Fire! Orchestra scorch and Youn Sun Nah swings at Skopje Jazz Fest

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Even with a slightly reduced festival (four days instead of the usual five) Skopje 2014 was a resounding success providing an excellently varied programme ranging from free improv to mainstream latin jazz.

Youn Sun Nah (above), who opened the festival, has been playing all over Europe this summer with her quartet but here it was just a duo with guitarist Ulf Wakenius – and in this paired down setting it is even more apparent what an incredible performer she is.

Her vocal range is astonishing – but her real talent lies in extracting so much more from her songs – her depth of understanding of how to use her voice as a multi-faceted instrument is her unique-ness. All of this of course would be wasted if it were not for Wakenius who is equally responsible for this amazing sound – his playing and writing is totally in harmony with Nah’s ability – the opener a haunting version of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ – was jaw dropping - the standing ovation at the end was thoroughly deserved.

Terri Lyne Carrington followed playing her tribute to Ellington’s Money Jungle – and sadly it felt rather ordinary after Youn Sun Nah’s opening set. The midnight show featured Obara International – Polish sax player Maciej Obara with fellow countryman pianist Dominik Wania joined by two members of Norwegian band Bushman’s Revenge, Ole Morten Vagan on bass and Gard Nilssen on drums – a hugely enjoyable set – Wania is a brilliant young pianist and his playing on Krzysztof Komeda’s ‘Kattorna’ was perfect – definitely someone to make the effort to go and see.

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The Fire! Orchestra (above) is saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s tour de force – the 24-piece orchestra featuring some of the best musicians from the Swedish music scene is a glorious mix of avant-rock players and vocalists. With a sound that can shift seamlessly from minimalist to out and out thrash metal the show is an endurance test for the ears and senses – akin to the sauna to ice pool experience so loved by these Scandinavians – full marks to the festival for being able to afford and having the foresight to put this on. The main act that followed – Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Rhythm Clan – an expanded version of his usual ensemble – again suffered the fate of following the un-followable – as good as it was the ringing in the ears from the previous set dulled the experience just a little too much.

By the time the action had moved to the late night club the freshness and choice of material played by Belgium band Dans Dans was just perfect – their aggressive but very controlled treatment was very fresh and eye opening.

The most anticipated and certainly best sold artist at this years festival was Eliane Elias – with the audience crammed into every inch of the auditorium – Elias had the perfect ‘intimate’ setting for her very laid back latin-jazz show – a fantastic trio featuring Marc Johnson on bass and the excellent Graham Dechter on guitar – Elias is the master of this music and her little bossa nova dance at the end of the show was just sublime. Intense solo piano from Matthew Shipp (below) opened the show and this time the order of performance was perfect – Angel Eyes his stand out moment.

Red Snapper concluded the evening’s show at the jazz club and the incredibly packed venue was bouncing around to there infectious drum ‘n’ bass and trip hop sounds – nice to see Tom Challenger having a ball on sax and keyboards.

The closing day of the festival was a truly remarkable mix of music and styles. The Sunday lunch concert was a true ‘new’ experience – a duet featuring Ned Rothenberg on woodwind instruments and the incredible talents of Russian overtone singer Sainkho Namtchylak. Her vocal’s ranged from beautiful melodic blues singing (almost Billie Holiday style) to guttural roars and grunts, squeaks, screams and sometimes all at the same time – Rothenberg was her foil – the constant, in what was a very complicated equation – a sound bite of the show would be completely out of context – you have to see it all from start to finish to truly ‘get’ what this music is all about – a unique experience indeed.
TD-Wadada-Leo-Smith-08The two closing shows were as different as chalk and cheese. The first half featured Wadada Leo Smith (above) and Hardedge (sound design) – a set that never properly gelled – Smith tried very hard to create something but had no help at all from the effects and button pushing of his stage companion – his vain efforts to get something more tangible fell on deaf ears.

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This rather disappointing start was soon turned to mesmeric joy as The Necks (above) took the stage and blew the audience away – the slow build and patient construction of the set demanded absolute concentration and was rewarded by an immensely moving and subtly shifting soundscape that was build not on vast and complicated electronic equipment or computers, but by three musicians playing piano, bass and drums and was the perfect end to an extremely interesting festival

– Tim Dickeson (story and photos)