Dimitar LIOLEV: Eastern Shadows – Slam

Dimitar LIOLEV: Eastern Shadows – Slam 581, 45:55 (6/26/17) ****:

An inspired Bulgarian quartet collaborates on some Slavic-flavored original jazz charts.

(Dimitar Liolev; tenor saxophone/ Martin Tashev; trumpet, flugelhorn, laments/ Massimiliano Rolff; bass/ Dimitar Semov; drums)

An eccentric friend of mine set out on a quixotic journey to discover “the South” (of the United States). Dispensing with GPS and geographical conventions, he proposed to drive with his window down until he detected the smell of fried chicken. Like those mariners of old who were entranced by the aroma of cloves before the fabled Spice Islands hove into sight, he was overpowered well before registering the  sign “Memphis, Population 652,000” and fetching up at the doors of its illustrious chicken-serving establishment, where both nose and tongue consummated the long journey.

I would like to make a similar journey to discover a musical  land that I call Trans-Danubia. (extending somewhat beyond the contested geographical entity) With both windows down, I would trust my ears in stereo, rather than my nose, to discover the alluring accents and spirited rhythms of the region’s various musical traditions. These might include the emotionally vivid Sevdalinka (*) of the southern Slavs,  the potent women’s chorus wailing from Bulgaria, Hungarian Verbunkos played on the exotic cimbalon and bagpipes, Gypsy fiddling, Chuvash piping and wild Csardas.

(*)Our reader should not miss a stupendous recording of 2016 by Amira Medunjanin called Damar (Harmonia Mundi World Village 450032) which represents the art of Sevdalinka in its purest form, in this case gracefully framed by the elevated guitar traditions of the region.

But after a day of musical fieldwork, I would be just as pleased to relax at a jazz club in a regional capital and take in the local talent playing in the lingua franca of Jazz. In many ways, this is the best of both worlds. European musicians working in the jazz field are refreshingly unencumbered by concerns about the cultural identity or canons of authenticity. Rather they graft jazz practices onto already thriving improvisational musical traditions. The melodies of folk music are as durable as the clever tunecraft of the American Song Book, while “swing” encompasses a wider array of syncopations and dance forms.

It is always promising to find a European jazz combo without piano or guitar. Optimally, this might allow for a more space for the folk elements to play out without the constrictions of the overdetermination of the post-bebop harmonic language. Thus it was with some optimism that I opened up this new release from Bulgarian quartet led by Dimitar Liolev. Called “Eastern Shadows,” it features the leader looking like a benevolent professor of Slavic Studies sitting with his tenor in the dark, the only light radiating from his luminous, tune-filled dome.

The session begins with an extemporized duet between sax and drums. Liolev plays a sinuous line up and down with keening overtones and throaty growls. Bass and drums kick up a groove, and trumpet backs a lively bit of soloing. Next up is Day One, which pairs horn and sax on unison chart. The flugelhorn of Martin Tashev impresses with economy and warmth. Liolev’s understated solo emphasizes the dark lower register. His melodic ideas are carefully constructed, nicely punctuated and never over-asserted. But it is the third tune, Filipopolis, which finally impresses with its exotic melodic feel; there is some real tzigani flavor here, swirling, repeated notes over a boisterous rhythmic effects. It is a great tune and the quartet plays with artistry and excitement.

Slam Productions — Eastern Shadows

New Song has a well wrought counterpoint of trumpet and saxophone on an intricate chart. Dimitar and Martin execute the dance with real dash. Solos by trumpet and saxophone are concise, departures from the default setting where everyone plays the melody together as if following Ornette Coleman’s famous dictum.  Still Wondering has an oblique Monkish-sounding theme played in unison. One notices a distinctive feature of the soloing: the drummer asserts himself in a non repeating percussive solo in tandem with the horn. In fact, the inspired sticks of Dimitar Semov lift this recording on every track. Massimiliano Rolff is likewise stalwart on the bass.

Following tracks show no slackening, sharp tunes constructed of simple harmonic frameworks played with confident, attentive group interaction. The expressive compass is not especially large, but the sense of craft is very high. Some themes such as At This Moment seem to recycle bebop formulae but others, Night Hope for example, have an original feel. The soloing by Liolev is always interesting. Perhaps he is a professor, for there is something discernibly instructive about his playing. He demonstrates how to finish a thought, how to use space and dynamics, and how to integrate the quartet into the flow of the piece.

The final Eastern Shadows features the singing of Martin Tashev, who sounds like he is auditioning for the position of a moirologist, a professional mourner at a funeral who must convincingly lament the passing of a villager without regard to his own feelings in the matter. He sets up a creditable howl, perhaps in Old Bulgarian for all we know. He follows this melismatic yodeling with one of his most determined solos. It was probably wise to put this at the end when we are already fairly infatuated with this lovely quartet, for it might drive some people from the room.

A year ago, my daughter traveled in the countryside of Bulgaria, where she experienced kindness as she got to know a rural landscape of great beauty. In a small village, in a house without running water, she was gifted a silver ring by an older woman with whom she could share not a single word. Special herbs were gathered for her to ensure her health and safe passage home. It was a reminder that human connections and understanding do not depend on language, identities, or definitions. This music makes the same point in its warmth and generosity.

—Fritz Balwit

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