Zorn blasts through 50 Bagatelles and Snarky Puppy roar in the rain at storming 60th Ljubljana Jazz Festival

1959 was a good year for fans of Miles, Trane, Ornette et al, and also a notable one for Slovenia. Its capital Ljubljana inaugurated a jazz festival that has steadily grown in stature. Hence this 60th anniversary is suitably marked by some grandstand appearances. Topping the bill is John Zorn, who presented his Bagatelles Marathon in which 14 artists (pictured below), including Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, Ikue Mori, Kris Davis, Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicholas, and the composer-alto saxophonist himself leading Masada, appeared in 15 minute slots to play 50 of his pieces.

BagatellesMarathon bynadazgank

The extravaganza was spread over four hours, and though the performance took place the day before my arrival at the multi-purpose Cankarjev Dom, with its concert hall, small club and park area, the venue was still buzzing from the experience; the general consensus being that the scale of ambition of the project had been matched by the wealth of talent assembled to fulfill it. Having said that, there was plenty to enjoy during the rest of the five-day festival to temper the disappointment, nothing more so than an evening of two hard-hitting bands that give a thrilling overview of contemporary improvised music that has an incendiary energy to complement its creativity. Made To Break is a quartet led by respected Chicago multi-reedist Ken Vandermark that is one of the best of the many groups he has led in his lengthy career. The combination of Jasper Stadhouders’ crash and burn guitar – its molten chords and fragmented runs very much a second coming of Marc Ducret – and Christof Kurzmann’s scratchy electronics is seamlessly integrated into the choppy waters of the music, while drummer Tim Daisy frames the dizzying, flow-not-flow with impressive agility and aggression. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a group that leaps between improv, noise and post-rock without losing its balance on the rollers. Another band that also has a quite fearsome momentum is Portugal’s The Rite Of Trio, a small group with a big sound that is largely defined by Andre Silva’s versatile guitar work that moves with real stealth from crunchy clusters to wiry single notes atop a dynamic rhythmic whirlpool stirred up by drums-double bass combo Pedro Alves and Filipe Louro.

KajaDrakslerOctet 002

The group is the latest in a long line of artists signed to the fearless Clean Feed label whose head honcho Pedro Costa has enjoyed a long collaboration with the festival. And it is one of the musicians who debuted on the imprint several years ago who also produces a very strong set that straddles the worlds of music and literature – Slovenian pianist-composer Kaja Draksler (pictured above). Her adaptation of the poetry of Robert Frost is done with attention to detail and imagination in equal measure as she uses the full resources of a fine international octet that has outstanding soloists in saxophonist-clarinetists Ab Baars [Holland] and Ada Rave [Argentina], though the operatic, double vocal frontline of Björk Nielsdottir [Iceland] and Laura Polence [Latvia] is also highly effective. Draksler’s melodies capture the intimacy and deep melancholy of Frost’s texts and the performance is decisively enhanced by the movement of the players through the crowd, whereby the break-up of the ensemble into smaller units, mirrors some of the more episodic moments of the storytelling.

In any case further proof of the strength of Slovenian bandleaders arrives in the shape of gifted saxophonist Igor Lumpert, whose Chromatic Vortex, another multi-nationality affair featuring two A-list Americans, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Chad Taylor and Cuban pianist Aruán Ortiz, is a compelling advert for new improvised music that treads a fine line between yearning themes and intricately mapped grooves, often with a stinging percussive drive well to the fore. Yet for all its championing of experimental sounds Ljubljana has always found space for all kinds of traditions, and two memorable gigs come from exponents of acoustic and electric music with vastly different line-ups.

SnarkyPuppy Krizanke 06 PhotoAlesRosa

On the small side is the trio comprising Slovenian pianist Marko Črnčec, Dutch double bassist Joris Teepe and American drum legend Billy Hart. Their reading of standards, from Monk to Kern to Porter, is done with enormous finesse, whereby hard swing alternates with gracious romanticism, charming a crowd on a wonderfully balmy evening in the park area at the back of the Cankarjev Dom. On the large side is 10-piece Snarky Puppy (pictured top) whose fusion, funk and synth grooves go down a storm in the midst of a biblical downpour in the Krizanke outdoor theatre. Yet 2,000 fans (pictured above) stay and dance in the rain, and are heartily rewarded by no fewer than three encores, two more than most might expect in fair weather. So ends a birthday, wet and warm.

Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Ales Rosa and Nada Zgank

 

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