October 26 – 30, 2022
The Belgrade Jazz Festival has a history of battling adversity. Despite a substantial run from its founding in 1971 until 1990, the festival was understandably dormant during the Yugoslavian Civil War. During its first two decades, some of the mightiest stateside jazz stars appeared, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Ornette Coleman. Strangely, the New York promoter George Wein was heavily involved in the beginning, and the festival was named the Newport Jazz Festival for its first two editions. In the third year it became the Newport-Belgrade Festival. Organized and housed in the centrally placed Dom Omladine (Youth Center), the festival has remained in this venue until the present day. By 1974, it became simply the Belgrade Jazz Festival, and the venue switched to the four-thousand-seater Pionir Sports Hall. Larger venues continued to be used to house bigger jazz stars, a tradition that remains today with the nearby MTS Hall.
Eventually, the BJF revived itself in 2005, but in recent years there have been virus lockdowns, of course, and now heavy funding cuts in 2022. Nevertheless, the BJF has persevered, not missing an edition, even though 2020’s festival was postponed from October to December. Although heavily Americanized at the start, once reborn in 2005 there was an additional European perspective, followed by a formal declaration to actively support local Serbian artists in 2008.
This 2022 festival boasted a pair of very large Serbian groupings. On the opening night, the Schime jazz quartet were surrounded by the massive string-spread of the Muzikon ensemble. These formations had already joined together several times during the last three years, being particularly striking at the 2021 Moers Festival in Germany. Schime’s alto saxophonist and pianist (Luka Ignjatović and Sava Miletić) penned new music for these violins, violas, cellos, and lone bass, during the last three years, with arrangements courtesy of Ana Krstajić and Vladimir Nikolova.
Ignjatović’s alto was mostly right at the core, buffeted by Peđa Milutinović’s drums, with waves and clusters circulating around Muzikon. The piano and bass shone, then the piano engaged in a forceful discussion with the drums. Weeping stringsong coated an alto lament, a bright amber glow capturing the mood via lighting. The rich strings ebbed and flowed, then the quartet was highlighted, a driving tension created by the reentry of the full ensemble. The extended set was sustained in its melancholic mood, strengthened by the dynamic tensions between jazz quartet and massed string expressivity.
This was certainly a year for expanded Serbian groupings, as the RTS Big Band took over MTS Hall, one of Belgrade’s largest auditoriums. The Omar Sosa Trio guested with them, performing a repertoire that was arranged by the Brazilian cellist Jaques Morelenbaum. These Sosa pieces were originally recorded for the Cuban pianist’s Es:sensual (Otá) album of 2018, which was recorded with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg.
RTS formed in 1948, initially as a dance band, before concentrating on jazz from 1953. Since beginning to appear at the BJF in 2005, they’ve collaborated with the likes of Benny Golson, Jon Faddis, and Peter King. On this closing night of the festival, the Morelenbaum arrangements allowed maximum opportunities for individual soloing, or sometimes duos, alternating rapidly. There was a trombone and baritone saxophone flourish right near the beginning, as Sosa delved inside his piano, just prior to the entire big band cantering forth. Childo Tomas played a twin-necked electric axe that took care of treble and bass adventuring, and Ernesto Simpson had a bold, enlarged drum sound, decorated with percussion extras. RTS conductor Filip Bulatović was a dual star of the show, a side effect of his sharply efficient prompting of the players being his out-front dancing, immersing himself in an Afro-Cuban/New York salsa set of moves. Surely a massive help in goading the very best efforts from a big band that was openly reveling in this repertoire.
The numbers provoked bodily action, but they were also loaded with ample cerebral distractions. Sosa drove hard, laughing at his own audacity, handing over to alto saxophone for a continuation of the chase, then switching to sensitive piano trills when a cha-cha-cha slunk forth. Through this the orchestra provided full thrust, while an electric bass solo was followed by a bass clarinet spotlight.
This Serbian large-group power (and sensitivity) provided key sequences within the festival, but there were also sets courtesy of many outfits that were already familiar, either around the rest of Europe, or in North America. From NYC in particular we had Sexmob, wildly celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary, and The Avishai Cohen Quartet, the trumpeter stepping back to a purely acoustic delivery after some heavy recent activity with his electrified Big Vicious group. The freely improvising trio of Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley, and Paul Lytton shaped a finely controlled variation between space and clutter. Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson’s Liberetto defined the sound of Germany’s ACT label, and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins made his advance hype come true, as his European tour provided the first opportunity for most folks to witness his torrent of expressivity. Wilkins was particularly thrilling when his quartet became a horn-bass-drums trio. Further abstraction came from the Luís Vicente Trio, from Lisbon, closing out the festival with a late night ritual for trumpet, bass, and drums. Considering that the BJF had half of its budget axed only a few weeks prior, this was an exceedingly strong offering, and if the audience hadn't been given this knowledge, they might never have suspected the challenging circumstances of its creation.