The parade of European and world saxophonists at this year's Jazzfest Brno festival stylishly concluded with virtuoso technique and inventiveness linking the various branches of jazz - the respected Austrian sideman and soloist Harald Harry Sokal with his Groove trio and the New York legend Chris Potter, who led his Quartet on the stage of the Sono Centre with his latest project - the album The Dreamer Is The Dream.
The dominant instrument in the sixteenth JazzFest somehow became the saxophone – in the first month of the hospital on the stage there were six jazz ensembles led by a saxophonist and several others with excellent saxophonists as sidemen. The symbolic ‘kick-off’ was provided right at the beginning with a series of concerts by Joe Lovano, American swing and bebop legend, with his Classic Quartet and a repertoire created in tribute to his long-term colleague, the pianist Hank Jones. They played ballads and Lovano’s works from his last album Classic! Live at Newport. He was evidently happy to be returning to Brno, and recalled his earlier concert with John Scofield. Another trio of saxophonists (compared to Lovano two to three musical generations younger) have in common a certain social and genre cosmopolitanism: the Czech Luboš Soukup and the Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset settled in the Danish metropolis of Copenhagen, and Michal Wróblewski has also established himself in the north of Europe. Their playing and compositional originality relatively quickly got them established among the top European solo players and their musical projects gave them places in the excellent line-ups of young jazzmen. Luboš Soukup is still linked by the jazz-going public with the Czech-Polish project Inner Spaces and with his time in Concept Art Orchestra. He set up his current Luboš Soukup Quartet in 2010 soon after he began his studies in the Copenhagen Music Academy and he has invited the well-known Benin guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke to join the same band for their Brno performance that is planned as a live recording for Animal Music. Soukup’s peer Neset, a saxophone virtuoso rightly seen as the most significant talent of his generation and a distinguished successor to Jan Garbarek, caught attention with his debut Golden Xplosion in 2011. With his current Marius Neset Quartet the year before last he issued the respected album Pinball, which is mostly based on his concert in the Sono Centre. The largest international project was presented in the Goose on a String Theatre by the Kladno native and graduate of Brno’s JAMU Michal Wróblewski. He had his debut at JazzFest not long ago with his other line-up E Converso. Today’s MW Ensemble, made up mostly of young Norwegian jazz musicians, reflects the growing interpretational and compositional potential of Michal Wróblewski, oscillating between the American jazz avant-garde through contemporary artificial music to crossover inspired by a variety of musical genres. To the list of frontmen and dominant original characters who performed at this year’s JazzFest, we should add the unique soloist and sideman of the Poogie Bell Band Mike Stephenson, the saxophone playing multi-instrumentalist Marcel Bárta (Vertigo, CAO) and the other three players making up the saxophone section of the Concept Art Orchestra (aside from Luboš Soukup and Marcela Bárta they are David Fárek, Petr Kalfus and Robert Mitrega).
The independent parade of top jazz saxophonists of ‘the United States of America and other countries’ (here I can paraphrase the walking jazz encyclopaedia Jan Dalecký) within JazzFest this week was concluded with a double concert of musicians from the older middle or middle generation: the Austrian soprano saxophonist, the valued sideman and inventive soloist and improviser Harald Harry Sokal and the Chicago native, probably the most respected saxophone magician on the New York scene Chris Potter. The proven Austrian colleague of among others Art Farmer, Dave Holland, Carla Bley and Joe Zawinul founded his own first project Timeless in 1977. In that year he became one of the founding members of the Vienna Art Orchestra and remained alongside bandmaster Mathias Rüegg until its demise in 2010. Harry Sokal Groove is his current project – a trio combining the saxophone innovator with the ambitious player on the Hammond B3 organ Raphael Wressnig (in the after-concert sale there were seven of his solo albums) and the talented drummer Alex Deutsch, a dynamic, well-coordinated and disposing of a rhythmic tandem. Wressnig in the course of the concert based on Sokal’s works from older albums and from the recent joint album Harry Sokal Groove Where Sparks Start To Fly provided several inventive solos, while the drummer remained in the position of an empathic sideman. However there was no mistaking the frontman of the three-man line-up on the stage. With the salutation Bon Voyage the protagonist immersed himself into the world of saxophone ostinato gradually developing various motifs. Individual numbers from the sparkling album ( Rocket, Less We Can, Soul Eyes, Saxman and Zephyr) made the concert into an hour-long exhibition. Perhaps the most interesting number in the concert was the jokey jazz improvisation on the well-known Alpine folk yodelling song Erzherzog Johann Jodler.
The impatiently awaited culmination of the festival saxophone parade, the concert by Chris Potter and his quartet, had its prologue already after Easter in the Sono Centre in the form of a musical workshop by the full group. Some 25 participants, mostly students from the jazz department of JAMU, had a wonderful experience, which escalated during the concert and the unexpected epilogue after its completion. Potter handsomely lived up to his reputation as a versatile inventive saxophonist who is not limited by technique or musical styles, and is able to fuse pop-rock with all the nuances of historical and contemporary jazz, including ethnic roots and without any habits or restrictions. Anyone who remembers him as sideman in the Unity Band of Pat Metheny at JazzFest in 2012 or the recording with Red Rodney, Steve Swallow, Dave Douglas, Dave Holland or Paul Motian, will see that he has enjoyed a rebirth as a mature authorial personality with his own opinions and intuition, and still more personal and easily recognizable style of play of frontman employing the support of well-disposed bandmates. I am thinking of the Canadian-Cuban pianist David Virelles, moving from the role of harmonic sideman to the position of relaxed soloist with a cascade of idea (e.g. Ilimba) and the excellent driving tandem of Joe Martin-Nasheet Waits on double bass and percussion. Most of the works in the concert set were based on the tested idea of ‘basic saxophone ostinato-like unison-motif with the piano, and sometimes with bass-improvisation’. With the exception of an addition (Eagle) the Chris Potter Quartet gave a concert performance of all of the new album The Dreamer Is the Dream – as Potter happily said from the stage the Brno audience was the first in the world who had the chance not only to hear the album but also to buy it afterwards. The musicians themselves only got to see it the day before. Against the concert line-up, Marcus Gilmore played the drums, but Waits on stage was just as good. Individual pieces from the album (Heart In Hand, Ilimba, the title The Dreamer Is the Dream with a solo on the bass clarinet, Yasodhara and Sonic Anomaly) in places linked sampled music with percussion, which in turn was shaped by the live piano and bass. During and after the concert Chris Potter and his fellow musicians gained a deserved ovation from the auditorium. The whole quartet completed their visit to Brno after the end of the official concert with their active participation in a jam session in the MusicLab at the Music Faculty of JAMU. They praised both the organisers and visitors to JazzFest: more such evenings.