Chapter 1: Toasting to Friendship
I’m looking out the window of the hotel room as the sun is about to set, thinking of Paris, which has so far been my defining musical experience. The view is beautiful so I decide to snap a quick photo; I probably won’t be back here very soon.
I’m waiting for Jeff to come out of the bathroom so we can get back to the show and listen to Richard Bona. Jeff comes out wearing a new shirt and looking admirably fresh, as if the fatigue caused by the trip and by hanging out around town all day has just melted off with the aid of nothing more than a splash of water on his face, even though he’s been up for more than twenty hours and has thrown back half a dozen beers with me all afternoon. He’s also got a show to play the next night but he’s in remarkably good shape. I’m thinking it’s got to be a musician thing; these guys are so used to touring, to the dynamic lifestyle of planes and hotel-rooms that they’re nearly indestructible. I keep joking around with him that I’ll try my best not to “damage” Kurt Elling’s bass player before the gig.
As we’re about to leave the room I take one more look around. Hanging out with a touring musician is a first for me so I try to “take in” the entire scene.
“I was wondering if this is fascinating to you,” says Jeff, who in the past few hours has gotten to know me pretty well. From the moment we met in the hotel lobby, a little while after he checked in, we instantly clicked (as is to be expected from two guys who shared the nickname “Dude” their entire lives, albeit on two different continents). We became fast friends and we spent the whole afternoon hanging out, talking and laughing, discovering how many other things we have in common besides our nickname (I did not expect anyone else to dislike Tom Cruise with the same passion I do).
We talked a lot about Jazz but not exclusively. We’re both fast talkers so we ran through a plethora of topics from Pro-Wrestling to Quentin Tarantino’s movies, Cracked, Breaking Bad and of course, wanting to punch Tom Cruise in the face. I got to smoke my first “American Spirit”. I found out the top six cities for Jazz in the U.S. I learned that you “play bass with your back”, that Detroit is a great city for music, that there is such a thing as a folding double bass, that in Jazz, if you play a bad note you’re supposed to “play it again”, that you can fix a double bas with a steak knife and I also found out that it’s Jeff’s first time playing with Kurt. He was brought in as a substitute for regular bass-player Clark Sommers who couldn’t make it. At least in that respect, this whole experience is as new to him as it is to me.
Right before we exit Jeff takes another look at the bottle of homemade palinca (my country’s go-to hard liquor) I gave him as a gift and decides we can’t just leave the room like that. One minute later we’re toasting to friendship while, on stage, Richard Bona is starting his set.
Chapter 2: Day 1 – Hidden Orchestra and Richard Bona
Jeff and I got back to our seats about fifteen minutes after Bona’s gig started and the first thing we noticed was that he place was packed. Many more people showed up for Bona then were there when we left to the hotel half an hour ago, which is a bit of a shame because Hidden Orchestra, who performed before Bona, put on a pretty good show. I was familiar with their most recent record, Archipelago, which is right up my alley since I’m into European Jazz and its occasional techno-vibe (As I mentioned before, In Praise of Dreams is my all-time favorite record). I had read somewhere that Hidden Orchestra was a great band to catch live and I have to say they did not disappoint. I dig their record and I think it has some pretty awesome moments although it’s not always consistent in its delivery; it’s not so much about highs-and-lows as it is highs-and-not-so-highs. It is a good listen though, one that I would definitely recommend, and I especially recommend catching the band live. They managed to create a very “hypnotic” atmosphere and the musicians themselves are very likeable, especially the delightful Poppy Ackroyd whose endearing facial expressions while getting immersed in her instruments (violin and piano) made for a feel-good moment. Check out her solo work as well for some haunting and very delicate music, but more on this talented young lady in a future article.
Unfortunately I did not catch Sebastian Spanache Trio but since they are from my country I’m hoping I can make up for that and go to one of their gigs soon. As for the “main event” Richard Bona was, as expected, electric, entertaining and great fun. His music has a positive vibe to it that is very energetic and uplifting and his playing is very entertaining to watch. All in all, Bona was a perfect choice to close off the first night of this “infant” Jazz festival (we’re hoping it becomes a tradition) as his lively music, with its blend of African Jazz and Latin Jazz was perfect to send the fans, who perhaps weren’t sure what to expect from JazzTM, home happy. I don’t know how many fans noticed this but, right before the end of Bona’s set, Kurt Elling appeared on the balcony of his hotel-room to take a look (the hotel was overseeing the square in which the Jazz festival had been set up).
I’m glad I noticed it because to me his almost spectral figure appearing to watch over the show seemed to foreshadow the outstanding performances that would continue in this three-day festival. As a writer, I found it an awesome and intense moment. Speaking of awesome and intense…
Chapter 3: Attack of the Three-Stringed Double-Bass.
It’s day 2 and we arrived as early as we could so that we’d catch seats close to the stage. Now, Kurt Elling is only a few minutes away and we’re all anxiously awaiting his gig. With me are my wife and fellow Jazzhead and my in-laws, both of whom are longtime Jazz enthusiasts themselves. I had introduced them to Jeff the other night and we all hung out at a terrace in Piata Unirii, a square near the one in which the Jazz festival was being held.
Now we’re not only excited to see one of the greatest voices in Jazz but also to clap and cheer for our new friend who is already well-liked by everyone in my family. Kurt Elling comes out and with him are Laurence Hobgood, John McLean, Bryan Carter (filling in for Kendrick Scott) and our new friend Jeff Pedraz. We’re all clapping wildly in what is equal parts excitement and support for Jeff. The unmistakable voice of Kurt Elling starts to grace our ears as his legendary band-members are ready to put on an awesome performance. Then my wife turns to me and says “What happened to Jeff’s bass?”
Chapter 4: Day 2- Mario & The Teachers and Manu Delago
As I mentioned before, we had arrived early so I was happy to be able to catch both opening bands. First on were Mario & The Teachers, who I understand are a local band but I have never had the opportunity to catch them live yet. It was a good warm-up gig but I can’t say I was blown away by anything they did. Still, plenty of room for them to grow as they all seemed like competent musicians. Manu Delago was next, on his third appearance in Timisoara (if I remember correctly). I hadn’t seen them either and when I heard he was playing hang I feared we were going to be treated to a “gimmick band”. I was glad to see that it wasn’t the case at all as Manu made very wise use of the instrument (meaning he didn’t overdo it). The band proved very entertaining to watch and their music was thoughtful and well executed. I instantly became a fan of what they do and a fan of Manu himself who seems intelligent and down to earth.
I did, however, have one aspect of their performance I did not enjoy at all: I found the lyrics very weak to the point of being distracting from their otherwise good music. Perhaps it would not instantly bother everyone but as a writer I could not help but feel annoyed at times (“I don’t know if I should laugh or cry/But I know there’s a reason why”). It seemed like an unfortunate waste of Isa Kurz’s otherwise pleasant voice. But to get back to the positive: aside from the uninspired use of lyrics the band is definitely worth checking out live for a well though-out show.
Chapter 5: The Essence of Jazz
Looking for Jeff in the hotel lobby, where we had planned on meeting after the gig, my wife and I run into John McLean. “Congrats man,” I tell him “I’ve been to many shows but I’ve never seen anything like this!” Every word is the truth. By the end of the set the crowd was on their feet giving Kurt and the band a well-deserved standing ovation. When Jeff’s string had broken, one minute into the first song, we all felt devastated. I felt so sorry for the man, on his first show with Kurt, first track, first minute he’s left with three strings. Turns out I had no reason to worry. Jeff finished the song on three strings like a class act and I find out afterwards that sometimes he purposefully practices the songs on three or even two strings, just in case something like this would happen although it almost never does. “In twenty years of playing bass, I had that happen maybe three times,” he tells me later, when the incredible show is over and we’re drinking beer on a terrace in Piata Unirii, the same one from the night before. The crew is also the same: my wife, my in-laws, my best friend, his girlfriend and the man of the hour Jeff, who humbly accepts our praise and elegantly answers our many fan-boy/fan-girl questions. Turns out that the whole incident with the string, although undoubtedly stressful for Jeff, actually improved the whole show and added a touch of humor to it. Kurt turned around, saw the whole thing, started laughing and signaled for Bryan to go into a drum solo. The incredibly talented young (only 22 year-old) drummer kept it up for all the time it took Jeff to change the string, while Kurt was beatboxing and scat-singing to everyone’s entertainment. To me, this entire scene is the essence of performing Jazz.
But…to get back to the hallway of Hotel Timisoara: I ask John about Jeff’s whereabouts. I had met John earlier in the day and got to hang out with him for a while which was amazing since he’s one of the coolest people on the planet.
“So you play guitar,” I said to him when we first met, pretending not to know who he was.
“Yeah,” says John.
“You any good?”
This just goes to prove what I’ve talked about before: Jazz musicians are simply cooler and more intelligent than any other musicians.
“Do you know where Jeff is?” I ask him.
“Yeah, actually he’s backstage hanging out, come on I’ll take you to him,”
Chapter 6: Ilhan Ersahin, David Murray, Macy Gray
Once again, in typical writer fashion, I ended up late for the show and missed the opening act, Iordache. The second scheduled band is Ilhan Ersahin Istanbul Sessions. Hadn’t heard of them before and when the presenter described their music I didn’t get very excited as I felt I had already seen this “act” various times. When they showed up and started playing my suspicions were confirmed as it felt like some of the other East-meets-Jazz stuff I had heard and their approach to Jazz as “almost rock” (if you switch the guitar with the saxophone) is not really my thing. A few minutes into the show though, I slowly found myself enjoying it, mesmerized by the really great playing (especially sax and percussion).
By the time they finished I was sorry to see them go and I’m definitely planning on checking out some of their stuff. The rest of the crowd loved them as well but, as sorry as we all were that the set was over, we were looking forward to David Murray’s Infinity Quartet and Macy Gray. I know Macy is not everyone’s cup of tea but I find her voice really interesting and her stage-persona very entertaining. Sadly, the audience didn’t really seem to know what to make of the aforementioned “stage persona” and Macy’s ballsy and straightforward crowd interaction made for some awkward moments. By the end of the set, though, the audience seemed to have loosened up and, overall, was treated to a good show by these very accomplished musicians. For me, personally, their gig had a very old-school, straight-up Jazz feel which I greatly enjoyed and I was also impressed by Macy’s performance and her voice.
Chapter 7: The Essence of Music
“This is the cat who showed Jeff around yesterday,” says John, introducing me to Kurt and Laurence. It has always been a goal of mine to get to hang backstage at a Jazz show and get a feel of the vibe and the dynamic between the musicians. It’s also been a goal of mine to be called a “cat” by a Jazz musician so there you have it, what more can a writer and Jazzhead ask for. As I shake Kurt’s hand I tell him the same thing I told John: “I’ve been to many shows but I’ve never seen anything like this!” It’s God’s honest truth; entertainment-wise, the combination of Kurt’s flawless voice and his charismatic stage-presence as well as the company of a truly remarkable band made this a memorable gig, by far the highlight of the festival for me personally. We take the obligatory picture and end up talking about the bottle of palinca I gave Jeff.
“Have you had any of it?” I ask Kurt.
“No, not yet,”
A few seconds later we run into Jeff who is sipping on a dark Leffe. I ask him if he still wants to hang out for a little while and I can see he’s torn between his new friends and wanting to hang out with the band on his first gig with them, which is probably the highlight of any musician’s evening. I’m happy that he decides to join us as it would have been a sad moment having to say goodbye in a hurry.
“I didn’t get you in trouble with the guys or anything, did I?” I ask. He tells me it’s not a problem, that the band thought it was cool he made friends in the city. I find out that, since he only has a carry-on with him, my bottle of palinca ended up in the great Kurt Elling’s luggage which could have easily been another goal of mine had I imagined it possible.
At about 3 AM we’re saying goodbye in front of the hotel, hugging it out, knowing we’ve each made a new friend for life. Forty-eight hours prior, our mutual friend Paul Kogut had written Jeff Pedraz on Facebook “You might run into my Romanian pal, journalist/jazz fan Andrei Cherascu”
Now we’re giving each other a hug, friends, not wanting to say goodbye and vowing to meet again someday soon. More than anything else that happened at the Jazz festival in the last few days, for me, this captures the absolute essence of music.