The 42nd edition of the Skopje Jazz Festival: The World of Contemporary Avant-Garde and Creative Music at Your Fingertips

Skopje Jazz Festival

The period during which the Skopje Jazz Festival (SJF) takes place is undoubtedly the most interesting and exciting period, a time when the city becomes more than what it is and truly resembles a capital. Already in its 42nd edition, the festival enriches the city with visiting world-class musicians, putting Skopje on the map of interesting jazz destinations, and with them come numerous foreign journalists, musical adventurers, and fans who attest to the festival’s reputation in the world.

Before the main program, the festival organized screenings of two music documentary films, “Music for Black Pigeons” and “Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor,” as well as the promotion of the guitarist Filip Bukrshliev’s new album, “All the Sad Words in the Beggar’s Dictionary,” together with his performance at Audiokultura club.

What has always made SJF interesting is its program. Usually, festivals are interconnected, and their programs overlap, but SJF has a highly profiled program that carries an equal dose of unpredictability, excitement, and diversity (where sometimes the nature of the music in one evening is either in harmony or in contrast with each other), accessible and exclusive. During the four evenings, the program featured some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz in the broadest sense of the word and everything that falls into this creative genre.

First Night – After the Wildfire

Skopje Jazz Festival
Author of the photo: Nenad Georgievski

One of the exclusive performances was the premiere performance of “After the Wildfire,” written for this edition of the festival by producer and sampler master Jan Bang and trumpeter Arve Henriksen, arranged and conducted by Džijan Emin together with the Faims orchestra. The piece had an introverted character with typical Scandinavian melodies and harmonies, and ambient music, which were enhanced by Bang’s delicate interventions and samples, Henriksen’s characteristic trumpet, and percussionist Ingar Zak. The sound was complemented by traditional Macedonian music (kaval and tapan), as well as the traditional vocals of Vera Miloshevska and her students, who added Macedonian nuances to Norwegian music. This work may have had little in common with what is traditionally called jazz music, but it was creative music that fell between genres, with its main feature being innovation and creativity. In the end, this performance impressed the audience and clearly showcased the diversity of the program.

Skopje Jazz Festival
Author of the photo: Nenad Georgievski

Each evening had midnight performances where different profiles of musicians could be followed, and the first to perform was the ensemble of Ben Lamar Gay. Their music is hard to describe and was far from traditional jazz. Even their compositions and performances were far from traditional and were works of unpredictability. Their mixture of experimental indie elements, hip-hop, jazz, and electronic music added an eccentric dimension to their music. This was also the case with the performance of Mats Gustafson and Zoe Pia and their project “Rite” on the third evening, which was brutal with their rough textures and improvisations on various wind instruments.

Skopje Jazz Festival
Author of the photo: Nenad Georgievski

Second Night – Roberto Ottaviano and Eternal Love, Sylvie Courvoisier and Mary Halvorson

The diversity of the program continued on the second night, starting with the performance of Roberto Ottaviano and his ensemble Eternal Love, whose compositions resembled Coltrane and Albert Ayler, but they did not engage in total free jazz; their compositions were characterized by interesting improvisational excursions. The music itself carried the same spiritual note. In the end, they dedicated a theme to the recently deceased pianist Carla Bley.

The most interesting moment of that evening came from the duo composed of Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and American guitarist Mary Halvorson. With a selection of material from their two joint albums, there was a magical musical chemistry and impressive synergy between them. The music had a chamber-like character, with beautiful and intriguing themes, and the result highlighted their enthusiasm for experimentation and pushing boundaries.

Traditionally, the festival awards a prize for young talents and their dedication to this music form, and for 2023, the award went to the percussionist Dragan Teodosievski, who performed that evening with his band Cobalt Code Unit. Their music was more akin to improvised prog rock, with occasional Macedonian traditional expressions and pulsating rhythms.

Third Night – Jason Moran, Joel Ross and “Good Vibes”

JOEL ROSS GOOD VIBES / Author of the photo: Nenad Georgievski

The third night brought a strong solo piano performance from pianist Jason Moran. Moran last performed at the SJF in 2011 as part of Charles Lloyd’s quartet. For me, this was the deepest and most impressive performance of the festival. Moran is a skilled improviser and a prolific composer who creates both jazz and classical music. However, what stood out about him were his improvisational and narrative skills. His themes and improvisations told stories and carried a strong emotional and cinematic imprint. This was not empty improvisation and virtuosity, but storytelling. Some themes had a bluesy melody, and a special moment occurred when the lights were turned off in the hall, and he played in the darkness.

During the second part of the evening, Joel Ross and his quartet “Good Vibes” performed. Ross is a vibraphonist and the band leader on the rise. Their music flowed like a conversation; the theme started as a topic of discussion and then transitioned from phase to phase. Their compositions lasted an average of 20 minutes and were excellent.

Fourth Night – Zlatko Kaucic, Barry Guy and Augusti Fernandez; Gard Nielsen’s Supersonic Orchestra

GARD NILSSEN’S SUPERSONIC ORCHESTRA / Author of the photo: Nenad Georgievski

The final night was crowned with performances by the trio of Slovenian free percussionist Zlatko Kaucic, who performed with Barry Guy and Augusti Fernandez. This trio had a completely free approach to their instruments, and their performance consisted of a sound theater – each produced sounds on their instruments using props, and at certain moments, they played gentle themes.

On the other hand, Gard Nielsen’s Supersonic Orchestra had a truly unforgettable performance. This ensemble consisted of 18 members with 3 percussionists, 3 bassists, and various wind instruments. What was evident was the synergy among the members of the ensemble and the attentiveness with which they listened to each other as they performed. As a result of that dynamic and energy, their music was kinetic, dynamic, and energetic, entirely in the tradition of Albert Ayler, whose theme they played at the end for an encore.

The final performance of the festival was by the Brazilian afrobeat band Bixiga 70. The band is a mix of Brazilian music with funk influences, afrobeat, and dance music. The conclusion of the 42nd edition of SJF was marked by a dynamic dance party.

Each edition of SJF paints a unique picture of its own and leads to a rich, dynamic, and diverse eclectic musical world. The program is not designed to satisfy local tastes but goes far beyond that. It is a gateway to the rich world of contemporary music. It is no coincidence that the festival has a high reputation in the world of jazz music, and with each new edition, it justifies that reputation.

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