Review: Skopje and Belgrade Jazz Festivals



Review: Skopje and Belgrade Jazz Festivals

Bob Weir finds plenty to enjoy at the 32nd Skopje Jazz Festival and the revived Belgrade programme, featuring Vijay Iyer and Ana Sofrenovic


Skopje is rapidly striving for identity as the capital of Macedonia which emerged so recently from the break-up of Yugoslavia. There are even more central area statues than I encountered two years ago and rebuilding is on a massive scale. Stability in these turbulent political and economic times comes in the unchanging Turkish quarter and notably with Oliver Belopeta's 32nd annual jazz festival.

The five-day programme (17-21 October) with three concerts each night was dominated by top-flight US groups ably supported by well-chosen bands from across Europe, Israel and Brazil. One night was devoted to Balkan music. The opening session had two outstanding UK attractions and the presence of the young and amiable British ambassador who takes pride in having introduced professional snooker to the country. Evan Parker with Slovenian percussionist Zlatko Kaucic got things rolling with a free-improv programme marked by long passages of sinuous, sustained brilliance and virtuosic use of circular breathing and multiphonics. There is a danger, as new sensations come along, of such exciting and experienced veterans being taken for granted, at home if not abroad, but in this form Evan is playing as well as ever. Get The Blessing, the first of several rock-influenced ensembles, wear their quality and skill lightly but their lyrical electronic grooves on craftily arranged originals were highly entertaining.

The Norwegian duo of singer Sidsel Endresen and guitar monster Stian Westerhus played a diverse set, roving across Joni Mitchell-like folk, Weimar-era jollity, haunting SF cinematic soundscapes and spirituals, and all played with astonishing technical skill by both participants. John Abercrombie's Quartet followed to play from their new ECM album with a fine display of interaction and rapport and thrilling extended solos from the leader and pianist Marc Copland. Israeli trombonist Reut Regev's R*Time provided lively, funky fun at the midnight session.

Balkan Fever featured the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra with three renowned folk musicians on well-known folk-jazz and film themes to the delight of a partisan crowd. Guitarist Nicola Conte's influential blend of acid-jazz and bossa nova with a fine Italian sextet was hugely enjoyable at midnight.

Solid jazz virtues were reintroduced next night by the endlessly inventive Roscoe Mitchell on reeds with superb support by Hugh Ragin (tp) and Tyshawn Sorey (d, tb, p). This was free-improv at its best by absolute masters. Cassandra Wilson surprised many people with a break from her usual programme of standards and blues. Her Black Sun project, playing as a fully integrated singer/electric guitarist with the Harriet Tubman Trio, was a beguiling, contemporary take on black roots music in all its forms. Trumpeter Peter Evans (ex Other People Do The Killing) closed the night with astonishing technique at crazy-fast tempos and with a touch of Balkan gypsy trumpet to delight the locals. 

Perhaps the best came on the last night with the inspired pairing of Ibrahim Maalouf's Illusions and Dave Holland's Prism. The Lebanese trumpeter used a heavy-metal rhythm section and three other trumpeters who employed the leader's signature extra valve for exotic Middle-Eastern micro-tonal flavour. They played barnstorming anthems which threatened to lift the concert hall roof, balanced with quietly evocative reveries of Ibrahim's Beirut childhood. Dave Holland's supergroup (Kevin Eubanks (elg), Craig Taborn (kyb) and Eric Harland (d)) gave us the concentrated essence of jazz with the blues at its centre. Each player held interest over long solos on mostly new music. The presentation was restrained to avoid any distractions from pure jazz at its finest. Rob Mazurek and Sao Paulo Underground closed this thrilling festival in suitably genre-bending style.

Belgrade is a large cosmopolitan capital buzzing with energy and artistic activity (there are more bookshops and art galleries in the centre than any other place I know). The ninth edition of the revived jazz festival (24-28 October) presented a very appealing programme, despite severe budget cuts, with tickets sold out for nearly every show. There were two to four concerts each night with lots of supplementary attractions.

The Serbian Radio & TV Big Band celebrated their 65th anniversary with an exhilarating opening concert on Friday featuring the trumpet and challenging arrangements of Bert Joris from Belgium. Cassandra Wilson with the Harriet Tubman Trio then reprised the Skopje Black Sun project with perhaps a little less intimacy at the large Sava Centre, although the innovation of back-projected old and rare photos of slavery and emancipation did intensify the meaning of the songs remarkably well.

Saturday started with the Eyot quartet, one of several exciting fusion bands on the programme. Lee Konitz (pictured above right) followed accompanied by Dan Tepfer (p) for a relaxed exposition of his favourite songs. His expression when he recognised a photo of his 25-year-old self (63 years ago) on the festival poster was a delight. The Italian Gianluca Petrella (tb) and Giovanni Guidi (p) duo Soupstar played with great freedom and excitement with constant reminders of the jazz trombone tradition from Tricky Sam onwards. The Yuri Honing Acoustic Quartet from the Netherlands featuring the saxophonist/composer leader and highly talented pianist Wolfert Brederode performed adventurous, eclectic originals and rock covers to great acclaim.

The popular local group Fish In Oil opened on Sunday but I found their mix of electric Ribot-Waits-Zorn a mite fragmented and derivative. What followed was one of the surprises and intense delights of the whole festival. Singer/actor (famous in the Balkans) Ana Sofrenovic (pictured above left) was here last year with a straightforward set of standards and Serbian evergreens. But this time she had a completely brave and original approach. She used her considerable vocal and dramatic talents to the full for a conceptual sequence of very diverse and slowly evolving material (original song suites, Billie tribute, cod-swing etc) linked by hushed passages of avant-garde ambient vocalising. Her show divided the audience and provoked more post-concert discussion than anything else this year but it is an idea that can be developed to make a compelling attraction for future concerts and festivals. The Julia Hulsman Trio (Hulsman pictured above right) from Germany with newly joined Brit Tom Arthurs on trumpet and the Swiss Nik Bartsch's Ronin brought things down to earth with nicely contrasting ECM music.

Sunday was the other outstanding night, but this time consistently throughout the three concerts. This was due to the remarkable quality of three pianists - Leszek Mozdzer (Poland) playing solo and the Israelis Yaron Herman with the Lars Danielsson Libretto quartet and Shai Maestro in a trio. I knew the abilities of Yaron and Shai from other festivals but Leszek was a revelation. His prodigious technique was used with fine sensitivity to create a very individual style for interpretations of Chopin, Komeda, Chick Corea and eloquent standards. An encore sequence of duets with master bassist Lars Danielsson was equally thrilling.

After this, the closing night was a bit of an anticlimax. The Portugese duo Julio Resende (p) and Maria Joao (v) offered Fado And Further but to my ears it was more Further than Fado. Resende was too technical and emotionally detached for the genre and Joao's eccentric presentation, despite a remarkably flexible voice, was distracting. The Vijay Iyer Trio (Iyer pictured left) raised the standard with some mesmeric grooves for a rousing finale to the festival.

Post-concert visits to the Cekaonica jazz and Vox blues clubs prolonged enjoyment socially and musically (a 4am finish was typical). Standout sessions at Cekaonica, atmospherically located high in a semi-derelict printing works with spectacular views over the city and Danube, included gifted Serbian pianist Vlade Maricic jamming with members of the RTS Big Band and a visit by Leszek Mozdzer and Shai Maestro letting their hair down on hard-swinging bebop classics. Vox, with good local bands and a mass of blues memorabilia on display - now including a selection of JJ photographer Tim Dickeson's portraits of blues legends - is always a treat. There were interesting exhibitions on the local Association of Jazz Musicians, the RTS Big Band, the ACT music label and a wonderful display of large photographs on cloth from the Ivan Grlic Serbian Jazz, Bre! Project, which deserve to be more widely known. The Stankovic Music School Jazz Section was also involved (the festival has always been strong on encouraging young players).  

Both festivals appear to be in good hands for the future. Skopje's Oliver Belopeta, with urbane efficiency and attention to detail, has the knack of assembling well-balanced programmes of on-form established and rising stars, year on year. Belgrade's organisational triumverate of Marko Stojanovic (festival director), Dragan Ambrozic (programme director) and Voja Pantic (artistic director) already have exciting expansion plans to mark the 10th anniversary. The websites to monitor for future news are and

Photos by John Watson

Photo of Vijay Iyer by Rita Pinkse