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.

CG's picture

This is a great story! Bravo!

Glotz's picture

I wish we had more love of jazz as art in the U.S. (outside of NYC)...

volvic's picture

We took the boy to Jazz at Lincoln Center for Jazz for tots, where he learned what a fantastic musician Coleman Hawkins is. Sadly, the world ended, and so did those classes, and he has reverted to that ghastly hip hop.

I am now quarantining in Montreal like a good lad as I visit my elderly parents. Quietly scouring the net for my fave classical vinyl/CD stores in my former city shows that not many are left as Jazz and classical music is a dying art form, reflected in dwindling sales. Heck, even my beloved CBC is no longer a full on serious classical station but has switched to multi-format, same with the French Radio Canada.

Hopefully, when the world returns to normal, we can all resume outdoor music and my subscription at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I can then do my part and educate a precocious seven-year-old what real music is.

What am I doing for music while I work remotely in another country, locked up for two weeks in a room? Simple, I brought my MacBook Pro, Moon 300DAC, Stello U3, and 3TB classical hard drive and 2TB Jazz HD plugged into my Tandberg TR2060 receiver. Forgot how good that Tandberg is, it's coming down with me for refurbishment as it is an amazing piece of gear. Happy listening to all, and thanks again for a great article.

Glotz's picture

God bless your parents, first off.

I think the secret weapon is finding hybrids into jazz with a hip-hop connection... like Gorillaz or Flying Lotus? Jazz time signatures can be anywhere!

I was just admiring The Orb's ability to use 'random' samples with in a jazz mindset throughout their recent releases, even though the music is 'pop-ambient'. No Sounds Out Of Bounds was my reference point, but the import RSD LP is leagues quieter and sonically way beyond the regular black vinyl, especially after owning the latter for a while. Just high resolution and ultra-quiet in every way!

But to jazz, I do love the Tone Poet series... I wish I could buy all of them with abandon! I really dig the Herbie- My Point Of View. The music is great of course, but the sound across the series..!

I've been to Toronto. What a beautiful and diverse city! Like a clean NYC! (Lol.. kidding!)

Those Moon DAC's are super nice! My local dealer has one and I might... right after a new turntable! Tandberg still has my full respect- what a history!

volvic's picture

Thank you very much Glotz! It's been over a year since I last saw them, and they sure are happy to have music playing all day on the hi-fi, even if it isn't their cup of tea.

I have tried that route with music and the lad, but I think he's at an age where even if I introduce NAS/Damian Marley or Tinnie Tempeh he believes I'm square and doesn't think I like the music.

I love the Tone Poet series, not a dud among them, and I have bought quite a few of them. I want to get them all, but they will have all been sold out by the time I get around to purchasing them.

The Moon DACs are lovely; I believe you can still find them as NOS. I found the 300D DAC for a pretty good price. It is dated as there is no DSD or very high resolution, but for my purposes, it is just fine as I am primarily a vinyl guy. I heard and loved the latest Bryston DAC but not going to splurge that much on a DAC.

During this lockdown with my music, I have come across a somber realization. The hard drive I brought with me contains over 3000 classical recordings and another one over 1000 jazz records that I have acquired over the years. Some of the recordings I have yet to hear and others I am very familiar with. But working for 9-12 hours, I have noticed that I have barely made a dent in listening to them. I may have heard only 14 albums since I got here last week. If you do the math, it will take a lifetime to get through all of that music. I now realize I have so much great music but so very little time to go through all of them. What does that say about our penchant to continue buying and collecting? Still, not going to stop because you land on a real gem every once in a while. LOL!!!

There is nothing in my mind like Tandberg, they were over-engineered and built like tanks. Sadly owing to our disposable society they are sometimes difficult to repair these days. I wish I had the room I would get more of these receivers they are absolutely fantastic to listen to and look at.

PeterPani's picture

I hope after Covid all our venues will open the doors again. I am lucky to live in a city of music.

volvic's picture

If I were you I'd be attending concerts all week long. Great city for music and there is a great record store there I intend to visit one day.

PeterPani's picture

several record shops in Vienna. But people are knowing the value of the records. I nearly never found a bargain or a good original vinyl. Vienna is a good city for music but an uninteresting one for collectors out of the same reason. But in private hands, surely, you will find very very interesting record collections (but nobody sells).

volvic's picture

That I really want to visit, his website is very interesting. He told me he recommended a few hotels I can stay in if I ever visit. The place is called Blue Danube records, he exhibits at Munich High-End Show.

mememe2's picture

Enjoy it when it happens again. Objectivists know that it is only a matter of time before the next one comes. Covid xx may be even worse than the present one...

jimtavegia's picture

I miss going to Emory for the concerts at Schwartz auditorium, but more I miss being able to go out and record our local colleges and public school band and ensemble groups. At 73 and with lung issues I have to be more careful them most.

I have sure bought more music this past year than I have in a long time. A good thing.

tiagoramossdg's picture

I'm a casual jazz listener now (I was an avid fan when I was younger but my attention shifted elsewhere over time). However, the memories of music festivals and concerts as gatherings of music lovers with common aesthetic tastes, and maybe more, is a fond one across all genres.

While I did my best to enjoy some of the many musical events Boston had to offer, I feel the current isolation has reinvigorated my appetite for live musical experiences. I feel I want to enjoy more of them while I can, for we never know when some of our dearest freedoms, and the comforts of art and good society, will be taken away again - or for how long.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks so much, Thomas.