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Live Reviews

Jazzkaar Festival: International Jazz in Estonia

By Published: May 11, 2005

Friday's first big act takes the stage of the main hall in the early evening, as Sufi mysticism meets Mediterranean insouciance in the form of Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

From the outset, the most arresting - and loudest - element of this performance is Youssef's frankly astonishing voice: the ancient, dusty cry of the muezzin, liberated from the mosque and let loose on the jazz aesthetic, with an intensely powerful energy and reach that renders the microphone obsolete. By contrast, his playing of the oud - a Middle Eastern lute - is low-key and restrained, often supplying little more than the basic materials for a trance-like rhythmic zone, with clicks and slaps to the instrument's body electronically looped and augmented with plucked circular figures.

Paolo Fresu is well-known on the European jazz scene with fairly spotless avant-garde credentials, having played with luminaries such as Kenny Wheeler, Uri Caine and John Zorn. Tonight, he provides heavily processed trumpet and flugelhorn, sometimes sounding like a choir of distant machines, at other times, providing little more than an atmospheric background hum. However smoothly non-committal his approach initially seems, he does however have an interesting take on the old standard, "Nature Boy", that briefly sees his fingers flying on the valves.

Ultimately, though, as the duo guides us through a series of meandering soundscapes, the performance doesn't seem to amount to very much, lacks focus and remains oddly unmoving. What's more, one can't help feeling that the audience got left behind somewhere near the end of the very first number, as is made painfully obvious by a spectacularly misjudged attempt to get the crowd singing, which suffers terribly from comparison to Omar Sosa's heartfelt communion of the night before.

Then it's back to the lecture hall upstairs for a primer in 'free happy jazz' with Erdmann/Sooaar Dessert Time. German, Daniel Erdmann, on tenor sax and Estonian guitarist, Jaak Sooaar, together create a very European sound, expertly navigating a selection of short, precise and intricate pieces, packed with disjointed, almost unmusical figures that are, nevertheless, given substance by dint of being played in perfect unison. It creates a curious aural picture of a clockwork child locked in a xylophone factory at night, while at other times it sounds like Anthony Braxton jamming with the Magic Band's Zoot Horn Rollo.

Above all, it's a good-natured, humorous recitation, enhanced by some first-class playing: Sooaar's electric guitar is uncluttered, clean and precise, while Erdmann makes his horn work hard, often taking advantage of the space within the compositions to ascend to a kind of fluttering, toneless, windy sound, like a metal bird flapping its wings.

The duo is joined on stage for an improvised section by Estonian vocalist Anne-Liis Poll, who astonishes with an otherworldly vocalese: a gripping, forgotten language of shrieks, trills, grunts, coughs and epiglottal murmurings. It's enormous fun that only partially loses its way when Sooaar takes a bow to his guitar strings for a superfluous interlude of sawing.

Experimentation very satisfactorily dealt with, the show ends with a hilariously deadpan, restrained bossa nova encore that raises titters from all corners. It's as if Dessert Time have provided a comprehensive answer to Frank Zappa's old question of whether humour belongs in music. The answer: yes, but only when the music in question is this imaginative, captivating and entertaining.

Later, the action is hotting up in the main hall downstairs, for a late Friday night double-bill. Tallinn's kids are out to have some fun and the chairs and tables have been cleared away for dancing. So, you can understand how the majority of those present are utterly confounded by Estonian outfit Kismabande's sprawling, improvised, sci-fi electronica. Coming across visually like a bunch of web designers checking their emails live on stage, Kismabande lay out an intelligent, introspective, sizzling mix of sounds that for the first half an hour doesn't even include any discernible rhythm. So much for dancing. The mood picks up towards the end of the set with deep, lysergic bass ripples, but the audience can still only sit cross-legged and watch, for the most part bemused · though undeniably entertained.

The moment that Norway's Xploding Plastix come on stage, it seems to be more what the audience had in mind for a Friday night: big, club-friendly, block-rockin' beats with keyboards, samples and a real-time drummer. It's energetic and striving very hard to be epic but, in the final analysis, stacked up against some of the music that has come before, it's actually somewhat empty and tiresome.

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