Joe Lovano, Ambrose Akinmusire and China Moses power-up at Pančevo Jazz Fest

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is a quiet, post-industrial town separated from Serbia's capital Belgrade by the Danube. There is an imposing bridge that takes you over the river from the bustling capital to the flatlands that lie beyond and reach as far as the Hungarian border to the north. Civic pride is hugely important here and the town punches well above its weight when it comes to providing culture and entertainment to its citizens and visitors alike. This year was the 20th Pančevo Jazz Festival and, as in previous years, the festival director kept an open ear to bring a diverse selection of artists to the festival. Its location is the town's Cultural Centre, a 600-seat theatre with a foyer free-stage and bar. Every evening there were two main concerts plus additional talks by one or more of the main artists, plus a jam session. The first of these featured Joe Lovano, his talk primarily attended by local music students who performed later that night at the jam session.

The renowned saxophonist talked at length about his formative years before inviting the students to watch his sound check. One of the more interesting questions asked was by Tim Berne (who played the first show of the evening) who really wanted to know how Lovano practiced and how the process had changed for him over the years. Lovano duly demonstrated to the delight of the students. His parting shot to the students? 'The more you play, the more you'll say!"

Lovano's show was one of the best from him that I have seen in recent years. He was positively on fire, with his former Berklee student Lawrence Fields also a revelation on piano. Fields' fingers gliding over the keys with seemingly no effort, he's a brilliant improviser and can swing too. This was not just about Lovano either with rhythm section of Peter Slavov on bass and Otis Brown on drums rock-solid all night. The quartet were such a tight unit that when Joe stood back he appeared engrossed in their playing.

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China Moses was also hugely entertaining – some might say she takes the acting a little too far – 'Hungover' saw her rolling around the stage in a faux drunken state, collapsing on the floor towards the end. But ultimately the quality of her voice and of her material won out. Moses uses a storytelling style and has a very slick band featuring Joe Armon-Jones (piano), Neil Charles (bass) and playing his first ever concert with her, Josiah Woodson (guitar and trumpet). Ultimately the show became a good concert as she moved away from 'Summer Holiday' and more towards Billie Holiday.

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Trumpeter Avishai Cohen on the other hand was the master of cool. His set was deep and moving, and had the audience on the edge of their seats, silently waiting for his next foray should they miss a single note. 'Shoot Me in the Leg', and 'Will I Die Miss, Will I Die', had fleeting moments of Miles in the playing but this was all Cohen's music, as he poured his soul out on the horn, it was hauntingly beautiful from beginning to end.

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The other trumpet star at the festival was Ambrose Akinmusire, who's a completely different prospect to Cohen. Akinmusire is taking the instrument in directions and places that few other players are presently even remotely trying to do. Starting with a solo number, somewhat reminding me of Lovano's practice piece in structure, soaring high and growling low, puffing and tonging till he came to an end. The set continued in the same way with blistering long runs with slow reflective moments such as 'Moment In Between the Rest (To curve an ache)'. A beautiful ballad there was delicate colouring from Justin Brown on drums and plaintive bass lines from Harish Raghavan. The penultimate tune, 'Umteyo' saw him playing the same note over and over while the band rotated the melody, until eventually Akinmusire broke the pattern and took the tune to the end. It was uncomfortable at times but ultimately exhilarating. Akinmusire has created an approach to playing that pushes the technical boundaries of his instrument and by doing so has created a totally unique sound.

Also playing at the festival were Serbian band, Fish In Oil, who play a quirky groove-driven funky jazz – band-member Bratislav Radovanović resplendent in dreadlocks thumping out the bass. Elsewhere Velvet RevolutionDaniel Erdmann (sax), Jim Hart (vibes) and Theo Ceccaldi (viola, violin) – comprise a power trio of virtuosos who play together with a telepathic understanding. Ceccaldi was a joy to watch, at times appearing to saw his violin in half such was the speed and ferocity of his playing.

Pančevo may not be the most obvious location on the jazz tourist's bucket list, but the festival programme and the town's friendly atmosphere (and wonderful local fish restaurants) certainly mark it out as something special. The ticket price for the whole festival is less than that of one show at most jazz festivals. Pančevo is always the first weekend in November and next year will be a very special 21st birthday edition.

Story and photos by Tim Dickeson