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Explore alternative music at Kolkata’s Jazzfest

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Jazzfest 2019 in Kolkata is the biggest till date, with 10 bands participating from 11 different countries

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“If you look at what is happening around the world today, another word for jazz is innovation,” says Kolkata-based guitarist Bodhisattwa Ghosh, illustrating the fact that jazz has moved on to much freer pastures from the definitive idioms like bebop, swing, post-bop or West Coast jazz that people generally associate the genre with.

His experimental dark jazz outfit, The Bodhisattwa Trio, clearly breaks conventions. It nonchalantly plays on themes like the apocalypse, third world war, death and the void. Aided by live visuals, the trio will bring this funereal ambience to the upcoming Jazzfest 2019 in Kolkata, which will see a total of 10 bands from four separate continents enthrall the audience in a city which used to groove to the tunes of legends including Carlton Kitto, Louis Banks and Pam Crain. The lush green lawns of the colonial era Dalhousie Institute will host the three-day event.

Carrying forward the legacy

Started in the late ’70s as part of a pan-India series, Jazzfest is one of the oldest and grandest. It has seen performances by the likes of keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few. However, the festival has not been without its share of problems. It had been discontinued for some years due to organisational difficulties, but has been an annual fixture since 2002, owing to the patronage of non-profit organisation Congo Square.

“We are continuing what has been the heritage of the city’s and country’s jazz scene. This year, we have the maximum number of acts in the history of Jazzfest. We hope that people turn up in numbers to show their support,” says organiser Varun Desai, a concert promoter, producer and DJ. His company, Littlei, which has been organising it since 2014, toils for nine months to put together the festival.

Diverse soundscapes

Dark themes seem to be a new norm, as both French collective band, Thiefs, and The Bodhisattwa Trio illustrate. The former’s avant-garde album La Greffe (Graft) has an undercurrent of quiet desolation over haunting rap and poetry, with moderate electronic tinkering. They have also collaborated with Malayalam film composer Sushin Shyam and Kerala rock band, Avial’s, vocalist Neha Nair. Saxophonist Christophe Panzani says, “They are both deeply involved with their music and culture, and approached our music really uniquely, something that I couldn’t have imagined before! The result is a very special piece of collaborative art.” They have already played the result for audiences in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and will perform again at Delhi, in gigs organised by the French embassy — but will not be presenting it at Kolkata.

The most eclectic band on the Jazzfest roster is Monoswezi, with members from Norway, Sweden, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Its sound dives into the roots of human culture, with indigenous African rhythms banking on traditional jazz phrasing. The overall vibe is ambient, thanks to its inherent soothing and meditative nature. This will be partially carried on by German band, Lisbeth Quartett, whose music feeds off oscillating contrasts between two distinct worlds — one, cold and barren; the other, intense and raw. This creates a musical tension which keeps things interesting. “It is my first time in the country and we’re fortunate for the opportunity. The exchange is what matters and I’m very happy to see the open-mindedness towards our music by audiences here,” says bandleader Charlotte Greve, who both composes and plays the saxophone.

Luxembourg’s energetic young trio, Dock in Absolute, will also bring murky leanings with their multi-hued expressionism. Compositions can fluctuate from high-speed harmonic chases and hair-raising dissonances to tranquilising piano pieces. Adding mystique to this impressive roster is the Macha Gharibian Trio, with its Armenian touch. Her seminal album, Trans Extended, has a nomadic folk underlining, juxtaposed with sensuous vocals and strange music. One of the four acts featuring women, her performance will be among the few sets which has vocals in a predominantly instrumental affair.

Hobnobbing with veterans

A festival’s standard can be determined by the headliner — in this case, German drummer extraordinaire Wolfgang Haffner. He has featured in over 400 albums, playing with the who’s who of jazz, besides producing acts like Icelandic jazz funk outfit Mezzoforte and German singer-songwriter, Maximilian Mutzke. His illustrious oeuvre boasts 16 solo albums as well, in a career spanning 35 years.

“Looking at the lineup, Jazzfest is pretty much on par with festivals in Europe. The standard of musicianship featured is class A,” says Ghosh, whose trio has played top European stages such as Vilnius Mama Jazz Festival (Lithuania), Festival Lent (Slovenia) and Fest Jazza (Croatia). It is also the sole Indian representative this year.

Other participants are the Dainius Pulauskas Group from Lithuania, Swiss post-jazz quartet, The Great Harry Hillman, and Meddy Gerville Trio from France. It seems fitting that the modern journey of jazz, laden with newfangled exploration and globally inclusive collaboration, will return to the city where the country’s first jazz record —The House Where the Shutters Are Green by Jimmy Lequime’s Grand Hotel Orchestra — was made nearly a century ago.

Jazzfest 2019 will take place at Dalhousie Institute from November 29 to December 1. Details and tickets on jazzfest.in

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