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MUSIC REVIEW: Tiny-town Slovak jazz fest surprisingly good

Jazz. You never really know what to expect when you hear that word. Blues? Swing? Big-band? Mind-blowing expertise? Mediocrity? This is especially true in Central Europe, thousands of miles from jazz's origins, and even more so when the venue for the sounds is a small, Slovak agricultural village of just over a thousand inhabitants.
So it was a surprise that the people who came to the Sixth Annual Jazz festival in the quiet southern Slovak town of Domadice found various styles of jazz to chose from, from funk to fusion, straight-forward standards, and a whole lot of blues. Best of all, the music, which filled the streets of the town June 25-26, was played competently-- and occasionally even brilliantly-- by some of the best jazz musicians in Slovakia.

Jazz. You never really know what to expect when you hear that word. Blues? Swing? Big-band? Mind-blowing expertise? Mediocrity? This is especially true in Central Europe, thousands of miles from jazz's origins, and even more so when the venue for the sounds is a small, Slovak agricultural village of just over a thousand inhabitants.

So it was a surprise that the people who came to the Sixth Annual Jazz festival in the quiet southern Slovak town of Domadice found various styles of jazz to chose from, from funk to fusion, straight-forward standards, and a whole lot of blues. Best of all, the music, which filled the streets of the town June 25-26, was played competently-- and occasionally even brilliantly-- by some of the best jazz musicians in Slovakia.

The event took place near Domadice's main crossroads, located a hilly, five minute drive from Levice. A large stage was erected in back of the village's main pub on a postage-stamp sized (about 50 square meters) lawn. There wasn't a bad seat in the house. Chairs and tables were scattered about, giving the premises a cosy, intimate feel. To the right of the stage two enormous black cauldrons of Gulaš provided sustenance for the musicians and audience, who played and danced respectively into the wee hours of the morning on both Friday and Saturday.

The highlight of the festival took place on the second night at around eleven when Sylvia Josifoska joined the Bratislava-based Bluesweiser, already a very good and entertaining band guided by the strong musicianship and antics of its leader, singer/guitarist Jurai Turtev. With Bluesweiser backing her, Josifoska, who is only 27, dazzled the crowd with breathtakingly expressive and soulful covers of familiar blues standards. Her sometimes breathy, sometimes rock-solid voice, displayed a range of skills (including intense vibrato, scatting, and seamless octave jumps) reminiscent of American singing legends Sara Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald.

In an interview after her performance, she explained that she had been singing professionally for about seven years, and that aside from blues she sings funk and other, more contemporary forms of jazz. She went on to say that making a living as a musician in Slovakia has been difficult, and that in the future she plans to try her luck abroad in English-speaking countries. Josifoska performs regularly in Bratislava with Bluesweiser and otherwise at Hysteria, Alígator, and Prašná Bašta, and is scheduled to record a CD in the fall.

While Josifoska plans to head towards an English-speaking land, a band from England, the Ty Garner Trio, was the first ever British representative at the festival. The Friday night gig of Garner and his band was so well appreciated that he could still be seen Saturday reluctantly autographing the arms of small children while his bass player played Pied Piper to them with his flute. Garner told The Slovak Spectator that he thoroughly enjoyed the friendliness and enthusiasm of all the people he met on his short trip to Slovakia, which was for him half-work and half-vacation from his hectic life on the British blues circuit.

Perhaps the only thing that could match the charming uniqueness of the festival was the charming uniqueness of its organiser, Fero Horváth, who is a medical doctor when he isn't busy organising festivals or playing bass.

"I started the festival six years ago as a very small excuse for some of my friends from Bratislava to come down [Domadice is about a two hour's drive from Bratislava and close to the Hungarian border] and jam for a weekend," he said the following afternoon at his home just around the corner from where the festival was held. "It's unbelievable to me how it has grown." This year about five hundred people showed up each night.

It would be a stretch to say that jazz is thriving here in Slovakia, but at this year's Domadice Jazz Festival, one could hear a steady jazz heartbeat emerging [boom,boom boom] like swing eighth notes from a large kick bass drum. The jazz festival is held annually around the time of Midsummer's night, the longest day of the year. There are also several other jazz festivals every year in Slovakia including those in Bratislava, Trenčín, and Košice.

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