Leopolis Festival draws thousands to Ukraine’s premier jazz venue

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LVIV – In the world of jazz, there are a number of summer festivals that establish themselves as the most prestigious venues for emerging artists as well as established superstars. For decades, Montreux in Switzerland; Newport, RI; and Monterey, Calif., have been recognized as the Mecca that attracts top jazz talent from around the world. But unbeknownst to much of the Ukrainian diaspora, Lviv has established itself as an elite stopover for jazz fans and artists.

Established in 2011 by Lviv businessman Mikhail Fridman, the Leopolis Jazz Festival has attracted an impressive number of Grammy winners and internationally renowned artists over the past 10 years. These include some of the biggest names in jazz: acclaimed singers Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spalding, Spyro Gyra, Ron Carter, Bill Evans, Diana Krall, Pat Metheny and in June of this year, Wynton Marsalis.

Originally, Leopolis was known as “Alfa Jazz”, named after its main sponsor, Alfa Bank. More recently, after acquiring a more diverse group of sponsors, such as Mastercard, Kyiv Star and Borjomi, the festival adopted Lviv’s more inclusive Latin name: Leopolis.

Until recently, this writer shamefully ignored the scope and weight of the Leopolis Festival. In June 2019, during a visit to the Ukrainian Catholic University, colleagues gave him a very touching birthday present – tickets to three nights of the festival, although there is no indication of the caliber of music one would expect.

For years in college and law school, this writer was spoiled after seeing incredible live performances by some of the blues and jazz giants: keyboardist Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Gato Barbieri and guitarist Albert Collins. BB King gave a live concert on campus on the eve of college graduation.

As much as this thoughtful gift was appreciated, a thought crossed a snobbish mind: “What caliber of music can we expect from some amateur quartets in Kiev or Warsaw that I had never heard of before?” At the very least, one might expect to be somewhat disappointed.

But spectacular concerts awaited him. The first night brought in the modern funk and fusion band “Snarky Puppy”. Despite his bizarre stage name, Snarky has now won four Grammys and has sold out at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Led by bassist Michael League, the band spent several years languishing in relative obscurity in Texas. Much like the Leopolis Festival itself, Snarky Puppy was one of jazz’s best-kept secrets.

But since moving to Brooklyn, NY, Snarky Puppy has exploded onto the jazz scene, dazzling audiences with his reckless virtuosity and explosive instrumental riffs, winning a 2021 Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

After such a glorious introduction to Leopolis on the first night, one could hardly wait to hear a headliner of the festival – the famous sultry Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall. In addition to her solo albums, television concerts and numerous Grammy Awards, Ms. Krall is known for her collaborations with fellow superstars Tony Bennett and Elton John.

U.S. Embassy in Ukraine

Wynton Marsalis (center) works with musicians during a master class with students from the Lviv Music Institute.

The most memorable performance of the 2019 festival came on the last night when the UCU hosted a delegation of VIPs from the University of Notre Dame. This writer had the privilege of attending one of the last concerts of the legendary pianist and composer Chick Corea, who passed away in 2020. It was the second performance of Mr. Corea at the Leopolis Festival. Like a growing number of artists from North America, he was enchanted by the beauty and convenience of the city, the professionalism of the festival organizers and the warm welcome from the audience.

The experience of seeing Chick Corea perform live in Lviv was perfectly surreal: as an aspiring pianist in his teens, this writer attended concerts by several world-class virtuosos, including Andre Watts and Artur Rubinstein. But he never imagined that the only time he would see Mr. Corea performing live would be at a world-class festival in an independent Ukraine.

After a generous presentation of his Latin rhythms and his magnificent and innovative harmonies, the concert ended with the interpretation of his most famous work, Return to Forever, by Mr. Corea. He put the audience on their feet, screaming in adulation.

Fast forward to 2021. After the festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Ukrainian and European audiences were thirsty for a return to live music.

With a diverse and powerful musical program, the Leopolis Festival in 2021 did not disappoint. Capturing the zeitgeist of a fragile global community just recovering from a brutal pandemic, there were moving and contemplative performances by the Avishai Cohen Trio from Israel and Kathrine Windfeld from Denmark. But for those with a taste for more gritty styles, the festival provided a lot of cheerful pop and catchy hymns that have become a kind of celebration of human resilience and a return to life as we now know it. remembered before the pandemic.

For many viewers, one of the highlights of this year was the appearance of British singer-songwriter SEAL (Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel), known worldwide for his hit songs “Kiss from a Rose “and” Stand by me “. Seal started the concert with a beautiful rendition of jazz standards popularized by Frank Sinatra, including “Luck be a Lady”, “When I was seventeen” and “My Funny Valentine”. He embarked on a set of new songs that put audiences on their feet.

Unfortunately, this writer was unable to attend the concert of Wynton Marsalis, world famous trumpeter, American goodwill ambassador and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In addition to his performance on the main stage of the Leopolis Festival, Mr. Marsalis gave a master class to students of the Lviv National Academy of Music.
The continued success of the Leopolis Jazz Festival attests to Lviv’s awakening as a cosmopolitan city and an increasingly popular tourist destination. It also highlights some aspects of Ukrainian cultural life and economic health that are rarely recognized:
First, the fact that so many international stars are eager to perform in Lviv and return to Leopolis shows that Ukraine is not a backwater.

Second, Lviv has now developed a sufficient infrastructure in marketing, business support and hospitality so that the city can not only host but impress world-class artists.

Third, Ukraine is developing a business elite and affluent middle class who can afford to attend trendy cultural events and provide a thriving market for international artists. The festival organizers have done a remarkable job of making it accessible to the different income levels of jazz fans. They have created a “Fan Zone” in the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Culture Park where people can watch the concert live on a giant Jumbotron – reminiscent of the outdoor concert settings at Tanglewood or the Wolf Trap. Wealthier patrons who can afford more expensive tickets can see the performers live on the Eddie Rosner Stage or in Pototsky Palace Square. And those who appreciate a more intimate outdoor setting can watch smaller ensembles perform at Rynok Square in downtown Lviv.

Fourth, although Ukrainians are deeply patriots, they are also culturally diverse, open to new art forms, and eclectic in their tastes. In line with Taras Shevchenko’s adage “і ого научайтесь”, the success of the Leopolis Festival has shown that at the grassroots level, Ukrainians are neither chauvinists nor reactionaries, but deeply pluralistic and welcoming towards the peoples of other nations and races.

This was highlighted during the June 25 performance by the Los Angeles-based ensemble of Kamasi Washington. It’s a band with two percussion sessions and a big sound “straight out of Compton”, full of triumphant brass riffs that combine the raw urban mysticism of John Coltrane and Miles Davis with the elegance of Earth, Wind. and Fire. Mr Washington told the public that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Leopolis has given the ensemble their first opportunity to perform live in over 18 months.

Flanked by his trumpet and saxophone soloists wearing distinctive Ukrainian embroidered shirts, Mr. Washington – a towering, beefy man with a puffy afro and a long beard – was dressed in a long, multi-colored Ghanaian dashiki.
Looking at the enthusiastic audience, eyes shining with emotion, Mr Washington said:

“As I look at you, I realize that you and I don’t have to be alike for me to love you;
We don’t have to speak the same language for me to love you;
We don’t have to dress the same for me to love you.
I am here to tell you that I love you.

The audience roared with approval and gratitude.

The Leopolis Festival offers further proof that despite all the challenges it faces, Ukraine is emerging as a cultural hotspot and a mature society that has embraced the legacy of the Revolution of Dignity and has untapped potential. economic and cultural growth.


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