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Festival report – Garana Jazz Fest, by Thomas Conrad

Every year, all year, but especially in summer, the map of Europe is dotted with jazz festivals. None is further off the grid than Garana, which celebrated its 20th edition in 2016. Garana is a village on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere in western Romania. The festival started as a jam session in a farmhouse in nearby Brebu Nou, in 1997. Two years later it moved to the only restaurant in Garana. (Daytime concerts are still held there.) The main festival grounds are now a meadow rented from a local farmer (“Poiana Lupului” or “Wolf Meadow”). Garana is often described as a “jazz Woodstock”. It is an intensely communal, even tribal, happening. Because there are almost no hotels in the area, tents and campers populated the open spaces near the festival. On the first day, during the afternoon sound check, a herd of cows wandered through the parking lot. The mountaintop is bitterly cold at night, even in high summer (the festival ran Jul. 7th-11th). The crowd, sitting on logs, bundled up and sipped tuica, Romanian white lightning, from clear plastic bottles. At the back, behind the rows of logs, there were food tents. Enormous vats of goulash bubbled.

Garana is not for the faint of heart, yet Festival Director Marius Giura attracts first-class acts. Kurt Rosenwinkel’s trio (electric bassist Dario Deidda and drummer Joost Patocka) played a concert in Wolf Meadow worthy of Carnegie Hall. Rosenwinkel stood stock-still, his engineer’s cap pulled over his eyes, and unleashed guitar brilliance in torrents. Ideas flew by in waves, but each note was etched on the cold night air.

Cover NYC Jazz Report - sept issue 2016

Rosenwinkel avoids a common trap. Many jazz musicians limit themselves by playing only their own unexceptional compositions. Rosenwinkel is not too proud to cover Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and Carl Fischer. To “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” and “Milestones”, he applied his specialty: knife-edged lushness. “You’ve Changed”, inundated in variations, became a vast new design that always returned to touch Fischer’s timeless song.

Three other well-regarded bands that gave strong concerts were Food, Nils Petter Molvær and Louis Sclavis. Food is Iain Ballamy on tenor and soprano saxophones and Thomas Strønen on drums, but their use of digital technology creates sonorities far beyond these instruments. They played material from their latest ECM album This Is Not a Miracle. Within Strønen’s electronically enhanced rhythmic environments and oceanic tides of sound, Ballamy threaded a fine line, a patient path. The music was like wind through the tall trees that surrounded the meadow, stark against a twilight sky.

Molvær has been a pioneer in the use of electronics but his trumpet lines are haunting without them. Molvær and Food often share a similar rapt atmosphere of mists and clouds, but Molvær covers a wider dynamic range, often ascending to shattering crescendos. There is something apocalyptic about his soaring pronouncements. His pedal steel guitarist, Geir Sundstøl, brings him back to earth. Sundstøl has introduced a new dimension into Molvær’s world: the sweet twang of country music.

Sclavis, with a trio, performed unique arcane jazz/classical chamber music. But his formalism always arrived at manic improvised counterpoint. The searing, whining outbreaks of Dominique Pifarély, the most exciting violinist in jazz since Billy Bang, stole the show.

High quality music also came from the Yuri Honing Quartet (featuring the austere lyricism of pianist Wolfert Brederode), Carlos Bica’s Azul (with wonderfully theatrical drummer Jim Black and unsung guitar hero Frank Möbus) and Kari Ikonen.

Of the Romanian musicians at the festival, two were very good (pianist Sebastian Spanache and trumpeter Emil Bizga) and one laid waste to Wolf Meadow. Liviu Butoi, master of at least five reed instruments, has been active on the European free jazz scene for 40 years, but under the radar. He played with his band French Connection: three hot Frenchmen (vibraphonist David Patrois, bassist Arnault Cuisinier, drummer Edward Perraud) and excellent Romanian pianist Mircea Tiberian. Butoi is a rare outcat whose wildest forays are melodic. “Brebu” was a hypnotic ceremony.

The most famous band on the program was Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison. Their direct claim on the legacy of John Coltrane’s classic quartet will never be exceeded. They played songs from their recent ECM album In Movement. The music was highly proficient and sometimes passionate, but less than the sum of its parts. As an ensemble, they do not come together into something larger than their individual solos to make an overarching statement. And DeJohnette wasted valuable time toying with electronic percussion devices.

The greatest set of the festival came at the right time: last. In bassist Arild Andersen’s quartet (Tommy Smith, tenor saxophone; Helge Lien, piano; Paolo Vinaccia, drums), everyone fills a role, profoundly. They played triumphant anthems that rang out over Wolf Meadow, Smith in clarion cries, Vinaccia in crashing climaxes. But they also played poignant lullabies like “Mira”, the title track from their latest ECM album. Andersen uses electronics to serve art. He soloed, pizzicato, over his own looped arco bass choir. The band played two encores and ended the festival on a high note. Or rather, a deep Andersen bass note that sounded like it might hang forever in the Romanian night. He is one of the few living bassists who, all by himself, can break your heart.


– by Thomas Conrad – THE NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD, september issue, 2016