This year's JazzFestBrno: a number of great female singers and musicians

17 May 2019, 12:00
This year's JazzFestBrno: a number of great female singers and musicians

This year's Jazzman, a fanzine of the JazzFest music festival, was full of extensive medallions and articles and also featured a noteworthy commentary by the Czech Radio's dramaturge Petr Vidomus with a somewhat provocative headline: Jazz Doesn't Need to Be a Men's Club. The article contemplates  some  of the gender stereotypes, which the world (and therefore consequently not even the Czech) jazz scene has not yet gotten rid of completely. Great female soloists, mastering instruments previously entirely reserved for men, are growing in numbers. Although gender coding, which Vidomus described in a very precise and ironic way, has not yet been  completely overcome, JazzFest contributed significantly to its gradual elimination this year.

Traditionally strong was the representation of top female vocalists in the programme – in fact, legendary  Diane Schuur (who is, by the way, a great pianist as well) decorated already the first season of JazzFest. This year's season offered as a finale of the programme an even brighter diva – the fresh holder of the Jazz Legends Awards and a unique female vocalist Dianne Reeves. She returned to Brno after four years even with an identical quartet relying on her long-time guitarist Romero Lubambo. Reeves' beautiful timbre, oscillating from the sung text to scat improvisation, transcending as far as the vocal imitation of various music instruments is absolutely unmistakable. In the improved acoustic ambiance of the Janáček Opera, visitors could enjoy the full range of shades of her colourful voice accompanied here and there by a solo piano in an imaginary battle of scat cadencies with a guitar riff. It also perfectly fulfilled the other characteristics of this year's JazzFest, namely a certain connection, and even better say, intermingling of several genres. Dianne Reeves offered songs from soul through rhythm'n'blues to traditional jazz. Eventually, her brought her show to culmination by singing without a microphone – just like a genuine operatic diva.

The female element pervaded this time the JazzFest programme already since the March prologue with the dignified forerunner of the renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis, which was Kasia Pietrzko – a young Polish pianist, composer and arranger with her trio. One of  the most distinctive talents of Polish jazz has already won a number of awards, such as the second place in the New Hope category of the Jazz Forum magazine. Two years ago, she released her greatly acclaimed debut album Forthright Stories. This proficient improviser and creative pianist, with only two aditional musicians accompanying her on double bass and drums, did not have an easy position in the large hall of the Sono Centre in front of an audience looking forward to see the eldest of the brothers Marsalis, but eventually she met with great acclaim.

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Three days later, for a change, the biggest Czech talent of contemporary jazz was introduced in the intimate ambiance of the Husa Na Provázku theatre. Trumpeter, bandleader and composer  Štěpánka Balcarová brought to Brno her unique project of poems by a Polish poet Life and Happiness of Julian Tuwim put to music, in the  interpretation of her Czech-Polish sextet and especially her friend and classmate from the Polish town of Katowice, singer Malgorzata Hutek. Mature, communicative and multilayered songs on Tuwim's verses in combination with the soft sound of the Polish language conjured up special musical images and left a resonating impression in the audience. Another multitalent was added to the JazzFest programme from Slovakia. Theatrical writer, actress, but also flutist and composer Sisa Michalidesová (among others, Esprit Award winner for Slovak jazz album of 2017) presented her own multi-layered poetic story called Chloe, inspired by native Mexican legends. In addition to the music side, in which Sisa's voice and flute was accompanied by a five-member international line-up, the author also verbally introduced the legends that inspired the creation of individual parts of the composition (such as the mythical beast chupacabras) and the final catharsis of the escape of the heroine Chloe from the underworld back to life.

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The joint project of New York keyboardist Brian Charett and South African singer and performer Melanie Scholtz, entitled Homeland, was also based on a combination of spoken word describing the culture and customs of South Africa, Kenya, Argentina and Scandinavia with music inspired by elements of these cultures. This partner duo introduced another novelty of this year's festival season: the expansion of JazzFest through a mini-tour of one of the projects in three cities in the surroundings of Brno (this year to Kyjov, Tišnov and Miroslav). This Afro-American duo with strong and long-term ties to the Czech environment (Brian travelled around Czechoslovakia as a member of the band Jazz Celulla of Laco Déczi, and Melanie lived and gave concerts here until recently with a Czech-African band) met up in Prague at a jazz workshop. The couple was brought together by the Brno bassist and dramaturge of the Stará Pekárna music club, Lukáš Kytnar, who recommended an excellent keyboard player to his colleague from the band. Nowadays, they live together in New York, but they are always happy to come back. As a screenwriter of a project built up on multi-ethnic inspiration, Melanie uses pre-recorded music background from original compositions. While singing, she uses a looper for the layering of vocals, and similarly Brian completes the Hammond organ sound with various samples and synthesizers. Even here, they managed to significantly overlap the boundaries of jazz as a genre in several different directions.

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Big bands used to be, until recently, perhaps the most closed men's club in the world of jazz, (which was confirmed at JazzFest, for example, by the exclusively male line-up of Svoboda's revitalized Contraband). But even here this is not a dogma any longer. The line-up of the Divergent Connections Orchestra of jazz experimenter Pavel Zlámal was enlivened by female violinist Anna Neugebauerová and a flash of better times in this direction was seen in the line-up of the JAMU Jazz Orchestra of the teacher Matúš Jakabčic (female saxophonist Juliana Gazdagová and trumpeter Martina Hrmelová). The very successful concert of jazz hopes, i.e. students of the Department of Jazz Interpretation of the Faculty of Music of JAMU, was even more open in this direction. Juliana Gazdagová introduced herself with alto saxophone also in  a trio with piano and double bass Behul-Gazdagová-Marko and another female saxophonist Michaela Turcerová was a valid component of the trio (with guitar and drums for a change) Szabó-Turcerová-Maceček.

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The spring programme of the eighteenth season of JazzFest is a history, but it seems we will not have to wait for the next sequel until the spring of next year. Several Echoes of JazzFest Brno concerts are planned for this year as well. The programme will be revealed in June. And the dramaturges cautiously hinted that even in the autumn we might expect to see a great female jazz pianist in Brno.

Dianne Reeves / photo by Martin Zeman

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