Festival Report

Ljubljana Jazz Festival
By Ken Waxman

Located on both banks of the picturesque Ljubljanica River, Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, is a pleasant city containing, unique historical edifices mostly designed by the city’s early 20th century starchitect Jože Plečnik. Ljubljana is replete with pedestrian-only areas, especially near the iconic Triple Bridge, with parts of its main street restricted to public transit and bicycles. In modern times, Ljubljana has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under Italian or French control, ruled by native dictators and kings and a member of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Declaring independence in 1991, Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004. Always supportive of improvised music, the Ljubljana Jazz Festival celebrated its 57th anniversary June 29th-July 2nd this year. Performances were presented in different indoor spaces and the back-garden of the multi-level Cankarjev Dom cultural centre, one of Europe’s largest.

Proceedings started with a literal bang in the open air when German drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer, 73, played his first-ever Ljubljana concert. With a set that was pedagogical as well as imposing, Sommer outlined jazz’s percussion history, starting with the targeted tom-tom beat of his namesake Baby Dodds, moving through the authorities brush work of Philly Joe Jones, shouting “we insist!” while shaking a large gong in tribute to Max Roach and bouncing his sticks during “Art Goes Art”, saluting Blakey, while blowing a hydra-headed upright alphorn. Ultimately Sommer recognized his own free-form achievements with a concluding tune where he whacked mallets on a wooden box suggesting African influences, rhythmically rattled maracas, patted the skins of three specially tuned drums and squalled on harmonica.

Sommer was entertaining without creating a spectacle, but spectacle was the aim of France’s 25-piece Surnatural Orchestra Cirque Inextremiste (SNOCI), on stage in the Dom’s mid-sized Linhart Hall later that evening. Balance with most bands involves textures, but with SNOCI, it consisted of ensuring horn section member didn’t fall off a plank revolving on top of single milk can. Coming across like a combination of a college stage band and Cirque du Soleil, the enthusiastic musicians pulled off some interesting sounds while being buffeted by a giant fan or sharing a see-saw with an acrobat. Considering the evening’s focus involved audience volunteers pulling firmly on the stout rope holding upright the apparatus on which tightrope walker Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga balanced, music was mostly reduced to accompaniment.

More equality between musical function and pageant was Supersonic’s performance the following day’s at the sixth floor CD Club. Another French product, the band was led by bushy-bearded Thomas de Pourquery who shrilly rasped on alto saxophone and saluted Sun Ra’s legacy via songs that ranged from “Discipline” to “Space is the Place”. Building on the four-square rhythm of electric bassist Frederick Galiay, pushing patterns from drummer Edward Perraud, plus spacey synthesizer interludes from pianist Arnaud Roulin, de Pourquery, trumpeter Fabrice Martinez and tenor/baritone saxophonist Laurent Bardainne propelled road-house styled funk during solo spots when not swaying in a Gallic variant of the Mar-Keys’ dance moves.

More erudite reed elaborations were demonstrated by horn players featured in groups which split a Linhart Hall show earlier that evening. From the US, was alto saxophonist Darius Jones with drummer Nasheet Waits’ Equality, also including bassist Mark Helias and pianist Abel Calderon. Slovenian guitarist Samo Šalamon’s sextet featured Italian bass clarinettist Achille Succi and British tenor/soprano saxophonist Julian Arguelles as well as French-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper plus drummers Christian Lillinger from Germany and Roberto Dani from Italy. Most of Šalamon’s tunes were like chocolate-covered ginger: smooth on the surface, piquant underneath. This was most evident when the guitarist’s individualized neck hand taps or choked chording met Arguelles’ creamy trills or glides. Overall the sextet attained a steady groove, aided by double bass bumps and taut percussion counterpoint. In contrast, Jones’ blues base and loose singsong exposition suggested Cannonball Adderley, maintaining its modernity with foghorn honks that became looser and more romantic as he seconded Waits’ elastic backbeat.

More reed mastery came at the CD club Friday night as Brooklyn’s Ned Rothenberg showcased his dexterity on alto saxophone, clarinet and sakuhachi during a premiere meeting with Chicago percussion Hamid Drake and Slovenian-in-Amsterdam pianist Kaja Draksler. Beginning and ending with hushed explorations involving the keyboard’s string set, singular drum pops and continuous reed breaths, the three paced themselves so subtly that it took awhile to realize that significant textural changes evolved as tongue slaps, pile-driver piano chording and cymbal clangs became evident. At one point Rothenberg unleashed fluttering circular breathing as Draksler transformed herself into a ragtime key-tickler. As comfortable on this musical tightrope as Mosio-Bongonga was on her physical one, each time one of the players seemed in danger of losing sonic footing, abrupt stops and starts quickly straightened the interface.

Similar concentration was evident earlier Friday in Linhart Hall with the French trio of pianist Eve Risser, bassist Benjamin Duboc and drummer Perraud. Evolving like a film of a slowly blossoming flower, every string pluck, key stop or delicate cymbal tap contributed to the sound picture. With the drummer’s playing as unpressured as it was high energy with Supersonic, a quarter-hour of slight surface disruption passed before the piece turned to unforced swing. Release came in the form of Risser’s left-hand exposition. Piano (Lisa Ullén), bass (Elsa Bergman) and drums (Ann Lund) were in evidence later in the evening at the CD club, but Attack, Swedish band’s name, defined its parameters. Dedicated to the compositions and hectoring shrills of alto saxophonist Anna Högberg, additional pressure was asserted by tenor saxophonists Malin Wättring and Elin Larsson. Harsh and incendiary from the first, Attack was influenced by Metal and Punk plus Free Jazz. One part screech, one part smash, most pieces developed into challenges between Högberg and Lund.

Drummers also dominated the festival’s last day, including Simon Phillips, in Japanese pianist Hiromi’s trio project along with electric bassist Anthony Jackson. The three were presented complete with a light show, in ornate Gallus Hall, the Dom’s largest. Sporting a kit bigger than any other two combined, Philips played as aggressively as if he was in sports arena, splashing exaggerated backbeats. Except for a single snoozy ballad, Hiromi’s peppery compositions were built around frequently repeated keyboard riffs. More notable was a Risser-Draksler piano duet which opened for Hiromi – literally – they played stage front – the headliner’s trio on a stage riser. While Risser was more committed to using soft mallets and preparations on strings, and Draksler to single-note melodic inventions, whether they clipped keys, echoed chords or strummed harp-like, they resembled fraternal twins, completing each other’s thoughts. Climax was a dramatic excursion into the pianos’ pedal-emphasized darker regions and finale a tense, rolling interpretation of “Ida Lupino”.

A solo outdoor concert earlier found Drake confirming his percussion prowess. Sustaining effortless swing, he tapped bells, cymbals and various drums for maximum effect. The emphatic finale found him pulling as many timbres from a hand-patted frame drum as from a full kit, accompanying a hypnotic, multi-lingual chant, sung with the sincerity and skill of a griot. Those qualities were also in evidence as Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s 12-piece all-Scandinavian Large Unit overwhelmed the CD’s club’s stage for the festival’s final show. But so was an aggressive sense assault. Prodded by two drummers, two electric bassists, an electric guitarist and Tommi Keränen’s electronic loops, the unit played with the stamina of rock band and the finesse of the best-drilled jazz ensemble. Sizzling and kaleidoscopic, most of the swaggering riffs evolved on top of zesty ostinatos that never limited solos. Stand-outs included trombonist Mats Äleklint modified gutbucket blasts; tubaist Per Åke Holmlander rumbling burbles; and Ketil Gutvik’s guitar which sliced through the maximized polyphony without resorting to arena-rock licks. The Ljubljana Jazz Festival demonstrated in 2016 as in years past, that the best music brings consensus no matter the political climate.

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2016