Kurt Elling, Get the Blessing and Ralph Towner ensure Pančevo punches above its weight

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Hosted in the city’s Cultural Centre and featuring a line-up of artists that would put many much larger festivals to shame, Pančevo, a small city just 22km outside of Belgrade, seems to have managed the neat trick of striking the right balance between funding, artistic integrity and admission price to produce a classy event. The format of the festival is simple – two concerts per evening followed by a jam session in the Centre’s foyer area.

Launching the event in impressive style was Kurt Elling – introduced as ‘the best male vocalist in the world’ (though Gregory Porter may also be up for that title). There’s no doubt he’s worked tirelessly to perfect his vocal style. While never denying that he owes a huge amount to Sinatra, Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Tony Bennett and other vocalists he grew up listening to, his style is undeniably now his own. His phrasing, intonation and choice of material is spot on, with covers as diverse as U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, the former Incredible String Band founder Robin Williamson’s ‘Strings In The Earth & Air’, ‘Lawns’ by Carla Bley, the very much Sinatra influenced, ‘Come fly with me’, ‘Nature Boy’ and a sublime encore of the classic ‘Skylark’. All of these illustrate the range of his singing canvas, the songs and sounds of his formative years and his continuing search for beautiful melodies that fit his style and voice.

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Opening for Elling was Majamisty Trio, led by pianist Maja Alvanovic on piano and featuring mostly her own songs. She’s a breath of fresh air; a beautifully lyrical player whose tunes are a reflection of her touch on the keys; delicate, fragile, precise and mesmerizing. Of course, she would not be nearly as effective without Ervan Malina on bass, who’s bowing was superb and drummer Istvan Clk who added hue and texture to Alvanivic’s musical ideas.

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The second set of shows featured The Bad Plus, who have forged a career based on quirky covers of well known songs alongside their own complex and idiosyncratic compositions, and Get the Blessing from Bristol, who play a groove-based jazz built around leader Jim Barr’s simple, but very catchy, bass riffs. The former group’s readings of the usually fiery ‘Pound For Pound’, ‘Self Serve’ and ‘Mr Now’ were decidedly languid affairs, with only ‘The Empire Strikes Backward’ from 2005’s Suspicious Activity? charged with the same attack and power we’re come to expect.

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After the rather restrained approach of The Bad Plus, Get the Blessing was gifted with an audience keen for something a touch more ‘up-tempo’ and the band didn’t disappoint. With Barr laying down the groove with metronomic drummer Clive Deamer, the frontline of Jake McMurchie (sax, effects) and Pete Judge (trumpet, effects) invigorated the crowd, getting feet tapping all over the hall. ‘Antilope’, ‘Green Herring’, ‘Equal & Opposite’, the anthemic ‘OCDC’ and the encore ‘Bleach Cake’ are all minor classics. Those riffs fix in your head for days after…

The penultimate night boasted Ukrainian alto saxophonist Max Kochetov, a regular in the RTS Big Band and leader of his own quartet. Playing his own material of post-bop, high-energy jazz, he’s simply a wondrous musician with excellent compositional chops. Backed by a highly competent band, he also provided the basis for the highly enjoyable jam sessions in the bar area that went on late into the early hours of the morning. Opening for Kochetov were a selection of students from Belgrade’s Stankovic Music School, featuring singer Mara Miletic who performed brilliantly and whose delivery belied her young age.

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A tour de force from Gary Bartz and a sublime and rewarding set from Ralph TownersOregon were the fitting denouement to the festival. Bartz, now 75, shows no sign of mellowing in his latter years, having played with virtually all of the legends of jazz (winning a Grammy along the way for his contribution to McCoy Tyner’s Illuminations). His 90-minute set (with virtually no breaks) was a rollercoaster ride around his illustrious past. Accompanied by his regular band of Barney McAll (piano) James King (bass) and Greg Bandy (drums), this was a slick show with Bartz pivotal to everything, either playing or singing, keeping up the momentum from beginning to end. While hardly cutting edge, the show was still highly enjoyable and a fine reminder of what a great player and arranger Bartz is.

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Towner prefers his music to do the talking, allowing blower Paul McCandless to supply the introductions and between song banter. But while he may be microphone shy, Towner’s compositions are masterpieces of conversation between musicians, weaving beautiful melodic passages among more disharmonious elements, introduced by way of electronics or through Paul McCandless’ majestic blowing on tenor sax or bass clarinet. The set opened with the ethereal ‘If’ and followed with ‘Anthem’ and ‘The Glide’, all beautifully arranged and allowing enough space for bassist Paolino Dalla Porta and drummer Mike Walker to inject their own voices into the tunes. It’s testimony to the long-term working relationship of Towner and McCandless that their band still possesses the energy and creative enthusiasm to produce such wonderful evocative music over such a protracted period of time. They ended with ‘Celeste’ to rapturous applause and a tremendous feeling of wellbeing in the audience.

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­– Story and photos Tim Dickeson