Remembering live music in Europe

I wrote an article for the March 2017 issue of Stereophile called “The Permanent Jazz Festival: The Rise of Europe and the Future of Jazz.” It presented two theses: that much of the energy in jazz now comes out of Europe, and that the best place to feel that energy is in the crowd at a European jazz festival. There are hundreds of them throughout the year.

I had planned to write a sequel. I had three trips to Europe booked for 2020—all canceled of course. The loss of live music is not the worst casualty of the pandemic, but it matters. For now, the only sequel possible must be drawn from the past.

This is not a sequel. This is a few memories to which I cling.

Jazz in Europe is a different experience. Europeans have never thought of jazz as anything but art. “The jazz community” actually exists in Europe, where jazz fans are bound by their membership in a counterculture with foreign origins. Lee Konitz was American, but he lived in Germany for many years. He once said, “Jazz is what we have instead of religion.” In Europe, not only major cities but an amazing number of small towns have their own jazz festivals.

Gârâna (pop. 126) is a village on a mountaintop in western Romania. A 1996 jam session in a farmhouse somehow grew into the Gârâna Jazz Festival. The main venue is a field rented from a local farmer. The festival program identifies the field as “Poiana Lupului,” which means “Wolf Meadow.” There are almost no hotels in the area. Driving to Wolf Meadow from the village, you see many tents on the side of the road.

Behind the rows of logs where the crowd sits, enormous vats of goulash bubble and steam. Gârâna is in July, but the mountaintop is bitter cold at night. Two thousand people huddle together on the logs and sip tuicâ, Romanian white lightning, from clear plastic bottles.

I was there in 2016, for the festival’s 20th anniversary. The program had Nils Petter Molvær and a trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, and Matthew Garrison. Coltrane’s soprano saxophone pierced the night air. Arild Andersen’s quartet with Tommy Smith played the last set on the last night and ended the festival with triumphant anthems. Smith’s clarion tenor saxophone was one with the wind that blew through the tall trees surrounding the meadow, trees stark against the faint light of a starlit sky. To be there made you feel like one of the Chosen.

In Europe, those who present music pay close attention to setting. (It helps that Europe is full of castles, ancient monasteries, and magnificent town squares.) There is a festival in Bolzano, Italy, whose entire identity is based on placing music in transformational environments. (It helps that the Tirol region of northern Italy is one of the most beautiful places on earth.) At the Südtirol Jazz Festival, edgy emerging musicians, mostly young, play on bridges over gorges and on rock outcroppings 7000 feet up in the Dolomites, reachable only by cable car.

In 2018, Maria Faust gave a quintessential Südtirol concert. She composes deep rituals and performs them with a brass-and-woodwind octet she calls “Sacrum Facere”—in Latin, “to make sacred.” Her band played from a high ledge in a stone quarry with a sheer cliff face behind. Faust’s music evolved patiently in dark, rich blends. The meaning of the evening came from the relationship between the resonant music and its context of silent stone.


Not all settings are idyllic. Serbia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Against all odds, Belgrade sustains a world-class jazz festival. There is no Serbian phrase for “off the grid,” because the grid barely exists. In 2012 and 2013, the festival’s after-hours club for jam sessions was located near downtown, in a mostly abandoned building known by its acronym, BIGZ. It had once been a large printing factory, but by 2000 it had fallen into dereliction and was a jungle of graffiti. The building’s owners rented spaces to artists for ateliers and to musicians for rehearsal studios. The club was on the seventh floor. At 2 a.m., you had to climb seven flights of stairs. No one trusted the elevator.

When I entered through a heavy door, Leszek Mozdzer, one of the great pianists of Poland, was soloing. He had performed a stunning concert earlier in the evening in the festival’s main auditorium but apparently had left some things unsaid. Playing a cheap electric keyboard, he unleashed a vast solo that kept circling back on itself and spilling forth again.

The room’s tall windows would have offered a view over the Sava River if they had ever been cleaned.

Shai Maestro, from Israel, played after Mozdzer. He is an ECM artist now, but he was little known in 2013. He generated powerful swells from the undersized keyboard, but his drummer, Ziv Ravitz, also from Israel, stole the night. Ravitz took a monstrous, wild, 20-minute solo. When he finally finished at 3 a.m., he stood up, smirked, and walked away. The crowd went crazy.

Was it really one of the best drum solos I ever heard? I will never know. In Europe, music is inseparable from its place and its moment in time.

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