Review: European Jazz Network

Pascal Dorban attended the European Jazz Network conference in Lisbon and sampled a vibrant jazz scene including one Andy Sheppard

Portugal is certainly better known for its numerous bacalhau recipes than it is for its local jazz scene. Indeed, 50 years of isolation during the Salazar era, until the dictatorship ended in 1974, did very little to remedy this. That being said, one of the oldest jazz clubs in Europe is the Hot Clube de Lisbon which, in addition to late-night gigs, hosts a jazz school during the day. Founded in 1979 by double-bass player Zé Eduardo, the school currently has 20 alumni, many of whom have surely benefited from the city’s fortunate geographic location. The Portuguese capital is a gateway for cultures sailing in across the sea from former colonies: Brazil, Cape Verde, and to a lesser extent Mozambique, ancestral home of Maria Joao (pictured right).

Joao, Portugal’s most famous jazz vocalist, was a celebrated speaker at the 2018 Europe Jazz Network (EJN) conference, which took place in September in Belem, one of Lisbon’s most famous districts. The area has long been noted for the local pastéis de nata, a Portuguese delicacy for which locals and tourists alike have been willing to queue, day or night, outside of Lisbon’s most famous pastry shop since 1837. Not far from the shop you’ll find both the Jeronimos Monastery, an extraordinary monument, and the no less impressive Belem Cultural Center (BCC), the country’s largest centre for cultural activities. Unsurprisingly, the BCC was selected to host the EJN conference.

Maria Joao’s speech in front of a few hundred international guests was as singular as one would expect from such an eccentric character. She began with the assertion that singers are lonely people, the kind who go straight to bed after gigs to spare their vocal chords. Then she brought the audience face-to-face with her own vocal chords, with a short film depicting the inside of her throat. Another important speaker was Carlos Martins, Director of Sons da Lusofonia, an association that began as a multicultural ensemble and later founded the OPA (Portugal Art Workshop) to perform youth outreach in Lisbon.

Of course, a music conference with no performances would make no sense at all. Of the many bands that braved the selection process, six were eventually given gigs at the two-day event, which became a perfect encapsulation of what the young Portuguese jazz scene is all about. The first set on Friday featured a trumpet player from Porto, Susana Santos Silva, and her Impermanence Quintet. Alongside this project, she also leads a Scandinavian band called Life and Other Transient, one of the Nordic groups that recorded live albums at the Tampere Jazz Happening in 2015. Friday’s lineup was completed by the Bode Wilson trio, with three of the most active musicians on the Portuguese jazz scene, and the energetic sextet Axes featuring no less than four saxophone players. Saturday started with drummer Pedro Melo Alves and his Omniae Ensemble, whose first album came out in 2016. Vocalist Beatriz Nunes’s Quarteto familiarised us with Portuguese songwriters, while the TGB trio (pictured above left), whose acronym refers simply to its instruments: tuba, guitarra, e bateria (tuba, guitar, and drums), proved to be just the kind of project a jazz festival organiser would want to sign immediately (and so one did).

In addition to the day gigs in BCC’s smaller auditorium, we were treated to early evening performances in the main auditorium by some prestigious Norwegian guests, Bugge Wesseltoft and Espen Eriksen – the latter performance featuring one of Lisbon’s most famous UK natives, saxophone player Andy Sheppard.

The many insatiable jazz aficionados in attendance revelled in the fringe programme into the wee hours of the morning at two fantastic venues: the aforementioned Hot Clube and the Livraria Ler Devagar, founded in 1999 in a former lithography studio (the old printing machine is still there). This extraordinary place is at the heart of the fashionable LX Factory district, well known to Lisbon’s nightlife enthusiasts. Picture yourself in a bookshop, with 14-metre ceilings and bookshelves right to the top, a jazz band playing in the middle and of course, a bar at the back serving all manner of refreshing and restorative tonics. On Friday evening, after a short gig by vibraphone player Eduardo Cardinho and his trio, the small audience was asked to ascend the shop stairs. On the second floor, a door that appeared to lead nowhere was opened to reveal all 15 members of the Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble (better known as LUME), lined up in front of the little crowd in what felt like an incredibly intimate venue for such a big band.

Alas, after three spectacular days, the time had come to bid farewell to our friends from Portugal and the EJN. While boarding the plane I could not help but feel a pang of saudade, that wistful feeling of nostalgia made famous by one of Jobim’s most famous tunes, Chega De Saudade. Now, having traversed the ocean to experience this magnificent event, my mind often returns to Portugal and one of its outstanding writers, Fernando Pessoa, who said in The Book Of Disquiet: “Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see isn't what we see but what we are”.

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Photos by Andreea Bikfalvi | Sons da Lusofonia

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