Mor on piano and Hamar Doari on percussion). Together they are probably the best piano trio around.
Other standout shows at the Dom Omladine included Tord Gustavsen featuring Tore Brunborg. The intense passion he brings to his music is spellbinding, at times the only audible sounds were his fingers gently stroking the piano keys, coaxing out notes. By contrast, Gianluca Petrela and his Cosmic Renaissance band were joyfully tripping their way through some inventive Sun Ra-type compositions that had the audience stamping their feet for more.
Pancevo is a very relaxed festival, this time located in the town's Cultural Centre with two concerts per evening and, as at Belgrade, a jam session to follow lasting until around 2am. The mix is similar to Belgrade – big name American and Europeans, plus lesser-known artists who've taken the ear of artistic director Voja Pantic, who unsurprisingly, is also artistic adviser to the Belgrade festival.
The Americans were led by, Lee Konitz, featured soloist in the RTS Big Band (probably the best professional big band in the Balkans). Konitz's playing was wobbly at times, but it's still immediately recognisable by its tone and phrasing.
John Scofield brought his 'Country for Old Men' project, a wonderful romp through some old classics that, at some time or another have taken Scofield's ear. His band, featuring Larry Goldings on keys, Bill Stewart on drums and the brilliant Steve Swallow on bass, were clearly having so much fun on stage, their joy and enthusiasm transferring to the gathered crowd.
Enrico Rava's New Quartet played a blistering set, nobody contributing more than guitarist Franceso Diodati, who lit up the stage with his brillant playing. He's a real find from Rava, an axeman blossoming into a really classy musician.
The Balkans were well represented by the Romanian cimbalon duo of Miklos Lukacs and Kalman Balogh, the Lazar Tosic Quintet and Sound Sculptures, led by the impressive RTS Big Band pianist Ivan Aleksijevic.
But the best was kept for last, as the final show of this year's festival featured the James Carter Organ Trio playing a set comprising of Django Reinhardt material (although even a devotee would have been pushed to recognise the tunes). Carter takes no prisoners, from the outset his solos are fast and frenetic, honking low or squealing high, but always beautiful. Gerard Gibbs was almost dancing on the Hammond with Eddie Alex White anchoring it down and heavy on drums. This is a power trio in every sense. The triumphant encore of 'Nuages' left everyone sweating – Carter and band dripping sweat from their efforts, the audience out of breath and with sore hands from the applause they offered up at the end of the show.
– Story and Photos by Tim Dickeson