Andy Sheppard, Flat Earth Society and James Francies stand out at Serbia’s Pančevo Jazz Festival

Tim Dickeson
Friday, November 17, 2023

Located a short drive from Belgrade, Pančevo offers an excellent jazz festival in a more laid back and relaxed way than its big city neighbour

Andy Sheppard at Pančevo Jazz Festival - All photos by Tim Dickeson
Andy Sheppard at Pančevo Jazz Festival - All photos by Tim Dickeson

The Cultural Centre in Pančevo produces and hosts the festival offering a comfortable and plush concert hall for the main shows - there is also a large foyer and bar for the late-night sessions afterwards.

The first night of the festival featured Serbian pianist Ivan Aleksijevic, the Andy Sheppard Trio and the Alessandro Lanzoni Trio with guest Francesco Cafiso.

Ivan Aleksijevic is well known as the pianist with the RTS (Radio Television Serbia) Big Band here playing a set of his favourite songs (unfortunately for non-Serbian speakers with long introductions). The set featured slick straight ahead jazz and joining him for the last two numbers was the excellent young trumpeter Novak Mijović for a homage to Dizzie Gilespie.

The Andy Sheppard Trio features Rita Marcotulli on piano and Carlos Bica on double bass. Sheppard and Marcotulli go back a long way (their 2007 CD ‘On the Edge of a Perfect Moment’ is a classic) so the understanding and interplay between the two is wonderful. The music for this concert was composed during the covid lockdown but nonetheless had a feeling of great warmth and mellowness.  Impressively everyone was reading their parts but it never sounded constrained by the score - there was ample space for each to solo and improvise. Together they created a cinematic sound that was simply beautiful.

Alessandro Lanzoni (pictured below) is the go-to pianist in his native Italy for many leading artists such as  Roberto Gatto and Rosario Giuliani and recently he has been touring with Israeli trumpeter Itamar Borochov.

Playing here with his regular trio of Matteo Bortone (bass) and Enrico Morello (drums) together with his friend and regular guest soloist Francesco Cafiso on alto sax.

The set featured compositions from all the band but it was Cafiso who stood out with his trademark solos - alternating long flowing runs with short machine gun phrases. Cafiso barely taking a breath between each cascade of notes. His time in New York has only slightly mellowed his Sicilian fire and he is still one of the most exciting alto players out there.

The second night of the festival featured two completely contrasting artists. First up was Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara with Dominic Wania (piano), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass) and Jon Fält (drums). Obara is another saxophonist whose trademark is hard dense solos cascading with notes. Playing with intensity and passion his style contrasted perfectly with Dominik Wanias’ piano soloing which was more open and spacious.  The bass and drums were killing - Scandinavians Fält and Flaten really tight, driving the set along at a pace.

The second act featured the Belgium 15-piece band Flat Earth Society (pictured below) who played a glorious set of anarchic music with influences as diverse as Mingus to Zappa. Led by clarinettist (and main composer) Peter Vermeersch the band transition from composed to completely free playing at will. It was exciting, humorous and thoroughly enjoyable. The individual soloing was excellent and in particular Wim Segers (Vibes), Maarten Flamand (Guitar) and Belinde Denman (tuba) shone. To play in this style with a big ensemble you have to be very, very good and this band definitely are superlative.

The last night of the festival featured two piano led trio’s - firstly Israeli Yonathan Avishai with Yoni Zelnik (bass) and Donald Kontomanou (drums) followed by the American James Francies with Mike Moreno (guitar) and Damion Reid (drums).

I have seen Yonathan Avishai play with trumpeter Avishai Cohen a couple of times and here with his own trio and music it was interesting to see him much more mellow and introspective. Avishai’s music was gentle, relaxed and beautifully composed but maybe because of that it was a little one dimensional.

To follow (and thankfully not the other way round) came the hard-rocking James Francies. The list of artists the pianist/composer has already worked with is impressive - Pat Metheney, Chris Potter, Jose James, Marcus Strickland and Lauryn Hill.

Powerful funky tunes with a heavy keyboard bass from Francies and driving rock style drumming from Reid was the recipe for the evening. Mike Moreno’s jazz/rock soloing was a highpoint throughout the evening especially on the standard, ‘My Favourite things’ which was really gritty giving the song a hard edge. Inevitably with such a high-powered trio at times the more subtle elements of the music got lost - either the piano was too low in the mix or everything else was too loud. On the slower song that Francies sang it was way more balanced - you could hear his piano playing and it sounded better for it.

The late night sessions featured the Sava Ramjanac Quintet, the Jovan Milovanović Quartet and an excellent set from the Austrian band Kuhle Wampe.

While nowhere near as cosmopolitan or buzzing as its neighbour Belgrade, Pančevo offers a lot in other ways - excellent food (the best river fish restaurants) a really friendly and laid back atmosphere and above all a great festival.



Subscribe from only £5.83

Never miss an issue of the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more