35th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 13-16 October, 2022

Vilnius Jazz '89 JOINING EUROPE

Pius Knuesel

Of all the Soviet Union's major jazz festivals, the Vilnius Jazz Festival is the youngest. So far held only twice, it has already achieved its own profile. Vilnius '89, which was held from October 13-15, was not a display of regional or national potential, embellished with a few musicians from the international scene, but a festival devoted to modern styles of jazz of international level. Half the 15 groups appearing came from abroad ; from Great Britain, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, the FRG, and the GDR. Only two bands represented the Soviet Union, making the political and economic transformations of recent years conspicuous. Still Antanas Gustys, head of the organizational committee, has his ambitious program exacerbated by organizational and financial problems. This resulted in the Soviet musicians being paid expenses rather than fees. That is to say that two parts of the budget were swallowed up by guests from Europe who were really well treated and looked after. Nevertheless, some of them overstepped the mark making demands difficult to meet. It just showed the stars (e.g. Courtney Pine) to be completely unacquainted, nay, totally ignorant on the matter of conditions in the Soviet Union.

A transformed tradition

Courtney Pine's six black musicians were no doubt the festival's major attraction. They were the exception in appearing on the program twice and their music really set the concert hall swinging. Courtney Pine with his elaborate and complicated soprano and tenor solos drew cries of admiration: a Coltrane clone, he learned his lessons, but without achieving much critical distance. The group revolved around him, supplying a driving background without questioning the virtuoso escapades of the leader. Drummer Mark Mondesir smashed the music rather than shaped it, and the keyboardist Ahmed Laidlav shone with a faintly pianistic solos. Despite power and drive ultimately the sextet lacked dramatic know-how. The music of the Austrian sextet Ton Art was richer in nuance. Its sound is derived as much from orthodox jazz as the techniques of 20th century Austrian music - Schoenenberg, Webern and 12-tone music. There were fast changes between the written and improvised parts, as well as variations in tempo, range and mood, alternating between hot jazz and cold academic music. Each piece was a journey in many directions with astonishing contrasts and familiar sounds. The individual improvisations were less convincing than the group concept. Ton Art luckily kicked off Vilnius Jazz '89, setting the tone of the festival's program, searching for the new musical roads with clear, frequently ironical references to the history of music. On the other hand the Michel Pilz / Itaru Oki quartet didn't succeed. Packed with experienced soloists - Michel Pilz (bcl), Itaru Oki (tp,fl), Christian Ramond (b), Klaus Kugel (dr) - it lost itself in a dragging groove which became monotonous. To me, Pilz came across as little inspired and without strength, and the clear trumpet phrases of Oki didn't manage to link up with the uncertain rhythm section. At least with Pilz it was continually evident that some attempt was being made at musical interaction. In contrast, the Swedish Mwendo Dawa lost itself in expressionless fussion / hard bop. Itchy Fingers, the saxophone quartet from Britain (Mike Mower, John Graham, Howard Turner and Peter Long), continued to prove controversial - feted by the public, laughed at by critics and musicians. They reached deep into the well of tradition, solidly complementing bebop themes with a portion of stage antics. "They know how to play, that's true. If only someone wrote them some good music," said one of the musicians in the wings. Courtney Pine, Itchy Fingers, Ton Art, Pilz / Oki and Mwendo Dawa constituted the festival's theme: modern tradition. And they were received with a favorable response. But although the most important impulses for modern Soviet jazz have over the last ten years originated from Vilnius (the legendary Ganelin Trio and the saxophonist Petras Vyshniauskas today), this audience has not yet had much experience in listening to free music.

Completely contemporary music

Antanas Gustys put his audience to the test with two groups; Blauer Hirsch from Switzerland and the Conrad Bauer Quartet from the GDR. The musical director of Lithuanian Radio who backstage asked the four musicians of the free music quartet Blauer Hirsch about the titles of their compositions could not believe that there were no titles, no compositions. Even as Blauer Hirsch steps on stage he does not know what he's going to play. The 100 listeners in the hall were astonished. Most of them must have thought that what the Swiss played was unlistenable to and uncivilized - fast, hard and free music which their cousins could have taken for punk or new wave. For a long time the vibrating tapestry of sounds carried a primary energy, directly transforming itself into quiet, lyrical passages of peculiar transparency. Blauer Hirsch brings together such experienced pioneers of free jazz as Werner Luedi (ts) and Mani Neumeier (dr) with the sleek technical playing of the young musicians, Mich Gerber (b) and Waedi Gysi (g). It was an explosive music. The smoke cleared and the public remained in their seats. The Swiss were outstripped by the Conrad Bauer Quartet. Conny Bauer (tb), Johannes Bauer (tb) and Helmut Joe Sachse (g) played improvised music of the highest quality: oscillating sound patterns which came in strong solos, all coursing smoothly. Their experience of many years of joint playing was easy to hear, as was their highly developed feeling for form. However, drummer Peter Hollinger created a special tension playing in an anti-percussion, hard way, the way punk drummers do. But, make no mistake, the group received a rousing reception.

Bridging East and West

The saxophonist Petras Vyshniauskas who performed with the Michel Pilz / Itaru Oki Quartet in place of Arkady Gotesman, confirmed his great gift for melody and improvisatory skill. The old master Vladimir Tarasov took everybody by surprise, appearing in a percussion duo with Mani Neumeier from Blauer Hirsch. It was an exciting 40-minute session, fusing Neumeier's mixed rock with Tarasov's percussion technique. I've rarely heard Tarasov give as much of himself as in that duo. However, he sometimes served up orchestral samplings which gave the music an unnecessary fullness. Among the Lithuanian bands it was the trio of Vytas Labutis (ts), Leonid Shinkarenko (b), and Gediminas Laurinavicius (dr) which came across as most positive. No-nonsense jazz, sensitive interaction, an elastic and varied rhythm section and a strong, captivating saxophone playing. Less gripping was the Skirmantas Sasnauskas Jazz Quartet playing mainstream jazz enriched with folk elements. A similar approach was displayed by the Trio-O-Three Holes from Moscow: Alexander Alexandrov (bassoon), Sergei Letov (bars,ts), and Arkady Kirichenko (flgh, voice). Their meditative music draws on Asian sources. Carefully chosen and arranged songs, based on long held chords, created a feeling of time suspension. Then came the highlight as vocalist Saynkho Namtchilak joined the group. She revealed a crystal clear sound, broad range, effortless changing pitch and mastery of throat singing. Her voice has an exceptional expressive potential for free music. By expanding into a quartet Tri-O have grown to a foursome and are now one of the most important and the most promising new Soviet jazz groups. They have a strong competition in Vladimir Rezitsky's Arkhangelsk, which draws on all sorts of musical material, supported on stage by theatrical gimmicks. The group began with a funeral march for the bass, which was carried on stage borne high on shoulders, culminating in a seven-voice recitative from various newspapers. For Rezitsky everything goes: jazz, free music, rock, folk music, the spoken word, props and costumes. The saxophonist from the North knows how to fuse everything into a strong, crazy show which can be understood as a political statement. Vladimir Chekasin goes even further. In Vilnius he went too far. In addition to his quartet, he pulled onto the stage performing children and a marionette theater. He himself played the black prince casting spells with his soprano sax. The general atmosphere was that of a pitiful theater and musical helplessness. It was the more painful as Chekasin is one of the original pioneers of new Soviet music. However, it seems to confirm the rumor that since he parted company from Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov he hasn't been able to find an identity of his own.