Montenegrin Emotional Fulfilment


We are pleased to present the review about JAM impressions of our dear friend and guest lecturer prof. Virgil Mihaiu, Romanian writer, jazz critics and performer, who has contributed JAM 2016 with his inspired lectures.

If anyone has any doubts that music and geography are intimately connected, Montengero should serve as an example of a country as spellbinding as an exquisite symphony. I had the fortune to encounter Crna Gora’s divine beauty in 1965, when I was 14 years old. Ever since, I’ve become more and more aware that its scenery attests the inner structure and conveys the aesthetic impact of symphonic mastepieces (to name a few: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bedrich Smetana’s Vltava, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Jan Sibelius’s Tapiola). After entering this land, the visitor’s emotions are under continuous challenge. If one travels, for instance from North to South, the succession of landscapes is as enchanting as the thematic transformation of a symphonic poem (a notion perfected by Liszt − as a type of variation in which one theme is changed, not into a related or subsidiary theme but into something new, separate and independent). The Montenegrin scenery goes through countless changes − majestic successions of mountain peaks, dramatic passages through gorges, emerald rivers and lakes, surprising outbursts of waterfalls − then calms down for a while in lowlands like Bjelopavlići, Zeta, or the littoral at Bar and Ulcinj. From Zeta the music of the landscapes moves by the splendours of Lake Skadar and Rijeka Crnojevica, rising towards other culminations: the plateau around the ancient capital of Cetinje, preceding the climax of Lovcen, outlined in the accute range by Njegos’s mausoleum and the bird’s-eye view over the Fjord of Kotor. Descending the breathtaking serpentine road towards the marvels of Kotor and Perast is a most adequate aftermath for such a tone-poem created by nature. Like in a symphony by Shostakovich, the enchanting succession of landscapes conveys continuous delight to the soul. Experiencing Montenegro leaves a sensation of emotional fulfillment comparable to that engendered by musical masterpieces.

No wonder that jazz has found its way towards these realms. In April 2016 the internationally acclaimed Jazz Appreciation Month was celebrated here for the 10th year in a row. This occurred during the same year that marked one decade since the proclamation of Montenegro’s retrieved independence. Auspiciously, the event received support from various entities: the National Commission for UNESCO of Montenegro; the City of Cetinje – Ancient Royal Capital; the US Embassy in Montenegro; and the Montenegrin Commercial Bank of Podgorica. Nevertheless, nothing would have been imaginable without the complete commitment and – so to speak − body&soul dedication of Maja Popovic, leader of Podgorica’s Jazz Art Association, and longstanding coordinator of Montenegro’s jazz life. Like during the previous editions, she managed to overcome the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, and to concoct an exciting programme. This year’s main attraction was Vasil Hadzimanov Band from Belgrade, a solid post-ethno-fusion outfit, balanced between the leader’s conceptual approach and percussionist Bojan Ivkovic’s restless percussion (bringing to mind Airto Moreira’s volcanic inventiveness). The group gave recitals in Podgorica, Tivat and Cetinje, starring David Binney, one of today’s most representative alto sax players. Hadzimanov and Binney started their friendship around the turn of century, while the first was studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. As shown by their recent album Alive, such collaboration continues to bear fruit. Furthermore, a lyrical duo piece played by keyboardist Hadzimanov and saxophonist Binney during the Montenegrin tour also conferred a pensive dimension to the utterly extrovert performances of the group. By and large, Binney’s clear-cut phrases accurately went along with the band’s offensive style, climaxing in a final Ornette-style delirium.

Another highlight of JAM Montenegro 2016 was the presence of the celebrated Macedonian guitarist, composer, conductor, arranger Toni Kitanovski. Himself an alumnus of Berklee (between 1990-1997), Kitanovski started his musical education with Dragan Gjakonovski, a reference in Macedonian jazz, and achieved credentials such as: composition seminars under the guidance of Luciano Berio and Gyorgy Ligeti, private studies with Dennis Grillo, collaborations with jazz luminaries Greg Hopkins, Charlie Mariano, Steve Bernstein & Sex Mob, and so on. Nowadays Kitanovski leads the Jazz Department of the Stip Music Academy in his homeland. In Podgorica he conducted a workshop entitled Balkan Jazz Bridges, which also comprised master classes by Vasil Hadzimanov and US guest David Binney. In a matter of days, Kitanovski managed to make his students (originating from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro) sound as a coherent band of 15 youngsters. Its most conspicuous member was Enes Tahirovic, a twentysomething Montenegrin pianist. The latter’s natural gift for improvisation brings hopes for the future of the local scene, after the tragic death of trombonist Nikola Mitrovic (1941-2010), a founding-father figure of jazz in Montenegro. Other two remarkable young talents of this ensemble were bassist Pence Kralev and drummer Viktor Filipovski. Thanks to Kitanovski’s competent arrangements and conducting, his ad hoc orchestra gave exhilarating performances in Podgorica, as well as on the Royal Square in Cetinje, in an open air concert dedicated to the International Jazz Day. The conductor displayed empathy, relaxed control and sense of humour, enabling his disciples to reenact the spirit of Charles Mingus’s ensembles for the benefit of younger generations.

A memorable performance was offered at Podgorica’s Hard Rock Café by the ever inventive guitar-player Kitanovski, in the company of his own group featuring Vasil Hadzimanov as a skilful explorer of the depths and delights of the Hammond organ timbre, with due support from drummer Peda Milutinovic (doubled by Viktor Filipovski in most of the pieces). That performance was another occasion for the unwavering David Binney to join in, and to deliver a couple of spectacular solos.

As expected, the live performances were complemented by interesting side events: jazz-related films, an exhibition of the previous editions’ posters, lectures. I was privileged to get involved in the latter chapter. Right after my arrival in Montenegro’s capital (thanks to the automobile-driving talents of my friend Dr. Thomas Mendel) I was invited to give a lecture for the participants of the Balkan Jazz Bridges workshop. I gladly accepted, and the encounter took place in the friendly atmosphere of the American Corner at KiC (Kulturni Informativni Centar) in Podgorica. On the same occasion I had the pleasure to meet Anica Vujnovic, the generous translator of my texts for JAM Bilten. But the paramount experience was yet to come: it was an unforgettable accomplishment to address the professors and students of the Music Academy in Cetinje, located in the building that had hosted the British Embassy until 1918. My conference was entitled Geopolitical & Cultural Perspectives on Jazz, and featured the same introduction as this article. The event was hosted by the Academy’s Assistant Dean for international cooperation, Bojan Martinovic, a young and distinguished pianist of classic music, and by Maja Popovic’s efficient assistant, Ksenja Vukmirovic. I felt truly honoured when Mr. Martinovic told me that I was the first person to have ever delivered a lecture on jazz in the Music Academy of Montenegro. Any priority of this kind, concerning the cultural relationships between Romania and Montenegro, makes me feel happy.

Virgil Mihaiu

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