Sanja Marković ‘Ascension’ LP (A.MA) 4/5

This debut album from Sanja Marković, and first on vinyl from the A.MA label out of Italy, is instantly European in delivery. As the title track enters, there is the fragrance of Miles’ Tutu before the passage opens, and Marković’s vocals join Milena Jančurić – flute, Max Kochetov – soprano saxophone, Ivan Radivojević – trumpet, Mina Đekić – violin, Julijana Marković – cello, Aleksandar Grujić – electric piano, Miroslav Tovirac – electric bass and Igor Malesević – drums, providing support for the first of seven songs, six of which composed by Sanja Marković, while arranging all seven. Recorded in Serbia and Italy in 2017 with Marković’s ingratiating skills here including programming, soprano and tenor saxophone plus meticulous production, one might have to be respectful of the talent unfolding. Then on discovering several noteworthy renditions on-line of Upa Neguinho and Águas De Março with Belgrade’s Brazilian Jazz Collective, we also witness Marković playing acoustic guitar, not featured here. English lyrics throughout the longest piece here and somewhat of a rollercoaster with the band giving their all. A great way to open the album.

Before moving to the East Coast of the United States, Serbia born Sanja Marković gained her Master’s degree at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade. Her vocal delivery is very much, to these ears, one of American influence. On the second piece, ‘It Has Always Been’, there are hints of Ferrell, Freelon and Reeves of the ‘90s floating round my space. Perhaps it’s that ever-so-slight connection that has drawn interests from Tony Minvielle’s Foldedspace on JazzFM, Patrick Forge on NTS and Dr Bob Jones’ Surgery of late. Drums here provided instead by Predrag Milutinović (Milan Stanisavljević Quintet), supporting the piece as it soars to a vocal/saxophone crescendo. A powerful piece of music and the go-to track for airplay.

South African overtones to ’N’anya’ next, another fine addition with both Marković and Rastko Obradovic on tenor saxophones and spellbinding acoustic piano work from Grujić, double bass from Milan Nikolić and drumming from Milutinović. This is the only non-vocal piece here and a warm outstanding composition – one of my favourites, and proof enough why she is indeed an award-winning composer.

There’s spirituality next in the ballad, ‘The Mystery of Man’, with that all-important harp, played here by Gorana Ćurgus (Belgrad National Theatre Orchestra). This may very well attract the vinyl buying audience as its richness has the desired credentials. This has been the most visited number through this writer’s pre-listening period.

‘Sovereign State of Mind’ with melodica (Aleksandar Buzadzic) and electric piano, is the furthest left field the album takes us. Enjoying the experimentation here gives that diversity to her writing that will assist with her forward journey. This is an illuminating piece, keys alone conjure ‘70s aesthetics and reminiscent of jazz-fusion classics.

‘Zhega’ (or Heat) takes on new layers with embellishment from French horn (Igor Lazić), trombone (Mihajlo Bogosavljevic), cello (Ivana Grahovac) and violin from Manja Ristić, a piece I suspect was recorded live at Kolarac Concert Hall rather than the Orvel and Barba studios employed elsewhere for this release.

We conclude with ‘Sun’, a song inspired by a traditional Serbian “epic” XVI Century poem. There’s less in the way of musicians on this final number, but more engagement from Marković, in both vocals and her soprano playing. It conveys itself as being perhaps more about where Marković is with her heritage and her individual sound and a piece where the contemporary piece is held up by drumming from Petar Radmilović and Jančurić’s flute.

Had Marković’s only instrument have been her voice, this path would be the expected one, but having heard how comfortable she is with saxophone and (external reference) guitar, I feel perhaps any follow-on projects should balance the vocal and non-vocal evenly, broadening her audience and marketing reach. What one takes away from this first release is the power and enthusiasm from the large Serbian talent pool, endowed with all the right qualities, and the strings. The strings liberate this into the ‘special’ place and what an achievement for a debut album. It’s hats off, applause and repeated cries of “encore”.

Steve Williams