Croatian-born jazz vocalist Astrid Kuljanic has kept a foot planted firmly in her homeland since plunging into the New York City scene in 2013, but it was her discovery of an Old World oasis in the midst of Astoria, Queens, that allowed her imagination to take flight.
A recent transplant to Berkeley, where her husband, bassist Mat Muntz, is enrolled in a graduate music program, Kuljanic makes her Bay Area debut Saturday at the Red Poppy Art House with her Transatlantic Exploration Company, and the music she presents largely took shape during a weekly gig at a Croatian bar in Astoria.
It was an unlikely setting for an experimental-minded jazz combo eager to hone an unusual combination of styles and instrumentation, but she kept the regulars happy by responding to pleas for songs associated with the country in which she was born in the cusp of its destruction.
“We’d get requests for popular music, songs they’d remember from growing up there,” Kuljanic said in a recent phone conversation. “I had a lot of veto power, but if people came up with good ideas we’d give it a try.”
The gig ran for several months in 2015, and gave Kuljanic the opportunity to hone a quartet featuring Muntz on bass and primorski meh (bagpipes from the island of Cres), Ben Rosenblum on accordion, and São Paulo-born Rogerio Boccato on Brazilian percussion. For Saturday’s concert, Transatlantic Exploration is a company of three, featuring Muntz and Rosenblum (though Boccato happens to be in town, performing Saturday with Brazilian vocal star Luciana Souza at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall).
“We imagined taking this idea of jazz vocals plus rhythm section, but doing it with accordion and Brazilian percussion, and the aesthetic came out of the instrumentation,” Muntz said. “It’s pretty eclectic. Astrid’s originals, jazz standards, traditional and popular music from the Balkans, Brazilian standards and even a song in Italian.”
“There was always a lot of improvisation,” Kuljanic added. “We all come from that background. We wouldn’t cover a song if we couldn’t make it our own. We had arrangements with clear ideas, but a lot of space for improvising.”
It was the freedom of improvising that first attracted Kuljanic to jazz. She grew up in a highly musical family in Rijeka, a Croatian port city on the Adriatic. Music was woven into everyday life, and if someone didn’t pull out an accordion at a celebration, well, it just wasn’t a party.
“When Mat and I had a wedding party in Seattle, where he’s from, I asked what will his family be singing,” she recalled with a laugh. “I was surprised when he said, ‘No, no, no. We don’t do that here.’”
Kuljanic played violin and studied classical music throughout grade school, and joined just about every ensemble she could. She wanted to pursue music in college but, at her parents’ urging, ended up taking a path with a better shot at financial stability, studying chemical engineering. But attending college in Zagreb gave her a chance to check out a lot more live music. Intrigued by jazz, she started searching out any opportunities to connect with touring musicians.
“There would be random workshops,” she said. “Somebody would come play a festival and do a workshop, and I’d go to every one.”
She experienced an epiphany during a week-long residency with tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, a New York free-jazz icon who played streetcorners for decades before earning renown in the 1990s. She’d never experienced anything like it, and “it was life-changing. Learning about free improvised music was a whole new concept,” she said.
Gayle encouraged her to come to New York to study with him, and she ended up enrolled at Manhattan School of Music, where she met Muntz. Rosenblum, a brilliant young composer and pianist, was studying nearby at Columbia University and The Juilliard School.
Her transition to the New York scene was eased by the network of connections she’d developed as the founder and director of a jazz festival on the Adriatic island of Cres, where her parents grew up. Launched in 2008 with a few local musicians, CREScendo Music Festival gradually grew and expanded to include an international cast of artists and site-specific outdoor concerts in settings with glorious views.
“There was only a tiny classical festival happening throughout the summer, and I was starting to perform at different festivals around the region,” she said. “Why not on the island, with its huge summer tourist season? I went to see this concert at a beautiful open-air cinema. It’s got this huge stage. No one is doing shows there. I got curious.”
By the time she had to shut it down in 2020 due to the pandemic, she’d been booking it from New York for years, and Transatlantic Exploration Company had earned an avid following with a series of performances.
But the band’s encompassing concept, ranging across continents and weaving together far-flung cultural currents, “developed from those Astoria gigs,” Muntz said.