Jazz Cerkno 23

May 17 to 19 2018
Cerkno, Slovenia

By Ken Waxman

Forty-one kilometres west of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, the compact village of Cerkno has been host to a world-class jazz festival for almost a quarter century. Jazz Cerkno 2018 added to the illustrious tradition with three days of notable performances mostly in a specially erected canvas tent, complete with a sophisticated sound system, adjoining the darkened and homey Bar Gabrijel. What was most evident was how musicians from this country of fewer than 2¼-million people, which arguably has benefitted most economically from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, can easily hold their own in the international improvised music scene.

Probably the most spectacular – and perhaps expected – set, since he’s one Slovenian player with an international reputation, took place on the festival’s second night with an unprecedented quartet featuring local percussionist Zlatko Kaučič and three visiting Free Music stylists: soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker from the United Kingdom, French double bassist Joëlle Léandre and Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández. While memorializing Kaučič’s 40th anniversary as an active musician, this was no festival gimmick. The drummer has played and recorded with each invitée in the past and the subsequent set revealed no first-night awkwardness. Almost from the first, when Parker’s Ur-distinctive tenor saxophone tone brushed against Fernández’s inner piano string fantasia and Léandre’s string swabbing, Kaučič’s textural tapping and clanking ensured that the group interface was both ecstatic and relaxed. Later as the sound deepened, the pianist’s move from string plucks and stops to kinetic keyboard note overflows and the bassist’s col legno patterning was met by a single cymbal tap. Eventually the set climaxed with each participant magisterially stretching his or her instrument to its limits via sprinkles of continuous notes from Parker; higher-pitched pulls from Léandre that practically mirrored the reed work; positioned brush strokes and mallet taps from Kaučič; and piles of arpeggios from Fernández. Crucially though, the polyphonic connection was such that in spite of the constant multiphonic explosions, each player could be heard clearly.

This same sort of connection existed the night previously when Slovenian tenor saxophonist Cene Resnik’s Free Stellar Trio, consisting of fellow Slovenian drummer Marko Lasič and Italian pianist Giorgio Pacorig, was joined by American Rob Mazurek playing piccolo trumpet. Welcoming Mazurek’s unconventional antics, which included playing directly into the piano innards and using an apple (the fruit) as a bell mute, the trio members adapted his piercing, echoing initiatives to their own narratives. Resnik’s split-tone muscularity advanced contrapuntally alongside Mazurek’s piercing trills, while the pianist’s dynamic runs, often created with up-turned elbows, plus the drummer’s propulsive percussion, provided the perfect backdrop. At points Lasič’s barrage of rumbles, kicks and slaps created a coda to some spectacular a capella improvising from the saxophonist, then reversed to become prelude to complex pianism plus processed echoes from the trumpeter. Eventually the contrapuntal band connection boiled down to a retreating process of slurping reed tones mixed with half-valve brass effects and tick-tock drums, with near-rustic, straight-ahead keyboard patterns applying the concluding brakes to the performance.

More conventional in orientation was the Innertextures quartet of another Slovenian, tenor saxophonist Igor Lumpert, which played on the final night. Besides Lumpert, the band was otherwise all-American, with drummer Jason Nazary, alto saxophonist Greg Ward and bassist Masa Kamaguchi. Not that those different nationalities made any difference. Lumpert’s stop-time sheets of sounds fitted ball-and-socket with Ward’s sinuous reed bites, as the two worked through a set of lean Free-boppish lines, with the horns often in double counterpoint, leading to thoughts of a John Coltrane-Jackie McLean throw down. Besides that, the drummer’s solid clip-clops and the bassist’s impeccable time-keeping kept the set on an even keel. If Innertextures conjured up memories of the 1960s, then Roots Magic the all-Italian quartet which closed that night’s show and the festival, crafted a startlingly singular blend of 1960s FreeJazz with versions of 1930s Delta classics. Consisting of Alberto Popolla on clarinet and bass clarinet, Errico De Fabritiis on alto and baritone saxophones, bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi and drummer Fabrizio Spera, the four emphasized the Blues continuum, with Spera’s rollicking backbeat helping knit the decades-apart sounds, and the reedists providing both rhythmic oomph and the emotional, near song-like expression. Remarkably the band sounded perfectly comfortable playing singer Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” from 1930 with a coarse clarinet lead, as it did Roscoe Mitchell’s “Old” from the 1960s, which was propelled by a double bass ostinato that easily revealed its Blues underpinnings. Frugal with solos, the rhythm section left the spotlight to Popolla, who proved that chalumeau smears from a bass clarinet can also effectively interpret the melisma of primitive Bluesman Charley Patton; and De Fabritiis whose freak-note elaborations of modernist compositions from John Carter and Julius Hemphill tunes was notable from either of his saxophone.

One band that substituted brass for reeds was Kaze, which played Friday night. The aggregation featured trumpeters Natsuki Tamura (Japan) and Christian Pruvost (France) plus French drummer Peter Orins and Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Playing compositions by Fujii –

whose subsequent bravura Saturday afternoon recital at the nearby museum encompassed rollicking groove pieces with a strong beat, restrained, fragmented cascades that could come from the Great American Songbook and omnivorous melodies that were as intricate as a Sudoku puzzle – Kaze itself soared, easily overcoming any limits from its unique instrumentation. With Tamura’s output sometimes bumping and grinding and Pruvost, not averse to deconstructing the compositions and his own horn to boot, the musical journey mixed capillary fragmentation with keyboard romanticism, although a droning continuum was often created by Fujii’s inner-string sweeps and Orins’ hi-hat coordination. Theatrical at times with martial rhythms from the drummer contrasting with glissandi and expressive keyboard stretches from Fujii, the overall impression was as imbued with the spirit of jazz as anything heard at Jazz Cerkno 23.

The set by the Chicago/London Underground (CLU) which followed immediately afterwards was in the same spirit. Featuring a second appearance by Mazurek, along with his long-time Chicago associate, percussionist Chad Taylor, the quartet’s London contingent was accomplished bassist John Edwards and dexterous pianist Alexander Hawkins. Propelled with a dynamic much removed from the Free Stellar set, the CLU’s focus was shaped by string wipes and below-the-bridge bow slices of Edwards that turned out juddering ostinato. Meanwhile Hawkins’ sparkling lines drew equally on stomp and sentiment. These contrasts were reflected in the others’ ideas as well. A semi-romantic piano interlude for instance, was challenged by Mazurek verbal yelping and shaking South-American noisemakers; while Taylor’s strictly timed pops gave the pianist and trumpeter leeway to explore extensions that at one point focused on Duke-Ellington-Orchestra-like brass bursts atop keyboard comping, at another juncture Cecil-Taylor-Unit-suggesting kinetic chording and dissonant trumpet slurs. If that wasn’t enough, Parker joined the CLU for its final number, so that his meditative reed tones floated over the others’ interchanges. Eventually driven by bright grace notes from Mazurek and key-slapping by Hawkins, the tempo sprang forward enough to expose intricate phrase-making synergy among the five.

Regrettably, with so much talent on display elsewhere and in the high-quality personnel of the 10-piece ICP Orchestra, that Amsterdam-based aggregation’s Saturday night set was anticlimactic. Despite strong solos from among others trumpeter Thomas Heberer and the reed section of Ab Baars, Michael Moore and Tobias Delius, plus drummer Han Bennink’s impeccable rhythm that could easily have powered any band including Count Basie’s, a spark seemed to be missing. With a repertoire mostly based on compositions by, or arrangements of tunes like Ellington’s “The Mooche” by the ICP’s deceased leader/pianist Misha Mengelberg, the group appeared to be more reverently honoring Mengelberg’s oeuvre than extending it on its own. Even bits of verbal and physical “business’ from the always antic cellist Tristan Honsinger came across as more rote than riotous.

Notwithstanding this misstep and a couple of lesser efforts that were part of Cerkno’s musical program, the overall verdict for the 23rd outing was strongly positive. With such consistent programming, the winding mountain roads and intermittent rain storms of the area should continue to see audience at Jazz Cerkno for many years to come.