The pre-Halloween weekend is one of the year's highlights for anyone who lives here in Bratislava and likes jazz or good music in general. The reason, of course, is the Bratislava Jazz Days. I've been attending since 1994 and I have yet to be disappointed.
Bratislava currently markets itself as The Little Big City and BJD fits nicely into that concept. The format has stabilized in recent years: three nights (Friday to Sunday) on two stages with about four acts per stage per night. The two stages are on the opposite ends of a Communist-era venue called the PKO ("Park of Culture and Relaxation"). To get from one stage to the other, one has to cross a large lobby. That's where the beer is. It's also the place where people catch up with friends they may not have seen since the previous year. Getting together with friends is actually the most important part of the Jazz Days, although some people may not even realize it - after all, most of the time is spent listening to music.
The festival offers a great opportunity to expand one's musical horizons; that's why I buy tickets for all three nights and never worry too much about who's playing. The big names (Betty Carter, Kurt Elling, Courtney Pine etc.) do provide unforgettable experiences but the ticket really earns its worth when an Elias Meiri or a Karrin Allyson comes on stage and thoroughly charms the audience.
BJD 2010 brought about a slight change in scheduling. In previous years, B-stage acts had been timed to fill in the breaks between concerts on the main stage. This year's B stage got expanded (with longer shows and four acts per night instead of three) so one had to actually choose between them. A-stage line-ups were definitely more intriguing so that's where I ended up spending most of my time.
The festival's opening act was my good friend Sisa Michalidesová performing music she had composed for the movie "Zimní kúzelníci" (Winter Magicians) with an absolutely stellar band featuring some of Slovakia's best musicians (Michal Žáček on soprano saxophone, Peter Preložník on keyboards, Boris Lenko on accordion etc.). The work had been adapted for the band members and also to allow improvized solos but it wasn't quite jazz; as with many true masters, Sisa's music evades precise classification. It was compact yet diverse, evocative, perfectly arranged and beautifully played. The result was much more impressive than on the soundtrack CD and I was quite happy for Sisa.
Up next was the Polish singer Aga Zaryan who mesmerized us with her powerful stage presence. She has a beautiful, expressive face and a captivating voice that she commanded with calm confidence as she sang some quite challenging tunes from her repertoire. Her band was certainly up to the task, they blended with the singing to deliver a smooth, seamless experience. Aga Zaryan spends a lot of time in New York so her English was flawless (not necessarily the case with Slavic singers) though she could have performed more songs in Polish which I find very pleasant to listen to.
Ethereal singing was followed by accordion equilibristics soaked in passion and bittersweet nostalgia. Richard Galliano is widely regarded as the world's best accordionist and he provided ample justification for that view. His playing was out of this world, turning the instrument into sonic fireworks, bursting with cascades upon cascades of tones. Yet he proceeded with absolute ease, kind of "by the way", he never struggled with the accordion at all. He was fully focused on the point of the music, putting his soul into every note. Such a combination of virtuosity and sincerity is indeed rare in musicians and I couldn't help but be completely absorbed. Oh, and he had a band with him; they were fully absorbed as well. This was definitely Friday night's highlight, despite the fact that neither Galliano's genre nor accordion music as such count among my favorites.
Headliners at BJD occasionally fizzle out and so was the case with Zap Mama, a formation led by the Belgian singer of Congolese origins Marie Daulne. The band had great difficulty getting to the festival after having a flight canceled; they did start on time but with no sound check. It's hard to say if that had any impact or not but the performance was a bland fusion of light jazz with African and new-age elements, with a bit of theatrics thrown in that didn't quite work, especially after Richard Galliano. I left during the third song, happy to get home before 1 AM.
I couldn't attend on Saturday due to family commitments but they say Trombone Shorty almost tore down the building with his enormous energy. Oh well, maybe next time.
Sunday night started off with the Gustav Brom Big Band. I'm not really into big-band music but I do enjoy the way so many instruments blend into a cohesive sound - provided they actually do, of course. The Gustav Brom Big Band is a Czecho-Slovak affair with some rather excellent musicians (Radovan Tariška and Ondřej Čtveráček on saxophones etc.) constrained by the usual logistical issues of getting so many people together often enough. Still, their performance was quite impressive and a good way to get the evening going.
The American trumpeter Christian Scott with his Quintet brought out the serious stuff. Young yet very mature musicians produced an hour of intense, uncompromising, no-nonsense jazz at a very high technical level. The leader had a whiff of arrogance about him at times but he was earnest rather than flashy and he could definitely back it up with supreme playing. I must confess this late in the festival my ears were getting saturated and I couldn't perceive the non-trivial performance as well as I would have liked to. I know it was probably Sunday's highlight but it kind of went beyond me at that point.
Fortunately, Scott's quintet was followed by lighter fare in the form of veteran guitarist Larry Carlton's trio. Carlton is very obviously a skilled session musician who has no problem playing anything you throw his way, which made watching his own show all the more interesting. The set was colorful, with easy melodic numbers giving way to harder, more bluesy tunes. It was no earth-shattering experience but the musicians visibly enjoyed themselves and the intimate trio setting provided a nice epilogue to this year's festival.
Well, actually, Carlton was followed by Sunday's "headliners", Shakatak. It is a recent tradition at the Jazz Days to have a more pop-sounding act at the very end. I think it's actually very smart as those facing a busy Monday can leave early without much remorse. The strategy gives many people a sort of anti-climax feel, however, prompting an infamous sarcastic remark by an attendee that "next year they'll bring AC/DC" (the guy was fleeing from Level 42, by the way). Shakatak is a pop-jazz band that had a huge crossover hit in the '80s and they still happily tour the world thanks to that. More power to them, I say, but their show felt a bit worn so I left after about two songs.
As I'd mentioned before, I spent most of my time at the A stage. Excursions to the B-stage hall served as welcome diversions. The atmosphere there tends to be more muted, intimate, club-like. The bands were interesting especially on Sunday - the local Groove Brothers, a Hungarian world-music ensemble featuring hypnotic percussion duets, as well as Silvia Fourporation with its whimsical lyrics and a laid-back attitude.
I have to say this year's Jazz Days did a fine job of holding up the usual standards of their venerable franchise. Peter Lipa and other organizers at the Rock & Pop agency deserve much credit for keeping the magic alive; despite permanent worries about the future of the venue, Bratislava Jazz Days is poised to remain one of the top events for jazz fans in this neck of the woods.