DATELINE BELGRADE: Mostly Other People do the Killing, the wild and wooly NYC acoustic jazz quartet, is my new favorite band, this year, anyway. This I learned, and fully realized, while at the Belgrade Jazz Festival, standing in the packed, rapt audience at the Dom omladine cultural center late on a Sunday night a few weeks back. Sometimes, especially for those of us jazzheads stuck out here in fringes of the west coast, a fine way to discover America, jazz-wise, is to get to European festivals, as evidence when I finally caught a live set by this wondrous crackpot band, an acoustic, chordless quartet reminded variously of Ornette Coleman, Bad Plus, and some quirky fresh variation on avant-garde circus-making. Humor and avant-garde abandon somehow get along famously in this band.
Hearing the music in Belgrade, Serbia, after midnight, only enhanced the epiphany sensation. We were definitely not in Goleta anymore.
Coming at the end of a festival which also featured two of the finest “new” current American jazz acts – Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano’s fab “Sound Prints” project and young trumpet poet powerhouse Ambrose Akinmusire and band – might have spurred a kind of American pride for a yankee visitor, while also validating the intelligence and adventurism of the festival’s programming. But some of the more enticing treats on the musical menu were from the region, including the band led by Serbian bassist Nenad Vasilić, replete with virtuosic accordion (Marko Zivadinović) and serpentine Serb-bop melodic lines. Nimble Serbian trumpeter Lorenz Raab also left a strong, left-of-conventional impression with his band, while Polish saxist Mikołaj Trzaska represented the hgh art of captivating free improvisation.
Also home-ish grown, the young Blazin’ Quartet, featuring Serbian drummer Srdan Ivanović, is another mixed-genre and mixed-cultural aggregate, at once rubbery and rocking, swinging and parsing styles and sneaking in musical jokes. A Serbian rock legend, going by the name Rambo Amadeus, produced their latest album, Jalkan Bazz¸ and he made a cameo during their set, singing a wry, impromptu song and playing fretless electric guitar.
Although the Belgrade Jazz Festival is now retrenched in the impressive and important network of European jazz fests, its back story is unlike most of its festival allies. Founded in 1971 and going fairly strong, with top jazz names swinging through the semi-safe zone of Yugoslavia, for nearly twenty years, the festival went dark from 1991 until 2005. The comeback has been impressive and fortified by a particular passion, with artists such as Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter and (Santa Barbara’s own) Charles Lloyd headlining recent festivals. This year’s model drew on resourceful thinking to make the festival fly under much tighter budgetary realities. It flew beautifully, and in a city struggling to assert its place and dignity in the world stage after conflagrations in years past.
A coveted global hot spot where the Danube and Sava rivers cross, Belgrade has been in assorted social, political, military and also cultural crosshairs over the past several decades, in a legacy of conflict and power shifting going back to the reigns of the Celts, Romans, Ottoman Empire and the Yugoslavian experiment. It’s odd to reflect that this now peaceable city was bombed by the Nazis sixty years ago, and then by NATO only just a dozen years ago, and the site of the Topčider park across from the Parliament building – just a few blocks from my hotel – was ground zero for Serbians protesting against the Hague-bound Milosović. In its present state, Belgrade is a city very much re-emerging, but it’s a process slowed down by the economic clouds over the world at large. But making things work again and telling the world about the new Serbia, is the order of the day, including at the jazz festival.
Serbians have a relaxed feeling about the lunching process, the main meal of the day. One early afternoon, festival programmer Vojislav Pantić, my kindly host (and a fellow festival addict, like myself) led a large group of visiting journalists, photographers and others in a caravan in taxis to the secret treasure of a restaurant Široka staza, situated a literal stone’s throw from the Danube River along a riverfront path several minutes walk from the nearest paved road. We lunched on savory fish caught just down the hill from the eatery, enhanced by shots of Rakija, the special Serbian liquor which makes life and food go down all the easier. Toasts of “ziveli” rang out over a few hours in the place, and suddenly it was time to race back to the other side of the Danube, and I joined five grown men packed snugly into a Yugo making a dash back to festival central, a contained and organized world within the not-always controlled or sane world outside.
On Sunday afternoon, I strolled around the most tourist-friendly and historic area of town, the Stari Gard (old city) and the rambling park, the Kalemegdan, leading to an old castle perched over the meeting of the two rivers far below. I visited the expansive Vojni Military Museum, which gives a rough, broad overview of the military life in this area going back to BC, and reminds us of the unending presence of wars and territorial conflict in humanity, let alone this slice of global real estate. I headed across the Danube to the “new city” area, stopped in in that sprawling shiny new shopping center UŠĆE (meaning “meeting of rivers”), got lost and saw the gargantuan iron curtain-era Yugoslavia Hotel before finding my destination, the Belgrade Contemporary Art Museum. Alas, it’s in a ghostly state of suspended operation and animation, with a sign reading “project completion date: 2009.”
As the festival’s energized festival program manager Dragan Ambrozić, told me, in an hour-long talk at festival center, the Stari Gard site has seen countless successive rules of order and political power over the Millennia, and the current stage of Serbian life is yet another transition in-progress. “We always start from the ground up again,” said Ambrozić. His own resurgent efforts – also including the well-known EXIT festival in Novi Sad, Serbia – have been focused on the cultural machinery and, in Belgrade, on the buzz centered at the Dom omladine, including this now-significant Euro jazz festival rising from ashes and seeking higher ground as it goes, again.