XX2 Jazz Fest Sarajevo by Francesco Martinelli (New York City Jazz Record, issue 200, Decembar 2018)
For the past few years Sarajevo has been a sort of home away from home for John Zorn. Unlikely as it seems, it has to do with the global circulation of the music and unrestrained vitality of the first Masada recordings, which brought much-needed relief to the war-torn Bosnian city.
Enter Edin Zubčević, promoter extraordinaire, who, since 1995, has organized one of the most consistently engaging European jazz festivals, besides producing excellent records on his Gramofon label and contributing in general to the cultural life in various spots of the Balkans.
After the customary rollercoaster with the powers that be regarding grants and venues, Zubčević managed to put together a first-class program for the 22nd edition of the festival (Nov. 2nd-4th): a two-day Zorn extravaganza plus one evening of Bosnian artists and some side events like seminars (including yours truly presenting) and children’s concerts.
The venue remained unchanged: Dom Policije (Police Centre Theater) in a bit of an absurdist twist. The proceedings were opened by a solo saxophone performance of stunning clarity, establishing the tone immediately. Hard and transparent like a diamond, Zorn’s music was based on the masterful use of timbral possibilities, exploring different materials in two memorable improvisations continuing the Classic Game of Strategy series. Insurrection, with the twin guitars of Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg plus bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski was just that—jubilant, ferocious, played with the energy of a metal band and transparency of a Bartók string quartet. Grohowski stoked the fire, amazing for his precision and drive while never obscuring the textures.
The drastic change of pace with Petra Haden singing Zorn songs was only partially successful but certainly allowed the audience to recover before the closing set of Cobra: a glorious rendition of what is now a classic game piece, with all its irony and sense of communal music-making at play; when all the wheels and ropes began to work, creating the maze of relationships among the performers, which gives life to the vast musical fresco, even the composer/director himself seemed genuinely surprised at the power of the final result. A fitting conclusion to the evening.
The following afternoon—the Book of Angels special—saw Zorn leading a quartet with Lage, Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen followed by Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits with Brian Marsella (keyboards), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass) and Wollesen.
Exhilarating, heady music—magic indeed. The spirit of classic Masada was updated and uplifted through high-energy performance and Marsella was especially inspired and inspiring. These were hard acts to follow and Mexican contemporary klezmer band Klezmerson sounded rather tame in comparison, despite high quality musicianship.
Zorn makes it programmatically impossible for any listener to ‘like’ all his music, so drastic are its extremes. It’s in fact a challenge to the way we listen and arranging the sets in order of preference of any specific listener is at the end a futile exercise. As such, the third segment of the marathon—the second evening—had less energy, focus and clarity than the rest. Maybe even Wollesen, that apparently inexhaustible volcano, can feel a touch of fatigue after so much effort? Or is this listener that was tired instead?
Be that as it may, the guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Lage—definitely the star of this year’s edition, with his incredible flexibility in widely different situations—proved that in music more is not necessarily better while Mystic Trio sounded rather tentative, unable to take flight.
The last evening of the festival was devoted to Bosnian artists only, with a specific theme—reinterpreting the Sephardi repertoire, in a sort of indirect continuity of the Zorn/Masada esthetic.
Sarajevo was one of the last bastions of Sephardism (Spanish Jewry) and the corpus of Sephardi songs has long fascinated interpreters, from the early revival of the ‘80s by Voice of the Turtle to later reinterpretations from Thessaloniki’s Savina Yannatou. The hall was quite full, a testimony to wide interest generated by the festival and even more impressive was the quality of listening; the volume was much lower than most of the previous days and the audience was palpably engrossed in the music, with very few of those cemeterial blue lights that mark the death of two ears.
The evening was framed by two sets with guitarist Mirza Redžepagić. The first was a duo with Israeli/ Mexican contrabassist Daniel More dedicated to improvisations and classic Arabic compositions in different maqams. The second and final of the evening saw the singer Almedin Varošanin join in a brilliant combination of Sufi songs and flamenco rhythms. The last song, a Yunus Emre text set to an original melody, was especially successful.
I am not a religious person but if a church grants that angels in their Paradise sing like La Korona, the all-female a cappella choir of Sarajevo led by Tijana Vignjević, I would consider conversion. Their set was also based on Sephardi repertoire and despite some uneasiness in singing with amplification the quality of the group shone through. The vocal palette is rich, arrangements varied and ensemble sound, honed by years of singing together, remarkable. I would like to hear them in some resonant acoustic hall without amplification, but in the meantime I can recommend their soon-to-be-published record on Gramofon. Very impressive for intensity was the Barimatango trio, a Mostar-based band of voice, guitar and double bass.
Jelena Milušić’s powerful contralto voice, rich in deep resonances, delivered the Judeo-Spanish texts with full sense of drama and well-integrated backing vocals of the instrumentalists; improvised solos were kept to a minimum but had strong personalities, with chordal solos from guitarist’s Atilla Aksoj and finely tuned excursions in maqam music from bassist Edvin Hadžić.
A real gem, fitted into the repertoire, was a Zorn melody given Ladino words and brought back into the traditional repertoire, closing, as it were, the circle.