Vilnius International Jazz Festival: A small place with big ideas

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Having grown through the repressive times of the Soviet Union, when foreign artists had to be minibussed from the all-seeing-eye of Moscow to the Lithuanian capital, this festival, now in its 27th edition, does not want for either large, passionate, engaged audiences or adventurous programming. Indeed the rapturous reception given to the generally avantgarde bill at the well-appointed Rusu Dramos Teatras lends weight to the theory that ‘free jazz’ has a sharp resonance for a population that once lived with KGB prisons in its midst.

Japan’s Pre-Cambria Clarinet Quartet and Denmark’s Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra were two highlights of the event; drawing gasps of admiration and guffaws of laughter in equal measure. The former audaciously blended WSQ and Captain Beefheart and the latter Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, South African township swing and an overall circus sensibility that culminated in the horn players climbing over smiling seated punters in the auditorium. Young Lithuanian multi-reed virtuoso Liudas Mockunas was an impressive guest and he also made a wholly substantial contribution to Finish saxophonist Mikko Innanen’s bold Innkvisitio, an ensemble whose thrash-happy grooves were enhanced by the dazzling warp and weft of Seppo Kantonen’s keys.

Other notable local representation came by way of the young Ornette-influenced quartet Armed Sheep Doom Cloud, a strong contender in the esoteric name stakes. But the Lithuanian musician who really brought the house down was Juozas Milasius (a maverick guitarist extending the lineage of Sharrock, Ulmer and Ducret), who appeared in a fabulous duet with the American alto saxophonistclarinetist Sabir Mateen (both pictured top). Pushing the aesthetic of broken rhythms and tonal distortion to an imaginative and highly focused extreme, Milasius created a sonic minefield upon which Mateen threw his own fortissimo molotovs to great effect, improvising themes of the most wounded, Ayleresque melancholy as his partner gleefully confected a kind of psychoflamenco metal. As if that was not enough there was also the revered figure of Vyacheslav Ganelin leading a Lithuanian/Israeli supergroup and the zestful French brass trio Journal Intime re-imagining the music of Jimi Hendrix. All of which heartily made the point that Vilnius is a small place with big ideas.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photo by Antanas Gustys