This year’s Congo Square Jazz Fest, held at its alma mater, the Dalhousie Institute, over three days (November 29 to December 1) offered, roughly, twelve hours of sounds — and, happily, variety won. The first day itself was extremely good. We heard what Europe still does with jazz: those who bet their euros on interpretation and those who yet see virtue in the old. Carlos Bica, together with his Azul trio’s opener, was novel: the music sought sanctuary in warmer tones while coalesced stridence was voted to end it. River, for its part, meandered between well-rounded strains — introspective for the large part, but aptly meandering — entering the rapids, ending with deltaic surrender; loud and desperate, perhaps unnoticed from Bica’s unlikely double bass.
The joy of punctuative bass, an aspect of jazz we are being increasingly programmed to mothball, made a reassuring entry as the Milan Svoboda Quartet took over — a foursome headed by a Czech, but wonderfully weaned in the shibboleths of a jazz performance of yore: allotments of solos. In the process of the solos, we were made unhurriedly aware — and appreciative — of saxophonist Milan Krajic’s wonderfully schooled preference for middle registers, Svoboda’s deft left hand on the piano, and drummer Ivan Audes’ unfluctuating percussive duty. This discipline became the quartet’s imprimatur during The Dance of the Bat, queerly, but not without the attendant finesse, in three movements. The first courted the florid, the second seamlessly balladeered, while the third, with a niftier collage of notes, made for a fitting finale.
The second day, both Akash Mittal’s Ocean and, notably, Prasanna’s Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music Faculty Band made us aware, once again — and perhaps now a tad wearily — what the local can sound like when made global. Mittal’s offerings largely verged on the starkly thematic. Ballygunge Crossing witnessed an amusing build-up from the somnolent beginnings of a Calcutta day to the chaos of horns and hollers, dittied skillfully through a melodically combative duo of saxophone (Mittal) and vibraphone (Payton McDonald). Prasanna, too, appeared — and not too delicately — self-absorbed, having being doing what he does for years and with, admittedly, a skill that makes him increasingly better at it. He indulged in distinct Indian melodies from the south of the Vindhyas, yet surprisingly, during Falsehood, he flirted with Western classical sounds, partnered by the piano, sobered by the subtle. His Kalyani Connection, confessedly the jewel in his oeuvre, provided moments of his predilection for the Carnatic, yet, ever so often, exposed glimpses of what he has been, is, and will be: a collaborator with sounds east of the Atlantic.
Collaboration was made easier for Holland’s Yuri Honing and his Wired Paradise on the third day. He offered the easy, the stable — being a restrained tunesmith rather than a buccaneer dependent on rhythmic brio. His opening number was immediately reminiscent of the famed Jim Pepper and Mal Waldron seminal recordings, celebrating the nuptials of a horn and piano, a trait his group remained loyal to during LA Confidential, when the pianist, now having opted for a synthesizer’s sharper sounds, contrasted the headily sombre from Honing in what appeared to be a practiced — and perfected — symbiosis.
Saxophonist George Brooks’s Summit, for its part, iced the cake — and aptly too, being the performer who brought the curtains down on Calcutta’s yearly jazz picnic. Being groomed in the blues, he pounded, stretched and elated — his virtuoso buoyed the rest of his group. He allowed every member his moment to make a bigger memory. The cumulative crescendo came to the fore during the group’s penultimate energetic composition, kindling Al Jarreau’s asthmatic rendition of Rain in December, a cohesive comfort that remained stoic during the Monsoon Blues, articulating, by turn, both the jail and joy of downpour, damp and, soon enough, deluge.