FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: 2015 Bucharest Jazz Festival

The audience in the Piaţa George Enescu, Bucharest

Bucharest Jazz Festival 2015
(Piaţa George Enescu and other locations in Bucharest. June 30-July 5. Round-Up and photos by Henning Bolte)

As is the case with most European capitals, Bucharest in Romania, has its own major annual jazz event in the summer. The Bucharest Jazz festival is organized by the Arts Council of the City of Bucharest (ARCUB). ARCUB was founded in 1996 and is the cultural arm of the General Council of Bucharest. It functions as a bridge between the local government and the civil society.

The festival takes place in the first week of July as a five night open-air affair. This year it presented 13 free-admission evening-concerts. It is staged on one of the central squares named after renowned Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955). The Romanian Athenaeum, the Athenaeum Palace, The National Museum of Art and the Central University Library flank the square.

The Festival is now in its fourth edition, and grew out of some forerunner events. It got its present shape in 2011 and has an invited curator for the artistic programming, usually an established and jazz musician or promoter. ARCUB is responsible for the production, logistics and principal financing of the Festival through public funding from the City of Bucharest. The Romanian jazz scene is at the core of the festival’s mission: “Placing a strong accent on supporting the local Romanian jazz scene, Bucharest Jazz Festival is, at the same time, a bridge for world class jazz and a platform for the latest trends in contemporary jazz. Its mission is to create a place of excellence for jazz and improvised music, while making professional tools and good practices available to musicians so as to foster an environment for future collaborations between the Romanian jazz scene and the rest of the world.” Also, “supporting young artists is one of ARCUB’s major goals.”

This Year's Programme

This year’s programme had eight groups from Romania, four groups from the United States (trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective, trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet, singer Lizz Wright with her group and the Lee Konitz Quartet) and one Polish-Swedish group, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio with saxophonist Joakim Milder. Half of the Romanian groups had a considerable participation of Hungarian, Bulgarian, Italian, French and British musician like for example renowned French drummer Edward Perraud and French vibraphonist David Patrois. With such a weighty presence of Romanian groups the Bucharest festival clearly differs from other Romanian festivals like Garana which heavily focuses on acts and groups from outside Romania and Romanian musicians in the margins. The music of the Romanian groups revealed quite different points of contact with classical traditions, folk-traditions, diverse jazz traditions and fusion profiled in different ways.

Traces of folk music

Through the use of folk music instruments in two ensembles, Lucian Nagy in his own ensemble on assorted flutes and Dalila Cernătescu on Romanian pan-pipe, called nai, and also guesting in the septet of pianist Florin Răduanu played music with a strong folk flavour, which in both cases however was counteracted by other elements. In Nagy’s quintet, folk was powered by heavily electrified bass-guitar, whereas Răducanu embedded the nai in a strong four horn brass-section that provided a more valid outcome. Singer Luiza Zan with her Hungarian All Stars used electric instruments only, but leaned heavily on popular folk tunes but rendered it in electric overdrive mode with speedy keyboards, machine-like drumming sound and high register vocal acrobatics. It went like a clock-work with repeated fireworks from Zan, however it lacked space and nuance. Likewise Johann Berby’s bass guitar plucking did not take Nagy’s folk-inspired excursions and lines musically to deeper levels.

Dalila Cernătescu playing the nai

Free of overt folk references, bassist Pedro Negrescu together with his Bulgarian mates, drummer Hristo Yotsof and pianist Vassil Parmakov, navigated through grooving melodic fields. Negrescu is a strong bassist operating in the mode of the Norwegian Arild Andersen. Working from a solid deep musical home base Negrescu created a joyful, pleasurable piece of music as a start of the third concert night preparing the ground for the septet of his colleague Florin Răducanu. Răducanu is a strongly comping pianist with a decisive keyboard touch, great rhythmic flow and irrepressible playfulness and boundless energy that helps him to elevate the music and sometimes let him meander in long loops. Dalila Cernătescu guesting on nai, the Romanian pan-pipe, made a strong impression and created a strong profile of her instrument against the massive brass of the ensemble. She could well be even more challenging in an electronic context with live sampling.

Lizz Wright

Pre-eminent Afro-American vocalist Lizz Wright fittingly and strongly continued the line of this night. She is known for presenting compact, honest and joyful music. Her voice has a wonderful sound that comes from deep within and can touch people’s hearts. With great continuity she has created her very own thing with a clear signature at the intersection of gospel, soul, blues and jazz. The music was reduced to the very essence of her singing voice, filled with pure joy and a direct rapport with the audience. Her band with Kenny Banks on keys – with a nice Stevie Wond(e)r(ous) attitude - Nicholas D’Amato on bass-guitar, Chris Rosser on guitars and Brannen Temple on drums brought the compact music, music with intent, highly effective, great playfulness and shared joyfulness. You know what you get and the grateful audience got it. This night it was especially the two ladies, first Dalila Cernătescu and then Lizz Wright who intensely touched the audience on Bucharest’s Piaţa George Enescu.

Classical connection

The connection to classical music most clearly revealed in a newly commissioned work from accomplished saxophonist Christian Soleanu. It was performed by his Romanian-French quartet with guitarist Alexandru Man, bassist Olivier Gato and drummer Roger Biwandu together with the classical Romanian string quartet Cvartetul de Coarde. It appeared to be a piece worked out with great care and refinement as well as an effortlessly flowing rendition. The applications for this commission had been judged by three musicians: New York pianist of Romanian origin and festival curator Lucian Ban, Mircea Tiberian, pianist and director of the Jazz Department of Bucharest University and Amsterdam based violinist/guitarist George Dumitriu, also of Romanian origin.

Extending the jazz tradition

And then there are the happy traditionalist sticking to the infinite possibilities of American standards and famous pieces of the bop-era. Performing pieces from that era somewhat freshly and challenging, not to evade in shallow reproduction or to lapse into eloquently running up and down scales, is a special art that also may lead into pleasurable brushing things against the grain and reinvent. Pianist Sorin Zlat pursued this path with his trio. It seemed he could effortlessly play any piece from that source with great fluency but in the long run obstacles and resistance, a twist, was missing. Even not easy in company of two American guys from different generations of jazz musicians, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and living legend alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.

Roy Hargrove has been a reliable entity of the European festival-circuit for a long time. He is still able to put the necessary urgency in his playing that makes listening to him a pleasurable affair. He played punchily on both trumpet and fluegelhorn seconded by altoist Justin Robinson and backed by a versatile rhythm section satisfying the Bucharest audience with good set.

Lee Konitz and George Schuller

Still of another order was the appearance of the master Lee Konitz now on hitting the stage for more than 60 years. Konitz’ performance backed by drummer George Schuller, bassist Jeremy Stratton and pianist Thomas Rueckert was a case of the beauty of an almost vanished world and its sound. It was especially impressing watching such a huge crowd on the large Bucharest square listening so attentively and devoted to Lee’s songs and singing. Who else is able to make the sweetest melodies sound in such a non-sweet tone and fully unfolding way? Who else is able to connect this gone by times’ sound with our present existence? And who can do it without any heroic pep talk, no clouds of holiness or other projections. Only with his very own directness, self-esteem, very special moodiness and sense of humour - Lee, the Onlee! Actually, he was the one who played fully freed music.

Free(d) playing

There was also some free(d) playing in saxophonist Liviu Butoi’s French Connection quartet with Edward Perraud on drums, David Patrois on vibraphone and bassist Arnault Cuisinier. They seemed to have decided to undertake short trips, kept each other balanced and mutually supported their (spontaneous) ideas. The vibraphone created a flow that gave Butoi more space and freedom to meet with the ghosts in his horns.

The categories in between and beyond

In between all mentioned categories and labels there is the trio of Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, drummer Michal Miskiewicz and saxophonist Joakim Milder. The trio, one of the most long-standing in European jazz, has absorbed lots of sounds and music. The essence of its music lies in the nuances of color and light, in the phrasing, its underlying rhythmic intensity and in its beautiful melodic lines: Baltic blue.

Percussionist Michal Miskiewicz carves sound lines, let the air swell and ebb, and indicates road markings. Slawomir Kurkiewicz is literally the dark whirring center. Joakim Milder, the experienced Swedish sax-man, has a lovely curving blue-grey sound. Dry and slightly muffled, still unadulterated lyricism. His tone lies somewhere in between Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd. And, what’s even of more importance for such an open-air event: Milder never forces his instrument’s sound. He lets himself carry on the dynamic bed the trio is generating. It worked wonderfully even in this not easy open-air context – thanks also to the festival’s capable sound engineer Martin Wurmnest from Berlin (Zeitkratzer, Keijo Haino etc.). The sound dynamics of the trio +1 were permanently present.

In real time the Wasilewski group was followed the starkly contrasting E-Collective of American trumpeter Terence Blanchard consisting of all young talent: Charles Altura on guitar, Donald Ramsey, bass guitar, Fabian Almazan, keyboard and Chris Bailey, drums. It is massive sound, the massive sound of trumpet, electronic and electric guitars, a southern counterpart to Norwegian trumpeter NP Molvær and his different guitarists.

It took some time to equalize the sound, but then, moving in slower pace, the group could open wider ambient horizons. Alternately strong soloing let it burn and fired it up.

Last but not least there was the festival’s opening concert given by the quartet of bassist Răzvan Cojanu comprising some of the strongest musicians of the younger generation: pianist Albert Tajti and drummer Tavi Scurtu, two already accomplished jazz musicians, and as the youngest one up-and-coming guitarist Liviu Negru, who debuted on the festival last year when he played with the Bucharest Jazz Orchestra. Amazing about this group was how it grew during its performance when they gradually were interlocking on a still higher level (or on a still deeper ground). The foursome ignited an enormous uplifting and sparkling drive especially during the finishing phase. Even though they navigated along Pat Metheny orbits and his marking shone through, the group’s music has developed its very own signature. It revealed as a group with big potential and Liviu Negru as a promising talent with great dynamics.


Considering the context, audience and targets of the event, this edition had a well-balanced programming that for a greater part worked out satisfying in the performances. It was the last edition of the three-year term of New York pianist of Romanian origin, Lucian Ban, as a curator. Lucian Ban is known from his duo-collaboration with violinist Mat Maneri (Transylvanian Concert, ECM, 2013), his Elevation-group with Abraham Burton, John Hebert and Eric McPherson as well as longstanding collaborations with Alex Harding, Sam Newsome, Brad Jones and Nasheet Waits.

Events connected to the Festival

The context and background program presented at the (new) art centre Hanul Gabroveni was impressive and very well organized by Emilia Paunescu. Especially the exhibition with the work of four excellent Romanian jazz photographers made a mark. Besides an impressive photo exposition with works by Cornel Lazia, Mircea Albutiu, Sánta István Csaba and Elemar Lemes, there were lectures by Alex Vasiliu on Romanian jazz history and this reviewer on jazz mentalities and cooperation in Europe, film viewings (documentary on Ornette Coleman) and an equally impressing session on labels’ und publishers’ production, presented by the two foremost Romanian jazz writers and organizers, Florian Lungu and Virgil Mihaiu. Even nightly jam sessions at the Bucharest club La Scena at Calea Călărașilor 55, developed their own dynamic.


It is worth noting that the festival is organized by a very young team full of ideas and led by Anamaria Antoci, a versatile young woman. Just the fact that it is a team not confined to ‘jazz’-activities but responsible for a greater variety of art and cultural activities is a big advantage.

The festival is set up in a way that all citizens have easy access to events financed by public money – easy in terms of entrance fee, easy in terms of accessibility, physically as well as psychologically. The square was full of people at every concert, the vast majority of them engaged in listening to the music on stage.

The event is also not heavily commercialized - yet, which is a precious quality too, and a good basis for further developments. Possible additions and adaptions therefore have to be done with care and an intelligent strategy. For example, it would be good to reach out for a bit to more daring open forms, open forms that have potentials to appeal to (young) musicians and the audience. It should be brought into practice according to a clearly recognizable artistic line that is closely related to the urban environment and cultural context. It would be worthwhile to integrate special urban sites and give musicians facilities and possibilities not only “to play” but to musically explore certain urban spaces. That would also foster (residential) collaboration and exchange of/between musicians. It would entail (musical) activities on more than one locale. Interdisciplinarity would almost automatically emerge from that. There is fertile ground to plant more good and richly flowering seeds.

Bucharest Jazz Festival Website

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