Back on the Balkans beat

Words and pictures by John Watson

Belgrade Jazz Festival
26 to 30-10-2016

Pancevo Jazz Festival
03 to 06-11-2016

It’s a mystery to me how I managed to miss out on a country’s marvellous jazz scene for so many years. Great festivals featuring giants of jazz, rising stars from many parts of Europe. . . and packed audiences including huge numbers of young people.

This year was the third in succession that I’ve attended festivals in Serbia as a photographer and writer, and once again the whole experience has been a musical joy. The Belgrade Jazz Festival has a long history, and the Pancevo Jazz Festival – in a small town just north of the capital – will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. The festivals run on consecutive weekends in late October to early November (and will do so again next year). Extraordinarily, the Pancevo festival clashes directly with a major festival in another city from the former Yugoslavia – Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. John Zorn was the main star of the Sarajevo festival, but the Pancevo line-up was so strong that fans must have felt seriously torn between the two events.

Avishai Cohen at the Belgrade Jazz Festival (Photo © John Watson/

Avishai Cohen at the Belgrade Jazz Festival (Photo © John Watson/

First, though, to Belgrade for its 32nd jazz festival, and a great deal of stupendous music. Under the direction of programme manager Dragan Ambrozic and a team with such experienced and inspired figures as Vojislav Pantic and director Nenad Dragovic, the Belgrade festival once again offered an immensely strong programme, with stars including bassist Avishai Cohen’s Trio, Jack DeJohnette with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, Aziza with Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland, the Tord Gustavsen Quartet, accordion wizard Vincent Peirani with his group Living Being, and from Portugal the superb Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos.

Appropriately, the festival opened – at the Dom Omladine culture centre – with a concert by a leading Serbian pianist, Vlada Maricic and his Quartet, featured American guest star trumpeter Brian Lynch. Many fans will know Lynch’s work with the Horace Silver Quintet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the groups of altoist Phil Woods and the big band of Toshiko Akiyoshi. He’s a splendidly articulate soloist, and his work with Maricic’s group drew fine performances of Latin jazz – with the pianist adding the dramatic flavours of Balkan folk styles in some well-conceived arrangements.  This was followed by a stupendous performance from Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez (with bassist Munir Hossn and drummer Michael Olivera) – dramatic, fast-paced and full of rich musicality.  In late night shows, cool-toned Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma led a fine group in original pieces, and Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs was completely captivating with her trio – this is a sublime group with a delicate, atmospheric touch and I want to hear them again soon.

The highlight of the whole festival, for me, was the spectacular performance the following in the huge Sava Centar by Israeli bass virtuoso Avishai Cohen, with pianist Omri Mor and percussionist Itamar Doari. The intense emphasis on driving percussive attack created some of the most exciting music I’ve heard for a long while. After a standing ovation, Cohen had to give way on time grounds to the flamenco quintet of harmonica player Antonio Serrano – fine playing, but an inevitable anti-climax. Later that evening at Dom Omladine, the trio of Austrian pianist David Helbock played a throughtful, beautifully constructed set.

Then back to the Sava Centar the following evening, with DeJohnette, Coltrane and Garrison opening the show. There was a great deal to enjoy – including some tender piano work from DeJohnette – but a long trio improvisation tended to meander. The musical focus drew sharper towards the end of their set.  The group Aziza – with Holland, Potter, Loueke and Harland simply having a ball – delighted the crowd, with strong rhythmic pulses and, notably, fiery but immensely inventive soloing from Potter.

Tord Gustavsen’s Quartet was presented later that night back at the Dom Omladine centre, but – oddly – in the venue’s upstairs room Amerikana, which has a club atmosphere more suited to wilder music. Tord played, as always, exquisitely, but the venue’s main hall would have been a better choice of setting. In that hall, accordionist Vincent Peirani gave a superb show, followed by virtuoso Italian trombonist Gianluca Petrella’s exciting band Cosmic Renaissance.  There were plenty of wild sounds in the Amerikana hall, with cornetist Rob Mazurek and Sao Paulo Underground, the Horse Orchestra (from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland), and Serbian violaist Szilard Mezei and his adventurous septet. Strongly driving straight-ahead quartet work, too, from another Serbian band, the Schime Trio Plus One, a real highlight of the festival. Another highlight, in the main hall, was the Portuguese Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos, playing the lushly warm-toned arrangements of pianist/accordionist Joao Paulo Esteves da Silva.

On to Pancevo, where the festival concerts, and late night jam sessions, are all staged in the Kulturni Centar (culture centre). The opening performance by American pianist Myra Melford’s group Snowy Egret was a disappointment, a mixture of free playing and composed pieces that never really convinced in any direction, though cornetist Ron Miles did have some fine moments. Guitar legend John Scofield more than made up for the Melford offering, with his new all-star group Country For Old Men – bassist Steve Swallow, organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart. Their transformation of country music hits was an unqualified joy, and the soloing from the leader and from Goldings was simply magnificent.

Sadly, less successful was the appearance the following evening by veteran alto saxophonist Lee Konitz with the excellent RTS Big Band in a programme of standards.  The 89-year-old cool school legend was in good humour, but, unfortunately, in fragile form musically. The big band played out the show with snappy versions of Count Basie classics, while Konitz stood, smiled and watched.

Italian brass master Enrico Rava brought only joy in the second half of the evening, with his new quartet: guitarist Francesco Diodati, bassist Gabriele Evangelista, and drummer Enrico Morello. Rava’s flugelhorn was just sublime, his tone dripping pure gold, while Diodati engaged in frantic, sharp-toned duels with the leader as well as creating imaginative extended solos.

The opening concert the following evening, with cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) duo Miklos Lukacs and Kalman Balogh was rather odd programming. The instrument has featured on several excellent ECM recordings, but always in support of creative jazz improvisers, but this was a straightforward folk performance – impressive technically, but rather out of place in a jazz festival.

Two Serbian bands, the piano trio Sound Sculptures and the quintet of drummer Lazar Tosic, offered plenty of enjoyable straight-ahead jazz, but the concluding concert by U.S. saxophonist James Carter’s Organ Trio was truly sensational. Carter – with Hammond organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Alex White – ripped with all guns blazing into a repertoire of compositions by. or associated with, Django Reinhardt – a bold approach which worked magnificently well. Yes, Carter could be accused of playing to the gallery with unabashed showmanship, but his tremendous musicality and endless inventiveness was a joy. A breathtaking way to close out the 19th Pancevo festival. I can’t wait to be back.

James Carter at the Pancevo Jazz Festival (Photo © John Watson/

James Carter at the Pancevo Jazz Festival (Photo © John Watson/

For John’s full photo galleries of these festivals at use the following links:

  • Belgrade Jazz Festival 2016 is HERE.
  • Pancevo Jazz Festival 2016 is HERE.

Categories: Live review

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