Garana Jazz Festival, Romania

Bob Weir attends a long-established event in remote rural Romania with an appeal for lovers of both jazz and nature

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Jacky Terrasson at Garana Jazz Festival 2019. Photo by Rita Pulavska

The 23rd edition of this very special event in remote rural Romania maintained its usual high standard with some of the best on-form, creative musicians in a wide variety of contemporary jazz styles and a welcome absence of pop singers. The bands were mostly European with a sprinkling of US stars playing at three venues over four days. The main open arena was horseshoe-shaped with logs for seating and a surround of covered seating. Apart from the single, bill-topping attraction on the opening night there were four groups each evening from 7pm to well after midnight.

‘…some of the best on-form, creative musicians in a wide variety of contemporary jazz styles and a welcome absence of pop singers’

The Jan Garbarek Group featuring the master percussionist Trilok Gurtu started late and finished early on Thursday due to a sudden downpour of torrential rain. A pity because their two-hour performance was brilliant and established the ideal mood for the festival.

Friday commenced with the Romanian Horea Crisoran & Jazzbit (elg, p, b, d) playing jazz-funk-soul to enthuse their local following. Next, the Giovanni Guidi Quintet (three Italians with an American bassist and Portuguese drummer) dedicated their concert to the late Tomasz Stanko. They did him proud, particularly with the leader’s inventive classical touch on piano in a range of contemporary styles and a penchant for exciting Latin excursions. The experienced and well-matched MRB Trio – Per Mathisen (elb), Ruggero Robin (elg), Gergo Borlai (d) – entertained with quality jazz-rock, like updated Cream with a higher jazz content and without the vocals. Petre Ionutescu & Daniel Dorobantu, a Romanian tp and electronics duo, had the lights dimmed for a set of atmospheric, introspective ambient sounds to conclude a very satisfying evening.

The Franco-Spanish Renaud Garcia-Fons & Dorantes duo opened on Saturday with a unique and enthralling take on modern flamenco with the high degree of empathy so essential for this style. Garcia-Fons has been called “the Paganini of the double bass” and he certainly had the technique, passion and adventurous creativity to bring no shame to that illustrious title. Pianist Dorantes drew on his famous flamenco family roots and his classical training to contribute fully to this remarkable pairing.

A Martinique pianist (Gregory Privot) with a Canadian bassist (Chris Jennings) and a drummer from Guadeloupe (Arnaud Dolmen) combined superbly on a session of swinging optimistic jazz, spiced with ingredients from their diverse backgrounds.

My festival favourite was the Jacky Terrasson Trio with bassist Sylvain Romano and Ali Jackson on drums. I last heard the leader years ago when he lived in France, just before he relocated to the States and success with Blue Note records. He was then a good hard-bop pianist out of the Bud Powell school. Now, on this evidence, he has broadened his style and developed a command of rhythmic subtlety and a very appealing musical personality. He played standards, often in medleys, putting his own stamp on each number with great sensitivity.

The evening’s concluding concert by Lars Danielsson (b, clo) and Paolo Fresu (t, flh) was also brilliant. Celebrated and distinctive musicians in their own right, together they raised the art of mutual interplay and rapport to the very highest level. Their incredible instrumental control, even at the slowest tempo, was a joy to hear. Komeda’s lovely Sleep Safe And Warm with Danielsson’s beguiling cello Fresu’s intimate muted trumpet on Autumn Leaves were especially rewarding.

On Sunday, the hard-bop to free jazz of Bobby Previte’s Classic Bump Band’s 20-year reunion was a notable treat for Garana. The drummer-leader had assembled the original all-star lineup (Ray Anderson (tb), Marty Ehrlich (as), Wayne Horvitz (p)) with only Jerome Harris (elb) brought in as a fine replacement for Steve Swallow. The material and charts (mostly by band members) were nicely varied and always stimulating with some pleasant Ellingtonian touches. Superior Polish-Scandi free jazz by the well-integrated alto-sax and rhythm of the Macie J Obara Quartet delighted an enthusiastic crowd. John Surman (the only Brit on the programme) played bass clarinet and some soprano sax in a quietly contemplative manner ideally suited to late night listening. His unusual support of Nelson Ayres (p) and Rob Waring (mar) created distinctive sounds on number from the trio’s recent ECM album, Invisible Threads. They were up there with the very best of the festival. Moshulu – Jeff Berlin (elb, pictured above by Marcin Pulawski), David Sancious (kyb, elg) and Dennis Chambers (d) – played loud and energetic jazz-rock-funk-fusion as a rousing and much appreciated finale to this wholly enjoyable and successful festival.

The free-entry daytime music by lesser-known names was always interesting, if variable in quality. There were mid-morning recitals in a nearby Catholic church by prepared-piano virtuoso Raul Kusak, fascinating prog-pop and experimentalism from veteran Rodion G. A. and category-defying acoustic guitars and vocals by Adrian Dinu Schwaryz & Horea Cristovan. All virtually unknown outside of their native Romania, they deserve wider exposure.

Double bills on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the courtyard of the tavern where the festival started contributed to the near round-the-clock entertainment. Superior jazz-pop by the guitar and vocals of Afrodizzy and jazzed Pink Floyd songs by the Catalin Milea sax and rhythm quartet entertained on Saturday. Similar lineups on Sunday by the Sorin Zlat Quartet with members from Romania, Spain and Italy and Philipp Gropper’s Philm from Germany and Austria offered more original music in the summer sunshine.

I doubt if there is a jazz festival anywhere quite like Garana. Its location in a small village which is inaccessible and virtually deserted during the harsh winters, with no hotels or public transport, but with the beauty of surrounding hills and forests, make it most appealing for lovers of jazz and nature. It attracts capacity crowds of all ages who travel from all over Europe to camp and cook in the pleasant meadows and enjoy a jazz programme that compares favourably with the best international events. Everything is professionally managed, remarkably cheap and always friendly and welcoming. Check garana-jazz.ro for next year’s details.

Garana Jazz Festival, Romania, 11-14 July 2019