York student weaves tradition into debut jazz album

Jasna Jovicevic desires simplicity – music, love, freedom and choice. She owns next to nothing: an alto saxophone, a soprano saxophone and several flutes, including a traditional Serbian wooden flute. But her desire for simplicity stands in stark contrast to her reality of war, strife and frenzied movement from one country to another since about 1991. 

Music has been the one constant for Jovicevic, completing her master’s degree in music composition this summer at York. It has guided her through the turbulent times in her life and continues to lead the way. Her debut album – Invented Reality – is set to be released next month. It is, as the title suggests, a play on what’s real and what is not. It’s a theme Jovicevic has been struggling with since she left the former Yugoslavia some 16 years ago during the Yugoslav wars.

Left: The cover of Jasna Jovicevic’s debut album Invented Reality. Photo by Jim Tinios

In a sense, it’s a reflection of her coming of age, of her emotional and spiritual awakening. Jovicevic plays with the idea of separating ego from the realization of what is truly important in the world. "It’s about realizing what is illusion and what is reality. It’s about finding myself and finding the truth." The suite encompassing tracks three through six is aptly called “The Journey”.

Jovicevic has poured the culmination of her search for meaning together with her cultural roots and traditional Serbian songs into what can best be described as a contemporary jazz offering. But like Jovicevic, her new CD evades a clear definition. There are several different arrangements and styles which cross over the various categories within the genre.

Jovicevic lived in Yugoslavia until the age of 16 when she left to study music in Hungary. There she discovered the music of Bartok (1881-1945), who threaded the flavour of traditional folk music into his modern compositions, something Jovicevic also does. “I use a lot of tradition elements in my music, Serbia and the whole Balkan – Hungary, Macedonia, Kosovo and Croatia," she says. "It’s all my compositions, but I go back to these roots. It’s all contemporary, but I go back." There are 12 original compositions on her new album with a rhythmically rich fusion that is lyrical and melodic at the same time.

After living in Hungary, Jovicevic spent time in Austria, Brazil, New York and now Canada. In Toronto, she found a second home consisting of hundreds of thousands of Serbians like herself. She spent a year playing traditional Serbian music at various events around town and it is these traditional songs that seeped into her compositions. Jovicevic, however, breaks with the traditional rules in her quest to find her own path.

Right: Jasna Jovicevic in a photo by Jim Tinios

She uses her traditional music to help people realize a person’s identity is not completely tied to their culture, tradition or heritage. Some people in the Serbian community have said her new CD is not traditional music, but Jovicevic has an answer to that. “I know the rules, I know my history, I know my tradition, but this is my way. I’ve been moving all my life and I’ve seen so many cultures, and I’ve learned so many languages, and, after all that, I say I’m not Serbian or I’m not Serbian living in Canada. I am who I am. There are so many different perspectives coming from different cultures, so everyone has their own truth, and why not."

Traditional music is one of the many influences affecting her work but Jovicevic also borrows from the many cultures she’s been exposed to over the years and stitches her borrowings into her music striving for a multi-ethnic cultural sound.

It seems to be working. She won first place in the International Ethno Music Competition in Milan, Italy, in 2005; second place at the Balkanart International Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2005; and third in a contest for best jazz composition organized by the Hungarian Jazz Federation in 2004. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in music and saxophone from the Franc Liszt Music Academy in Hungary. She has also received fellowships for residencies at the Banff Centre in Alberta, ArtsLink in New York and the Djerassi Residency as part of the San Francisco Artist in Residency program.

Jovicevic, however, grew up learning to play the flute. It wasn’t until she was 16 that her parents finally bought her a saxaphone, something she’d wanted for years. On Invented Reality Jovicevic plays saxophone, Serbian flute and sings on track number four – "Uspavanka". She wrote the lyrics, composed, produced and arranged the music independently. "I had to write for the whole band, although the five soloists do improvise a lot," says Jovicevic. "It’s modern jazz, there is a lot of improvisation but also a lot was written out for the strings. The chord progressions are improvised but some of the parts are very classically based."

Her usual quartet, the Jasna Jovicevic Quartet, consisting of Robi Botos on piano; Rich Brown, who is also a member of the Juno-nominated group autorickshaw, on electric bass; and Anthony Michelli, who teaches at in the Music Department at York, on drums, join Jovicevic on the CD. So too does the string quartet of Mike Downes on double bass, Aleksandar Gajic and Parmela Attariwala on violin, and Amy Laing on cello, while Yvette Tollar is the vocalist for track two. "They’re the best musicians in Canada," Jovicevic says. “I’m so happy to have them.”

This is Jovicevic’s debut album, but she has played on numerous other CDs with a various groups and at venues in Canada, the US and Europe. Now she is thinking of changing directions. “I’m thinking of moving back to Serbia. I just feel like I want to do a little bit of helping people back there. The war is over. The political situation is getting not so tight anymore. There is a space to breathe. So I’m thinking why not go there and actually do something,” Jovicevic says.

As a teaching assistant in York’s Fine Arts and Cultural Studies Program, Jovicevic came to believe she could make a difference in her homeland. She is hoping through teaching and performing music, she will be able make positive changes in Serbia.

Next spring and summer, Jovicevic hopes to tour with her band across Canada and maybe across Europe as well. “I’m just leaving the doors open and whatever comes…you know.”

Jovicivic’s CD release concert will take place at the Trane Studio, 964 Bathurst St., in Toronto on Aug. 25 at 9pm. Copies of Invented Reality will be available for purchase through Jasna Jovicevic’s Web site soon. Invented Reality was funded in part by The Serbian Ministry of Diaspora.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.