Pod Baranami Jazz Festival kicks off with swinging Roma jazz

This year?s annual Piwnica Pod Baranami jazz festival commenced last Saturday with an excellently attended concert at the Philharmonic.
Billed as the ?Krakow Jazz Guitar Summit? the concert was split into two halves. A set by the Dutch Rosenberg Trio was followed by a performance of Jarek Smietana?s ?Autumn Suite? scored for two guitars, jazz-trio and orchestra with the composer and American guest, Larry Coryell on guitars.
The Rosenberg Trio is a Django Reinhardt tribute band in all but name. It is true that the leader and solo guitarist, Stochelo Rosenberg, contributes a few of his own compositions to the group?s book, but the majority of the set was composed of numbers associated with the Belgian Roma guitarist. I even recognized some of Django?s favorite motifs and ornaments in Stochelo?s solos. Jean ?Django? Reinhardt in many ways was the archetypal romantic artist. He was brought up in Roma encampments on the outskirts of major cities in Belgium and France. When he started performing in Paris, he was the image of style and hauteur, yet he was barely able to read and write. To complex matters, when he was 18, two fingers on his left hand became partially paralyzed after a domestic fire. Undaunted he reworked his technique to such an extent that he was able to produce blistering runs with two fingers that other guitarists could only dream of producing with four.
He is best known for his pre-war work with the ?Quintet of the Hot Club of France,? which included the fiercely swinging violinist, Stephane Grappelli (who many years later took the 16-year-old Nigel Kennedy under his wing.) The group solved the problem of not having a percussionist by introducing having a guitar play rhythm under the soloists.
The Rosenberg trio imitates this classic instrumentation. Nous?che Rosenberg plays rhythm guitar and bassist Nonnie Rosenberg adds the bass line as Stochelo flies in virtuosic improvisation over the top.
The arrangements were crisp with effective drops in dynamics and the set was well arranged with ballads and medium tempo numbers allowing the crowds to catch their breath after the scorchers. ?Old Man River? in particular was played at a blistering pace and created real excitement in the crowd.
Django?s classic ballad ?Nuages? was kept for the end. The elaborate opening cadenza was very effective, but the ornate frills that fluttered around the theme were a little distracting. In a recording of Django?s performance of the composition he mostly sticks to what is in itself a beautiful, haunting melody.
Overall, however, the Rosenbergs are about as close to the spirit of the long-dead Belgian genius as any of the other numerous gypsy-jazz groups are likely to get.
The second half began with a dedication. Jarek Smietana?s voice broke as he spoke of the inspiration and support his father, who died in January this year, had given him. This performance was for Smietana Senior.
Fittingly, the concert began with a simple but lyrical flute melody over a surging string drone. The compositions which followed were vaguely reminiscent of 1970?s soundtracks such as those produced by Isaac Hayes, jazz-rock fusion of Chick Corea and American classical music designed for popular audiences. The penultimate number with its urgent rhythm was even a little reminiscent of ?America? from Leonard Bernstein?s ?Westside Story.?
But this concert was meant to be a guitar summit and the moments when the guitarists exchanged musical ideas were the most intriguing. The orchestra generally bowed out at these points, only re-entering when solos started to swell and reach their climax.
There was a fascinating contrast of styles. Smietana?s lines were songlike, riff-laden and packed with emotion. Coryell was more mysterious, rarely taking the obvious path and forcing the jazz-trio to work hard when supporting him. His comping for Smietana was at times brilliantly imaginative.
The two connected most completely during a sensitive duo performance of the ballad ?You?ve Changed,? which Billie Holliday used to sing in a heart-rending way as her life fell apart.

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