Vilnius Jazz Fest goes big for its 34th edition


The Portuguese spared no effort to be part of Vilnius Jazz 2021. They flew from Lisbon to Warsaw, then traveled by bus to the Lithuanian capital. It takes several hours. But with an 18-member travel group, you have to see what is financially possible to make such a trip. The Lisbon underground music ensemble, or LUME for short, took the stress of the trip on themselves. And it was worth it for everyone involved. For the musicians of the big band, who were in Lithuania for the first time. And for listeners, who got to hear a wonderfully bizarre improvisational-composition musical journey through 20th century jazz history, spiced with ironic humor.

Improvisation is very important for the two Japanese musicians Sainkho Namtchylak and Kazuhisa Uchihashi. In a duo, the singer and vocal artist and the guitarist, saxophonist and sound handyman bewitched the enchanted audience of the stage of the venerable Russian Dramatic Theater in Vilnius in ever more surprising sound universes. The fact that blues passages suddenly emerge and how this friendly duo knows how to play with sounds – you have to get involved, but then you discover the fascination and the beauty of what they do.

Over three evenings, the festival offered young Lithuanian groups the opportunity to present themselves to a young and rewarding audience in a trendy second hall at the end of the evening, always after the main concerts at the theater. Kornelijus Pukinskis, for example, a fiery and wild saxophonist, introduced himself. Or with “BoB”, an imaginative quartet which slowly built its set using electronics and sounds in order to draw the listener into an ever stronger and more dynamic world of sound. Also in the theater on the last day of the festival, young Lithuanian groups were allowed to present themselves to a jury of experts and members of the public, who were also allowed to vote – in the framework of the Vilnius Jazz Young Power competition.

This year, the festival director Antanas Gustys had the good idea to give Dalius Naujokaitis an entire evening at the Russian Dramatic Theater. The Lithuanian drummer has lived in New York for a quarter of a century and is very well connected to the avant-garde and free jazz scene. With a few exceptions, and of course performances in his home country, Lithuania, he is rarely seen in Europe. The evening with him was therefore a real discovery – and a real experience. Already with the quartet Suo suo, with electric guitarist Ava mendoza, electric bass player Simon jermyn and saxophonist Jonathon Haffner, Naujokaitis delighted with his sometimes explosive drums, and above all always very imaginative in rocky and complex soundscapes. But this was only the prelude to a gigantic spectacle. This in turn began in an even smaller lineup as a tribute to the late Lithuanian-American director and author. Jonas Mekas. With exhilarated Italian reciters and choral voices, buzzing and fluting sounds coming from the dark balconies of the theater. But at one point, they were all on stage. The choir has many voices, many wind instrumentalists, half a dozen percussionists and other musicians, more than 50 in all. Always led by Dalius Naujokaitis or Jonathon Haffner. You can’t really put words to the music, you just had to see it. How improvisation and strictly composed passages, never confined to stylistic boundaries, combined so well into such a vast body of sounds, it was great to see and hear. Even the constitution of the Free Republic of Užupis, a hip neighborhood on the edge of Vilnius Old Town, proclaimed higher and higher by a chorister, was incorporated into this memorable performance at the end.

This NoJo Airlines Package can be seen, albeit in a smaller distribution, on November 20 at the London Barbican, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival – even for free.

Large groups have been heard on each of the four days of the festival this year. For example, the Great Unit of the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Amour, which combined moments of ecstasy with ingenious structures, in which sometimes only parts of the formation played. Wild freedoms within compound cornerstones provided interesting listening pleasure. But such exciting training can also be found right on the doorstep, so to speak. Lithuanian Improdimensija Orchestra, created on the initiative of two masters of Lithuanian improvised music, Liudas Mockūnas and Arnas Mikalkėnas, showed the whole range of improvised music.

A final chord worthy of the 34th edition of Vilnius’ oldest annual jazz festival.

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