Festival Report

Brda Contemporary Music Festival
By Ken Waxman

Good things come in small packages as the saying goes, and when it comes to a setting for a creative music festival, it’s likely difficult to find a smaller location than Šmartno, a fortified hamlet of 30 souls in Slovenia, which hosted the sixth edition of the Brda Contemporary Music Festival (BCMF) September 15th-17th. Laid out with a few winding cobblestone streets among restored and crumbling walls and buildings, the camp-type fortress dates back to the 15th century and was declared a cultural monument in 1985. Šmartno is just one of the miniscule homesteads which cling to the steep hills and curving roads of the Goriška Brda area (total population 5,000), located about midway between Triste, Italy and Ljubljana. Slovenia’s Napa Valley, Goriška Brda’s Mediterranean-like climate boasts more than 150 wine producers, with vineyards seemingly strung across every hill. BCMF itself takes place in and around Šmartno’s Hiše Kulture, consisting of three older dwelling joined together, with three floors now housing a bar, an art gallery and the Jazz Podium a basement performance space, with a raised stage topped with green, pool-table-felt-like material.

An early-evening entrée to the sumptuous meal that was BCMF, was bassist Žiga Golob played an unassuming solo set that took full advantage of resonations from the art gallery’s white-washed walls and varnished floors. Moving in-and-out of tempo, he combined folksy melodies with below-the-bridge scratching and string tapping. Working variations on each string, Golob took each timbre to its logical extension. A similar utilization of a building’s acoustics was part of the festival’s first official concert that evening in Šmartno’s historic St. Martin baroque church by Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker. Moving among soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, Anker played directly in front of the alter propelling circular-breathed multiphonics that bounced back in flurries due to the timeworn walls’ natural echo. Hitting Corinthian columns and a peaked ceiling, notes continued to resonate long after being sounded. Later Anker inserting a plastic water bottle into her tenor saxophone’s bell led to low-pitched rasps until the reed flow was finally reduced to stylized slurs.

In contrast to Anker’s muted showcase, the first day’s concluding concert in the Jazz Podium was the epitome of extroverted Free Jazz with veteran Italian saxophonists, Flavio Brumat (tenor) and Mimo Cogliandro (soprano), setting the-pace alongside a young Slovenian rhythm team of drummer Marko Lasič and bassist Matjaž Bajc. Coming across like two halves of late-period John Coltrane, the saxophonists often commingled their timbres to reach higher and sharper textures, shearing tones and spearing notes with equal facility. Countering the unceasing onslaught Bajc and Lasič were minimalist and inventive. Bass thumps anchored the bottom while the drummer complemented and combated the reedists with tropes ranging from rim shots to balloon-deflating squeaks. Still, like a modern building carefully constructed around a traditional façade, the enhanced result matched perfectly.

Before Lasič demonstrated his versatility as part of a trio midway through the second night’s performances, the evening began with a threesome of Japanese violist Reiko Okuda, Finnish bassist Antti Virtaranta and Slovenian percussionist Jaka Berger. Sometimes substituting knitting needles for drum sticks and slapping a floor conga with one hand as he rubbed drum tops, Berger joined the bassist’s irregular strokes and string-gripping actions to set up a continuous groove. Amplified by feedback triggered by string finger taps and plucks via a contact mike attached to her viola, Okuda’s drone was solid enough to mesmerize but bumpy enough to accentuate the trio’s subtle communication. In the next set, playing solo then joined first by alto saxophonist Jure Borsič and latterly by guitarist Aleš Valentinčič-Brdonč, Lasič’s hard smacks allowed him to highlight single accents as well as flowing rhythms. Besides backing Borsič’s sharp phasing with syncopated snaps, the drummer simultaneously demonstrated how punkish guitar distortion could be herded into connectivity with properly vibrated strokes and a few bell shakes.

Electricity in a different form played a part in that night’s closing set featuring Poles, trumpeter Artur Majewski and acoustic bass guitarist Rafal Mazur. Sporadically the trumpeter sounded a phrase then processed it to suggest a second trumpet line. Used judiciously these terse interludes were like waves that agitated the otherwise placid waters of his exposition. Like a reversible garment, Mazur’s instrument had two functions. Strummed horizontally it provided a percussive buttress for Majewski’s upwards forays. Played vertically, strings stropped by a bow or finger-wrenched, the resulting timbres contrapuntally challenged those instances when the trumpet tonguing became too delicate.

Delicacy is not an adjective associated with American expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger. Roughness would be better. During two Jazz Podium afternoons, he oversaw a creative orchestra workshop and on the festival’s final night participants demonstrated what had been created. The program was like watching a regular movie remade in 3-D since with 17 instrumentalists and four vocalists, the performance was in one fashion Honsinger’s regular shtick writ large. Expected comedy routines and verbal interludes, combining gibberish chants and sloganeering, were divided among the singers with other players occasionally miming and interjecting vocal sounds. Also prominent were the cellist’s familiar tropes that cut-and-pasted slapstick interludes, sharpened individual improvisation, close harmonies from different ensemble sections, plus a recurring defining brass band-like vamp that was part stirring martial music and part jolly tango. Although the showcase was great fun, Honsinger’s skill with hair-trigger interactions needed for high-quality improvisation was better showcased the next set. Workshop participants Lasič, Bajc and Italian cornetist Gabriele Cancelli joined the cellist to develop a non-hierarchal and non-linear interlude that at one point found Bajc rhythmically banging on his bass’s wooden finish and Cancelli tootling a kazoo shoved within a horn mute in response to the cellist’s slick version of “Ghosts”. More humor and less cohesion followed as others joined the original four to turn the climax into a Free Jazz free-for-all with all the saxophonists wallowing in Aylerian outer space-like wails.

The festival’s finale was an object lesson in how to construct a balanced improvisation. Begun by Anker duetting with BCMF artistic director, drummer Zlatko Kaučič, the interaction became more intense when they were joined by Majewski and Mazur. Kaučič matched Anker’s saxophone collection by extending his kit with an electrified zither which produced a quasi-vibes-like shimmer, particularly effective when providing ringing counterpoint to the reedist’s higher-pitched forays. Using exaggerated sweeping motions he also cemented a proper rhythm from his kit with bass drum pops and stick work to meet Anker’s Trane-influenced tenor saxophone honks. When watery tones surfaced via her bottle-in-bell muting, he countered with absorptive cadences produced by slapping field grass on his snares and toms. While superficially more jazz-like when joined by the Poles, since Majewski’s wistful muted horn had Don Cherry antecedents, the music was still distinct 21st Century Improv. Nuanced, the dramatic parameters encompassed Mazur’s downcast, classically tinged string bowing, Majewski’s sometimes folkloric tone and Anker’s squeezed grace notes. Not that power was absent. When the four combined for a raucous, but balanced Energy Music-like coda, Kaučič smashed his cymbals so powerfully and quickly that he cut his face with a sharpened edge on the rebound. With such attention to both musical detail and shading expressed throughout BCMF, is it any wonder that musicians and audience members swell Šmartno’s population for three days every year?

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2016