San Sebastian undoubtedly is the first place that comes to mind in the Basque region when European tourists are concerned. The coastal town gained popularity during the beginning of the 20th century as where the Spanish royal family spent their summers, and is known today for its spacious beaches and culinary richness. Another aspect of San Sebastian that will lure the jazz loving crowds is that it houses an old festival with a history of 54 years.
The festival came into being after Imanol Olaizola saw and was inspired by a Count Basie Orchestra in 1964 in Paris. Olaizola, who was the head of the music committee of the Tourism Bureau at the time, was so moved by his experience that he wanted to bring the dynamism of jazz to San Sebastian. The festival started as a small initiative despite the local support and grew within years with international participation. Jazzaldia is one of the oldest festivals in Europe today.
I make a short plan and fly from Istanbul to Bilbao to follow the festival in its native city. San Sebastian is about a hundred kilometers away from Bilbao Airport. You can get on your way using one of the busses that wait right outside the terminal exit and only have to wait for about half an hour if you don’t catch the first bus. The road to San Sebastian is specious and green with lush trees. Festival announcements occasionally show up on the screens in the bus… I check in to my hotel in San Sebastian when I arrive in the afternoon and start walking towards the center. You can see big trees in gardens and beautiful buildings their striking architecture as you follow Urumea which flows towards the Biscay Bay. However, not everything looks spectacular; there are some rundown buildings and abandoned stores around as well. These might be the signs of life behind the curtains of its touristic aspect.
The opening event takes place on the main stage in the Zurriola beach. It is rather crowded but not uncomfortable. Some people are snacking on food, some are calmly wandering around, some are chatting with their friends and some prefer to make themselves comfortable across the sea. The audience is mainly middle aged but their excitement is “young”. The vibration of the festival-goers makes one forget about the overcast weather which reminds of the longing for beautiful summer nights. Shortly put, the opening atmosphere is great. Joan Baez’s concert, which is a part of her farewell tour, attracts attention while I only watch it with the corner of my eye from afar. There is still some time for jazz hours.
I go to Teatro Victoria Eugenia the next day to watch a noon concert. This historic building was recently renovated and still is under the supervision of Donostia Kultura. The concert hall is beautiful with its horseshoe shape, its lounges, flooring and lights, inviting the audience to a trip in time. I watch Eri Yamamoto Trio + Coro Easo concerts here. The idea of the Japanese pianist Yamamoto’s project is rooted in adapting the dance melodies known as Gōshū ondo to a choir performance. We learn from her explanation in the beginning of of the program that the pianist has spent her childhood in Kyoto listening to these songs. It is a pleasant and emotional concert. However, not all of its elements properly line up. The music sometimes sounds a bit copy-pasted and repetitive, as most initiatives that call themselves a synthesis of East and West seem to suffer from. On the other hand, the energy seems to drop when the trio continuously is overshadowed by the choir. Fortunately, the pianist asks the audience to get up on their feet and dance and the atmosphere gets more heated and the concert draws to an pleasant end.
My priority after leaving Victoria Eugenia is to wander around the city until the evening concerts and discover some pintxos*. After a couple of great hours spent in the back streets and around La Concha beach, I and the town folk fall victim to an unexpected rain shower and run around looking for shelter. The shower ends as if it was timed when I reach Plaza de la Trinidad. Plaza de la Trinidad, a Renaissance building, is what I would call a mystical venue with a 18th century church in its plot. The stage is the festival’s feature, placed in a town square that looks like a hole among the streets with its back facing the Urgull Mountain. What makes it special this evening though are the members of the audience with their colorful raincoats filling up the square. Nobody abandons music despite the wetness that took over the seats and the rocks. This is the festival spirit!
The first concert in Plaza de la Trinidad is Donny McCaslin’s Blow project, which also has an album that shares the same name. The quintet’s performance starts off with an energy that resonates with the excitement of the audience but loses its musical flow a few pieces in. I occasionally get a feeling of Uri Caine Bedrock, one of my old favorites, but it doesn’t involve into a concert of that level, so I lose my interest. Maria Schneider + Ensemble Denada steps on the stage after a break taken to rearrange it. Ensemble Denada is known as one of the best Norwegian ensembles; their collaboration with Schneider took shape when the composer was a guest artist in Molde. I personally have high expectations from this concert. This is because I like Schneider and orchestra music… The pieces they play include Dance You Monster, Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), a piece written for David Bowie, with sees the participation of Donny McCaslin and vocalist Jeff Taylor, as well as The Thompson Fields. The Thompson Fields is a piece that was born from Schneider’s observations from her childhood that she spent in the rural Minnesota’s endless fields. “Think of a farm” she explains “it has a silo, you climb it and you watch the movement of the wind in that empty space”. She wants the members of the audience to experience the effects of such memories (instances) have on music. The audience, already aware, pay utmost attention… Cerulean Skies is the evening’s climax. The composer wrote this piece as she imagined the story of a bird she saw as she sat at a park in New York. It is a musical story of all the things and geographies birds go through as they migrate from place to place. This concert brings the evening to a lovely ending.
This is the last day of my short festival tour. San Sebastian is once again overtaken by rain showers. I give up on my beach plans and wander around the parts of the city I haven’t seen yet despite the powerful winds. On the other hand, I think the weather provides a good opportunity to appreciate the meaning of the sculptures in the famous Peine Del Viento, a San Sebastian landmark, more so than compared to a calmer day… I test the basic raincoat handed to me in the concert area here and then return to the city center after a food break. The concert I chose for the day is in the cultural center called Kursaal. There used to be a casino in the place of this building a while ago. The luxurious establishment, opened in 1921, changed its purpose after the prohibitions that came 3 years later, served for various purposes until 1972 and finally was demolished. Civil authorities stepped in after a period of uncertainty and organized an architecture competition to decide upon the new building. It is the 20th year of Kursaal that opened due to this initiative… We listen to Atomic + Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in the main hall; a true Scandinavian fusion project. I really enjoyed Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’s music which was reminiscent of storytelling when I listened to them during Oslo Jazzfestival last year**. This is a different project of course, it isn’t fair to compare them, but I look for common elements from that concert. This one is a more clinical music, one that doesn’t excite but instead pokes at curiosity.
It feels great to be in San Sebastian and to follow the festival even though I didn’t find what I was looking for in the concerts except for one. This one is a festival that makes its people proud due to the fact that it brightened up the darkness of Franco era and the Cold War years with music. Jazz is in a different place today in Spain after fifty, sixty years after. Maybe the festival no longer breaks taboos or has a freeing aspects, but considering the situation the world is in at this point, it has a calming contagiousness. Jazzaldia is a festival with its own identity with its liveliness and beauty of the concert venues, as well as how the city owns up to it and its audience embrace it.
* The name of the local bite-sized snacks served on a slice of bread and displayed on a bar.
** Oslo Jazzfestival 2018 article: https://www.jazzdergisi.com/en/oslo-jazzfestival-2018/