Published on January 31, 2021
Thana Alexa’s recording ONA (meaning SHE in Croatian) was nominated in two categories for this years Grammy: Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Jazz Solo by REGINA CARTER! How amazing is that?!? I have never thought I would be a part of a Grammy nominated recording, and here it is! Thana came to my “Riva” album release at Carnegie Hall in 2017 and heard Vocal Group Rosa who I am a part of and who were performing as guests, and … Read More »
Chemcial engineering’s loss is music’s gain… enticing exploration of songs…(Kuljanic) deploys this inspiration sensitively, using instrumentation to great effect.
(Songlines UK, 4/5 Star Review by Tom Newell)
On the Adriatic island of Cres, a certain sheltered cove harbors a small pier. “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. The quartet’s debut album Riva (“Pier”; release: November 10, 2017 on One Trick Dog Records) and Carnegie Hall celebration showcased the singer’s facility for flowing between Caribbean and Brazilian beats and racy Croatian ditties, between heartfelt ballads and upbeat romps.
“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.”
It’s no accident that Kuljanic wound up making music in an island city of multitudinous influences. She grew up in Rijeka, in what was then Yugoslavia, listening to her family sing and play music. Her older sister prodded her to sing, as the girls heard music from Italian pop to American rock to Yugoslav hits pouring through the radio. Her native region had switched empires and then countries several times, though its seafaring folk remained staunchly committed to their mixed identity and dialect.
As an adult, Kuljanic expanded her connection to her family’s home island, Cres. She founded a jazz festival there, meeting local artists and artisans like Vesna Jakic who created the felt dress Kuljanic wears on the album cover, made from island wool.
She explored Cres musically as well. One night, she gathered her parents, her aunt, and her talented cousin around a kitchen table and launched on an epic song sharing session. She was shocked at the striking diversity of language, scales, and other elements she discovered as her relatives belted out song after song, like “Oj vi mlade,” which Kuljanic arranged with a reggae sway. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’ They said, ‘This is what we used to sing! this is it, this is ours!’ Yet the songs were all so different and so mixed. Their island identity is strong, but they embrace other influences as their own.”
Kuljanic found herself taking a similar tack, though by way of Italy and America. Trained as a chemical engineer, Kuljanic decided after college she had to pursue her first passion, music and song. She started bands with friends on the Zagreb scene, including Mildreds, a gentle and folky acoustic group that cut two albums together. But Kuljanic longed for a more formal education in music, which took her first to the Trieste Conservatory, the only music school in her area offering jazz, and eventually to New York, to the Manhattan School of Music.
Jazz is only part of Kuljanic’s creative 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.”
Kuljanic’s band does find a common sonic thread to tie the variety together, built on close musical friendships. She has on ongoing duo project with bassist Mat Muntz, an expansion of an Ableton Live-powered electronic set that later turned acoustic. Their engaging musical conversation transforms “Portrait,” “The Very Thought of You,” and “Wild is the Wind.”
She studied Brazilian music and percussion with Rogerio Boccato, professor at the Manhattan School of Music and master percussionist. “I finally worked up the nerve to ask him to play with me for my final recital,” Kuljanic recalls. “We had such a great time, we’ve collaborated ever since,” on songs like Edu Lobo’s “Upa Neguinho.” Boccato’s playing also propels the grooves Kuljanic brought to another lusty Cres song, “Divojčice Rožice.”
To complete her unconventional take on the jazz trio, Kuljanic decided to replace the piano with a more mobile and distinctive accordion, just as she had 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.
They played together frequently, in this and other permutations, and Kuljanic loved that energy. She wanted to keep it alive in the studio. Many of the tracks on the album were recorded in the heat of a single day, with all their organic vigor and rough edges. “I didn’t want things too polished,” she muses. “These are song we play all the time,” and she wanted to keep the immediacy.
Kuljanic has harnessed this immediacy to speak across boundaries difficult to cross back home, but more permeable in New York, while bringing Croatian tradition to a non-Croatian audience. “Everything about this band and album represents the symbolic path I’ve taken from Croatia to New York, to explore the music of the world while staying connected to the place from which I embarked,” Kuljanic reflects. “I know every stone, tree, and shell in that bay. That the destination of this journey will be Carnegie Hall is something I never dreamed possible when I was leaving Croatia. It’s such an honor to get to share Cres’ treasures, Croatian culture, and the many other sounds I’ve made my own along the way.”