CROATIA: Pop - Tihomir 'Pop' Asanovic
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
This album of vibrant jazz fusion from the former Yugoslavia impresses with its gusto and energy
The jazz rock stylings of Croatian keyboardist Tihomir Asanovic are not necessarily what one would expect to come out of what was then communist Yugoslavia, but nonetheless Asanovic’s album Pop is a supremely entertaining and interesting take on jazz, funk and everything in between. It was somewhat surprising to me that an album like this was made in a communist state, considering just how Western it is in its style and influences and how anti-Western many communist countries were. Music of those countries in that era, to me at least, was Soviet classical music like Dmitri Shostakovich or Aran Khachaturian, or some really rubbish East German pop I’d heard while researching an essay on Good Bye Lenin! for university. However, as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement – a grouping of nations that refused to ally with or against any of the world’s powers – Yugoslavian culture was able to be far more receptive and open to Western music than the Eastern Bloc countries and Russia, for example. This would explain why Pop sounds so authentic; Asanovic and his compatriots would have had relatively free and easy access to such music, a liberty many others in communist nations would not have had.
“Asanovic’s technical skill and ability, along with his knack for writing catchy yet complex jazz pieces make for an absurdly fun listening experience.”
The album itself spans several genres, mixing and matching various popular forms of ‘70s music. The opening track, Mali Crni Brat, has classic R&B-style vocals to it and a pop sensibility, while Skakavac, for instance, has a very funky beat to it, sounding similar (though not too similar) to the funk classic Machine Gun by The Commodores. Plejboj takes on some Latin influences, with a saxophone solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a bossa nova record. Asanovic clearly had listened widely, and sought to incorporate all those genres into a jazz rock pop fusion record. It can all sound very muddled on paper, but Asanovic’s technical skill and ability, along with his knack for writing catchy yet complex jazz pieces make for an absurdly fun listening experience. This is encapsulated best on my favourite track on the album, Expres Novi Sad. The song, named after the train to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, takes you on a journey from frantic drums at the start, to the fast-paced and funky bass that follows and the frenetic Hammond organ playing and saxophone interludes that make you feel like you are in a smokey, dingy jazz club, watching some masters play their instruments to perfection. Though I have no way of knowing, I suspect that some of it may have been improvised in the studio, because it captures that free-wheeling jazz energy that has come to define the genre. Equally, if it was all planned to the last note, it deserves praise, as it is a brilliantly upbeat, rhythmically unusual piece of music. The album is also just over half an hour in length – it does not overstay its welcome one bit.
If I had to criticise it, and I suppose I have to, considering this is a review, I would say that it rarely wowed me. Expres Novi Sad aside, there were few moments where I felt truly awed by the music. It is highly enjoyable and interesting, but it does not hit the highs that some of the best jazz can. That said, maybe that isn’t so important. The fact is, it does what it sets out to do very well, and it succeeds in that aim, even though it does not surpass expectations by doing more than that. In between the moments of inspiration, it is functional and workmanlike, but never boring or bad. Its consistency and entertainment value go a long way in making this a very fun album that I could easily stick on in the background or listen to actively, and if you’re looking for lively jazz fusion, you won’t go far wrong with this.