Festival Review: Jazz in the Park, Cluj Romania

Written by | Festivals, News, Reviews

There is always something beautiful about the first day of a festival: the gates open, the music starts, and fields slowly fill up with people. Now imagine that field being a historic, or ethnographic rather, village a stone’s throw away from Cluj-Napoca, the beautiful capitol of Transylvania, and your first afternoon starting atop a hill overlooking this magical setting. To this backdrop, Jan Gunnar Hoff Trio kicked off, offering that dreamy Nordic sound intertwined with synths and modern influences from their decades-long career. That cinematic, frosty feel on a 28* Celsius day in a Romanian field was a pleasant surprise and, somehow, a fitting opener to what would prove to be a whirlwind of a festival.

While exploring everything the Ethographic Village Museum (Parcul Entografic) has to offer, we stumbled across the first local gem; Andrea Botez’s voice carried far across the hills and stopped us in our tracks. Here is a singer who translates Romanian folk music into jazz, and who transcends the limitations of language to spoil her audiences with raw emotions and ultra-strong vocals. Take note; you will want to experience her live whenever you get a chance.

Our first day on site didn’t leave much time to take advantage of Jazz in the Park’s excellent hospitality options – imagine having an opportunity to hang out at a craft gin bar or wine boutique surrounded by hundreds of years of Transylvanian history! But, our love of music led us back to the Backyard Stage, where celebrated trumpeter Theo Croker delivered a smorgasbord of influences. Through fiery solos and captivating versatility, his overall message is one of hope and romance. As a bass novice, part of that sentiment was absolutely a blazing performance by Croker’s bass beast Eric Wheeler, whom you may also recognize from his work with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cyrus Chestnut. It’s no surprise that Croker is steadily growing toward headliner status – his was truly one of those gigs that make you feel better about the world.

Jazz In The Park from Above

But, can you really be a jazz scribent, or fan, even, if you do would even consider missing Billy Cobham, closing the same stage that evening? After spotting him at Sicilia Jazz Festival with the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana in 2021, it was refreshing and exciting to see one of the best drummers on earth perform with his own group, bringing more of that funk, rock, and fusion to the table. While we couldn’t resist singing along to Scooby Snacks later on in the evening, Cobham’s stellar lineup including pianist Steve Hamilton – who celebrates his tenth year aboard the world’s grooviest fusion ship – was the true icing on the cake of this first day in Cluj-Napoca.

Saturday gave us a bit more time to explore the beautiful old center of Cluj. With some of the city’s origines said to date all the way back to 6000–5500 BCE, the city offers “instagrammable” cafes, charming alleyways, and breathtaking views that deserve to be on every tourist’s to do list. But, we came here with a task, so after a Q&A session with Romanian rising stars 7th Sense, and an interesting discussion about the role of a festival in their respective communities to accelerate talent, we strolled back into the field.

Or so we thought. Toot, plunk, boom, buckle up: ready for takeoff, we’re going to space! Whether you are into astral traveling or not, The Heliocentrics are taking you along for the ride. Singer Barbora Patkova and her gang of ambient-adjacent gentlemen beam their audience up with vigor, thanks, in part, to stellar cellist Danny Keane – whom we’d later recognize as part of Mulatu Astatke’s outfit. A joyful surprise, especially to those of us who are familiar with the groups’ collaborative album Inspiration Information (2009).

Via guitar virtuoso Mansur Brown, who closed the Backyard Stage on Saturday, we moved on to what would easily be the best concert we had seen all year. Mulatu Astatke and his band are a tight outfit, who have been playing together in this formation for over a decade. His rhythm section, jokingly referring to themselves as (Matt) Ridley (and Jon) Scott, provides an airtight base for maestro Astatke; the godfather of Ethiojazz has been playing with the same band for over a decade, and it shows; this well-oiled machine is tight, but not too tight, leaving nothing to chance, but having just as much fun doing what they do best, and, quite probably, better than anyone. Through a mostly upbeat set of East African and New Yorican vibes, Astatke’s group generously offered extended versions of much-loved tracks that set the fields of Parcul Etnografic on fire. Closing with iconic tracks Mulatu and Yekatit, Astatke’s two-piece horn section consisting of saxophonist James Arben and trumpeter Byron Wallen proved to be the life of the party – and one that the thousands of people in the audience couldn’t stop celebrating long after they had left the stage. I, too, wished it could have lasted forever.

Saxophonist James Arben and trumpeter Byron Wallen

Sunday brought a set of challenging meteorological circumstances, offering us opportunities for interviews and other in-depth conversations with staff, crew, and talent in one of the festival’s brilliantly furnished backstage areas. At 19.00 in the evening, the rain had subsided, though, and 7th Sense, the young Romanian group we had met the day prior, delivered a surprisingly sophisticated set or large-ensemble jazz full of intricate arrangements steeped in modern jazz sensitivities. Ultimately, it was the perfect opener for another absolute highlight; Camilla George, appearing on the same stage as Mulatu Astatke the night before, blew her audiences away with material from her recent album Ibio-Ibio. George effortlessly blends her Nigerian roots with that London sound, proving once again that her elegant, melodic approach will take her far into the future.

Camilla George

The Ethnographic Village Museum provides a unique vibe, welcoming roughly 7000 people to this year’s edition of Jazz in the Park. As we squeezed through the crowds to enjoy Cinematic Orchestra’s closing tunes, it was hard to believe that we’d only been in Cluj for a few days. Jazz in the Park has built a reputation for itself as a leading jazz festival in its region, and in the world, winning a European Festival Award for Best Small Festival in 2020, and being shortlisted again in 2021. Where its initial win was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, its 2022 move to the Ethnographic Village Museum, its consistent drive to improve, entertain, and innovate, and its stellar lineup make it more than deserving of every accolade under the European sun. Of course, the saying goes: never work with your idols. But when you do, sometimes, magic happens.

More information about the Jazz In The Park Festival can be found here at their website.

Last modified: September 18, 2023