The absolute highlight of the Vilnius Mama Jazz festival was a meeting between two-thirds of the Ganelin Trio and the 13-piece Lithuanian Art Orchestra, presenting a very rare chance to witness these revered Russians in action. Drummer Vladimir Tarasov has been living in Lithuania since 1968, and alto-saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin followed him in 1971.
jazzwisemagazine.com Both of them hit 70 in 2017. Tarasov formed the LAO 26 years ago, as a vehicle for his large-scale compositions, often film or theatre scores. The Mama Jazz line-up featured trumpets, saxophones, trombones, bassoon, guitar, piano, bass, drums and percussion (these last pair in addition to Tarasov himself).
The concert opened with Jones Jones, a curious name for a trio featuring Tarasov, with his longtime US collaborators Mark Dresser (bass) and Larry Ochs (saxophones, below). Their mission was to improvise, often leaving sensitive spaces between each other’s contributions. The timpani provided a major voice in Tarasov’s extensively augmented kit, its foot-pedal allowing ample bending of pitches. The blurred noir tenor of Ochs stalked around Dresser’s self-hampered walking bass, turning into a linear ramble when Larry switched to sopranino. Tarasov provided a highlight, with an expansively scaled avalanche solo on timp, gongs and his multitude of tuned drumheads.
For the main set, each of the Vlads led the LAO through their latest work, with Chekasin striking first. Initially, he looked like some interloper stagehand, with a microphone strapped to his cranium, barking instructions at the ranks, and then, as Chekasin upped the supreme aggression quotient, a rampant staccato craziness escalated. The verbal directions became part of the music, as our ears started to adapt to his speech patterns existing within this real-time sketchbook session. Chekasin managed to direct the players with a manic precision, the violent jolts always appearing to be on the verge of anarchy, creating a wonderful tension, a tension that looked like being shared equally with artists and audience. We have never witnessed a band being led in quite this fashion before, with a superbly maverick overload.
Prime Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockūnas (pictured top)was caught unawares on a few occasions, so speedy were his leader’s signals, but once alerted, he leapt in with a growling enormity. Guitarist Juozas Milasius had a bullring all to himself, working in an escalating independence from the horns, mangling scrapped metal like Arto Lindsay. Chekasin eventually grabbed his alto, racing through a complicated thicket, chewing and ripping. He seemed like a more agitated incarnation of Hermeto Pascoal, as he prompted three horns at stage frontal, arms waving with abandon, the music tumbling into a Nino Rota circus tent.
Tarasov’s own portion of the set (‘Tapestry Part 3’) was necessarily more cultivated and with a settled composure, but as the drummer stood out front conducting, he possessed an impatience of his own, briefly sitting on his stool, before being called inescapably (and repeatedly) to direct some minutiae of the performance. Tarasov’s music was more precisely sculpted, using tonal washes and layers of colouration, with poetry periodically intoned from the wings. Towards the end, Tarasov called back Chekasin, Ochs and Dresser, and the leader sat at his kit, guiding some of the set’s finest passages with percussive sensitivity, skittering inside his imaginative soundworld.
Doubtless programmed in sympathy with the expected out-there sounds of the evening, the afternoon freebie foyer showcase sets displayed the state of young Lithuanian jazz: hardcore blowing and free-storming! Ku.Piece formed specially for the festival, although featuring key players from existing local combos, not least saxophonist Klaudijus Stuopinis and guitarist Dominykas Norkūnas, both members of the mind-blowing TDT. Their compositions had a strong improvisatory feel, the set starting with small sounds, then hitting with baritone saxophone and growling bowed bass. Even so, Ku.Piece were strangely restful, before graduating to a heavier manifestation, complete with behemoth forest-crashing.
Shinkarenko Jazz 4N had a jazz rockin’ sound, with drums, electric bass and twin saxophones, heading towards a bounding, forceful Coltrane-ised climax. Dziazlaif have been together for a year, power-thrusting with soprano and baritone saxophones, alternating quiet spells with heart-attack eruptions, Sabbathy doom riffs and heavy slamming.
Perhaps the increasingly established reputation of Liudas Mockūnas has influenced the Lithuanian love for baritone saxophone. Following his powerful showing as part of the LAO, Mockūnas fronted a trio to close the evening, again on the freebie stage, joined by Arnas Mikalenas (piano) and Håkon Berre (drums). Their set ranged from classicist filaments down to low-end roaring (with Mockūnas now on bass saxophone), vibrantly concluding this energised day of primarily Lithuanian explosiveness.