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Jazz Appreciation Month 2011 in Montenegro

Nov 17th, 2011 | By

Although Montenegro reemerged on the world’s map only a few years ago, its jazz community has quickly found an adequate organizational structure: the Jazz Art Association, founded by Maja Popovic in the capital city of Podgorica in 2009.

Already in that year, the ever persuasive Maja asked American bassist Patrick O’Leary to compose The Montenegro Jazz Suite, made up of Montenegrin folk-songs restyled into a “third stream” work for choir, string ensemble, plus the composer’s quartet, featuring outstanding trumpeter Stjepko Gut, pianist Ehud Asherie and drummer Tom Melito. As far back as 2007, Maja Popovic and her industrious team had embraced the idea of organizing each year an April Jazz Appreciation Month in their tiny but ambitious country.

The project, originating from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., is primarily aimed at spreading the enchantments of jazz towards territories with less previous exposure to this music. Thanks to this commendable idea, luminaries such as Carla Bley, David Murray or Jason Moran were among the first to be invited. JAM’s star group in 2011 was the New York based Eli Yamin Quartet: Yamin/piano, Zaid Nasser/alto sax, Ari Roland/bass, LaFrae Sci/drums. An apt choice, given their individual improvisational skills, ample stylistic horizons, versatility, homogeneity and pure joy of communicating with the spectators.

Besides successful recitals in Podgorica, Cetinje and Tivat, the four musicians actively participated in JAM’s culminating event: the European premiere of the jazz musical Nora’s Ark, composed by Eli Yamin and written by Clifford Carlson. That play had been conceived about a decade ago as part of The Jazz Drama Program, a NY based nonprofit organization that pianist Yamin directs which strives to use musical theatre as a way to introduce middle school students to jazz music. Yamin’s Quartet assumed the instrumental part, while the choral and vocal solos were performed by pupils from Podgorica’s School of Music and Ballet.

After a week of intense workshops, the American instrumentalists and their Montenegrin alumni (prepared by choir conductor Mira Popovic) evinced amazing coordination. Yamin never lowered the musical standard of his composition. On the contrary, he raised his young disciples to the condition of heartfelt, pleasurable participation into the singing and swinging adventures on stage. Thus, Podgorica’s overcrowded Cultural Centre Hall (KIC) witnessed an exhilarating performance, with dozens of teen-agers singing in English as naturally as if they had been a part of the show’s previous presentations in the States.

This year’s JAM also included performances by Montenegro’s Baltazar Quintet (headed by guitarist Filip Gavranovic) offering its post-modernistic version of jazz with some ECM-sound tinge and a healthy dose of original creativity. There were plenty of side-events organized in the capital and in some of the country’s gem-towns: a high-class selection of jazz-connected/influenced films (Straight No Chaser and Something To Live For, both by Charlotte Zwerin; Short Cuts and Kansas City, both by Robert Altman; Bird by Clint Eastwood; Sweet and Lowdown by Woody Allen; Triumph of the Underdog by Don McGlynn, etc.), exhibitions of posters dedicated to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, lectures on jazz aesthetics by critics from Croatia (Vid Jeraj) and Romania (this author).

Critic, poet and scholar Virgil Mihaiu has long been a correspondent and friend of the Jazz Journalists Association.

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