Astrid Kuljanic Transatlantic Exploration Company, Riva (Live Review)

by Ferell Aubre

On the Adriatic island of Cres, a certain sheltered cove harbors a small pier Kuljanic explains. “I have my spot there, at least, I consider it my spot!” laughs singer, arranger, and songwriter Astrid Kuljanic, whose parents both grew up near that cove. It’s a place swept by the world’s tides and sounds, where Italian and Croatian blend, where the strange and new quickly ceases to be exotic and simply becomes “our music.”  This deeply rooted yet organically syncretic place has shaped Kuljanic’s voice and work, which embraces jazz standards, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, and traditional songs from Cres, as part of her new project, the Transatlantic Exploration Company.  “It’s an exploration. I love exploring my roots and I love learning about other music,” says Kuljanic. “You can take inspiration from all sorts of places and over time, it becomes part of you.”

Growing up in Rijeka, what was then Yugoslavia – It’s no accident that Kuljanic wound up making music in an island city of multitudinous influences.  Influenced deeply by her musical roots, as an adult Kuljanic founded a jazz festival in Cres.

Jazz though deeply included in Kuljanic’s artistic foundations. “One of the things that brought me into jazz is the freedom, the improvisation,” she reflects. “Beyond that, it’s hard for me to figure out what my favorite style of music is. I’ve always loved rock and pop. I fell for folk. I love beautiful ballads and crazy fast pieces. You can hear it on this album, which has different energy from song to song.”

An alternative approach to the jazz trio, Kuljanic decided to replace the piano with the distinctive accordion sound, similarly she exchanged percussion for the usual drum kit. She invited a friend of a friend she had played with several times, Benjamin Rosenblum, to join the Exploration Company.

Riva, features Kuljanic switching from Croatian to English-language vocals and explorations of jazz infused world rhythms for an excellent debut outing for the groups coming of age.  A recent appearance at Carnegie Hall featured Kuljanic, a concomitant substantive force, Kuljanic collaborates with musicians who complement her efficacious voice. The Transatlantic Exploration Company is Ben Rosenblum, accordion; Mat Muntz, bass; and Rogerio Boccato, percussion; all are uniquely succinct and a well-oiled ensemble, communicative and enlightened.

Interludes were provided by guest Croatian dancers, and a divinely enigmatic appearance by Asaran Earth Trio after the Intermission; notably, Ms. Kuljanic is one-third of the trio.

A highlight of the evening was a tune “Breathe Freedom,” a melancholy dedication to a dear friend of the Kuljanic’s, one who had lost his father the prior weekend. The audience was encouraged to join voices and sing together loudly and accompany Ms. Kuljanic with great result, Kuljanic has a transcendent way of connecting with her audience. The evenings finale tune “Divojcici Rozice,” a traditional song, included all the guest artists on stage, as the culmination of the evening, which fevered into purposeful chaos then a divine release, strongly thrusting everyone to fly to their feet for a well-deserved ovation. An indication of what is to come with the release of Riva.

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