The opening performance of the Bishkek Jazz Festival at the opera house Friday night was everything I had hoped for: first and foremost, an evening of live jazz in a smoke- and booze-free venue. During the intermission, I told a friend I felt like parched man who had just been handed a cool drink of water. (Tom Guralnick and company at the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, I can’t tell how much I miss you.)
All the performances were good and some were exceptional, especially a jam session that replaced the French trio Ozone, which apparently had flight and visa problems. The jam began with a duet involving drummer Lucas Niggli and vocalist Xu Fengxi, who also plays variety of traditional Chinese stringed instruments, including the 21-string guzheng, which sounds similar to sitar but is more rectangular in shape, stationary not held, is played like a pedal steel guitar. They were later joined by a group of musicians who played a variety of Central Asian stringed and percussion instruments, electric guitar, piano, and bass, baritone sax and harmonica. Collectively they created a thoroughly engaging and eclectic fusion of tradition and improvisation. And the crowd loved Xu Fengxi’s wild, wordless vocalizations
A local quartet, JazzOK, which is built around the twin pillars of saxophonist Alexandr Akimov and Alexandr Yurtaev on electric piano, provided some refreshing treatments of several American jazz standards. Nurgiz Chekilova, a capable vocalist who effectively drew on the archetypical whiskey-worn and world-weary jazz chanteuse, accompanied them for the second half of their set.
Tonight Aura, a sextet with a vocalist that grew out of the Bishkek City Drama Theater, and Artzakh, a group from nearby Uzbekistan created in 1954, will perform before the headliners, Lucas Niggli and Xu Fengxi. With any luck, we will still get a chance to see Ozone before the three days are out.