The last week full of musical events culminated in the final round of the Central European Jazz Competition organised by the “neighbouring” jazz festivals – JazzFestBrno and Poysdorf Jazz & Wine. This cross-border musical project has a promising future: the first year of the jazz competition in its final afternoon offered six half-hour blocks of the finalists, who were a surprise with their musical range and the quality of their musicianship.
It was clear that the jury had something to choose from – a total of 24 ensembles entered the first round, limited by only two requirements: the age of most members up to 35 and Czech or Austrian nationality of the bandleader and most of the members. The number of musicians in the line-up was not limited but as far as I know there were no big bands, and there maximally six-person groups. According to the jury even in the semi-finals there were several other promising talents. The jury sent six into the final – and they chose well: on Saturday afternoon they fought hard on the stage of the Alterna club.
A common feature of the groups was undoubtedly quality: most of the participating groups would have no trouble holding their own even at a jazz or multi-genre festival. Many of them of course already regularly give concerts, while others have already brought out debut albums – but the competition did not take account of this. Originally they fought for three awards: Absolute Winner, National Winner and the Audience Award – the first two given by the professional jury and the third by the audience. In the end there was an extra prize … In play was a prize in euros for the absolute and national winners, and for the best group also a “baptism of fire” in the form of a concert at both the organising festivals and for all three winners perhaps the most valuable prize: a day of coaching by a member of the jury chosen by them.
And the choice was from five genuine personalities in Czech and Austrian jazz: in the jury was the star of this year’s JazzFest Brno, the bass player, multi-instrumentalist and 2016 Anděl Award-holder Jiří Slavík, the respected jazz teacher, conductor and above all pianist Milan Svoboda, the duo of excellent saxophonists Luboš Soukup and Bernhard Wiesingerand the Austrian musical manager Peter Polansky.
That the jury had not erred in their selection was clear for the first competition set. This was from the “home” Brno trio The Abs (which, as the musicians themselves note, came into being as part of an interpretive seminar at JAMU) and they began with a courageous stylistic mix in a proper jazz overcoat. The trio of Vít Beneš (guitar), Michal Šelep (double bass) and Adam Sikora (drums – member of the more famous Jan Kavka Trio) had a cohesive musical expression. The leading figure in the trio, guitarist and composer Vít Beneš, is one of the boldest graduates of the jazz department at JAMU (a pupil of Vilém Spilka and David Dorůžka continuing in studies with Jiří Slavík), offered the trio several of his original compositions and his instrumental performance (in a trio nothing and no one is hidden, as is well-known) was also convincing. There followed a performance by the next performance by another ensemble that has “erupted” (in the words of the members of the quartet) from JAMU – Pavel & PQ (alongside Pavel Zlámal made up of Martin Konvička on piano, Juraj Valenčík on double bass and Václav Pálka on drums). Frontman, the saxophonist Pavel Zlámal, moves back and forth between classical music, jazz and swing classics (B-Side Band) to his original experimental jazz projects (among others Heterofon and the fusion formation ZKKP), but PQ is of course a priority. This year the quartet released their debut album Tyče nevyhnutelné (Inevitable Bars) and just like on the disc they also presented themselves on stage through the directness, chemistry and confidence of their expression as well as the inventiveness of their playing and composition. Together with the closing Sketchbook Quartet they also built on communication with the audience, which paid off for them (they received the Audience Award), but perhaps did not go over so well with the jury. The following Soundscapes Trio was clearly the youngest ensemble, formed around the rising star of Czech jazz, the pianist Daniel Bulatkin, who at eighteen is an excellent player and above all an inventive jazz composer and arranger. And he still has plenty of time and space to develop his potential; his fellow players (double bass player Max Makagonov and drummer Petr Nohavica) are also riding a wave like him. A symbolic musical linking of neighbours from both sides of the border was offered to the jury by the group Purple is the Color. This ensemble, formed around the Austrian pianist Simon Raab and supplemented by the Czech musicians Štěpán Flagar (saxophone), Martin Kocián (double bass) and Michal Wierzgoń (drums), has been giving concerts already for three years, has behind it a debut album (Unmasked, 2017) as well as a European concert tour (Release Tour). It shows in their cohesiveness: a dynamic stage performance moving between quiet passages all the way to noise-sound, opportunities for solos for each of the instruments (although the dominance of the piano is clear), appropriate player confidence without the need to dazzle. A balanced confident performance with excellent technique, as if to support the name of one of their works Just Kidding. There followed two original projects from the Austrian multi-instrumentalist and composer Leonhard Skorupa. The trio Znap, founded last year, which on stage slightly missed living up to their significant “support acts” and coming across at the start as a bit sheepish, before the musicians calmed down and played properly. The format of a trio (Skorupa was supplemented by Gregor Aufmesser on double bass and Lukas Aichinger on drums) is unforgiving, each intonation and interpretive uncertainty having no place to hide. The last (and evidently most experienced of the final groups) Austrian ensemble once more built around Leonhard Skorupa under the name Sketchbook Quartet (Leonhard Skorupa not only on saxophone and clarinet, but also on keyboards and above all sampler, Andreas Tausch on guitar, Daniel Moser on bass clarinet and Konstantin Krautler on drums) is a powerful, lively bunch of cohesive musicians with charisma and confidence who are not afraid to cannibalise ideas from any musical genre. They have been playing together for four years and in this line-up have already released two albums (Ottos Mops, 2017 and When Was The Last Time, 2018) and certainly have no fear of audiences. They perform compositions based on art-rock, alternating with bebop and the beats of funk; they were certainly the freest of all the groups on Saturday afternoon in Alterna and even if they made occasional slips (the bass clarinet sometimes lost the bass line), the audience in the hall enjoyed themselves and were sorry when the set ended.
The performances of the individual ensembles certainly did not make it easy for the jury – their conferring took a long time and the final verdict was the result of a complicated process of deciding: the overall winner was the international ensemble Purple is the Color with its leader Simon Raab; and also because of this the National Winner was Czech – the trio The Abs. Outside the original remit the jury also announced a prize for second place for Sketchbook Quartet which was without a financial reward but with the right to a paid appearance at JazzFest Brno in 2019. Another exceptional award – the Talent Prize – went to the pianist and composer Daniel Bulatkin.
Then there came the two symbolic peaks of the Central European Jazz Competition: the evening concert of the winners in the Alterna club and a night jamming session in Music Lab.
Last, but not least we should mention the sound engineers: Lukáš Rusek and Pavel Sedlář certainly did not have an easy time of it with the rapid changes of the groups on stage, but they did an excellent job. We can only hope that similar contests of the rising generation of jazz musicians will not be isolated events.