Jazzkaar Journal: Dianne Reeves, George Duke and Tallinn Shine
April 28-30, 2010
Tallinn is a charming city of approximately 400,000 of whom each seemed to show some beautiful soul during the final week of a jazz appreciation month in which the twenty-one year old Jazzkaar Festival has remained a catalyst for countless positive rhythms. While the namesake "Jaskar" was a traditional Estonian folk party, the present day scene is a 21st century gala with medieval trappings. In 2011 Tallinn will be a designated European "Culture Capital" and if days at Jazzkaar are any indication of Tallinn's ability to provide hospitality and entertainment on a major scale, the Estonian capital is more than ready to impress a global audience.
Most of the shows took place in either the large or small hall of the stately, ornate Russian Cultural Center which borders Tallinn's wonderful Old Town area. On the other end of town, Rock Cafe hosted a couple of major spots and with additional jazz venues like Clazz and Theatre NO99 there was a nice balance between classic and current.
Settled from around 8,000 to 3,000 BC, Tallinn has been kicked around or occupied by it's larger and more aggressive neighbors for most of its history. People are engagingly modest but justifiably proud of their homeland. Estonians weathered many cruel regimes, but never lost their sense of artistic priorities. Observing either the wonderfully time-warped Old Town, fresh new premises, or all grounds in between, Tallinn shows craftsmanship and creativity.
As a result there are widely ranging examples of many cultural styles and philosophies. "We don't take a side on all of the past," reflects Jaak Sooaar, Board Chairman of the Estonian Jazz Union and a local musician, teacher and historian. "We just try to tell the whole story."
In a nutshell, that is also an appropriate summary of what played this year at Jazzkaar. As in music as in life, the quality of the people involved made Tallinn a uniquely varied blast.
For the ultimate week leading to May Day, jazz music was everywhere. Augmenting the distinctly diverse program were streets of horns and harmony. Above busy trolley lines, trumpet trios were visible through the shaded opaques of elevated, executive style jazz terraces. Around the bend, sax and folk guitar mixed in one of the many subterranean "baars." Amidst village cobblestones a slick jacketed student played very decent clarinet in front of his partner who juggled large, flaming firesticks.
Meanwhile, in temporary temples of tonal treats, Jaazkaar audiences bellowed like Baltic bears for classic and progressive trends alike.
Queen Dianne and her Cousin the Duke
For her part the festival, impeccable headlining singer Reeves brought along an all-star quartet of familiar friends who hit a level rarely matched by any other performers outside Duke's outfit. Peter Martin on piano and guitarist Romero Lubambo led the way through Reeve's latest repertoire while bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Terreon Gully paved a foundation that was as solid as the Old Town pavement. A few registers in a few ballads sounded too thick, but mostly the bottom lines thumped like precision metric machines during 45 minute halves of their show on Wednesday the 28th at the Russian Cultural Center.
After each band member got to warm up with a brief solo during introductory jams, Reeves waltzed out and gave the 900 or so fans in attendance the standards they came for, opening with "Old Soul" and "Twelfth of Never." At first it felt as if the band might just be going through the motions, but the fancy crowd loved them anyway.
The soul train got on track. Lubambo added Spanish stylings to a duet version of "I'm in Love Again" and Reeves started to look vibrant as the band locked in. The whole express was rolling for "Do I Move You?" and the whole yelling crowd jumped on board.
"When I'm up here with these guys I feel like I'm in heaven," beamed Reeves, looking like she meant it. When Reeves offered anecdotes about her mother before the upbeat tribute "Today Will Be a Good Day," there was insight to how an artist can get into their rehearsed and repeated material sincerely, night after night.
During intermission the Elion Jazz Awards were presented, with Raivo Tafenau (musician), Boris Paršin (jazz educator) and Peedu Kass (young talent) garnishing the hardware.
After the break, Reeves and company shifted into high gear with the great, crowd-grabbing gimmick of scat-calling the band back one by one for "Our Love is Here to Stay." Reeves paced herself perfectly and peaked as she ended on virtual high notes and even screams with "Social Call" and "Misty." Emotion cascaded in chords from "The Windmills of Your Mind" and with it a guitar solo that earned Lubambo MVP honors for the evening.
Then came a rare, precious moment.
Every once in a while, sometimes on full moon nights like tonight, all the notes are perfect. You get an ecstasy for the ear that makes it clear why one follows the jazz scene. One of those freeze frames came as Reeves closed with her rousing, relatively new anthem "When You Know" and brought down the house, hard but happy. Reeves belted out medium-high notes with majestic inflection while the band nailed a descending refrain, but what made it special was the rocking crowd, many in formal attire. The piano duet encore was mainly an afterglow for the adoring customers, who roared in appreciation and bought up every post concert Reeves CD available.
"The people who support this music are just as important as the people who play it," said Reeves. From her efforts tonight, it truly looked like Reeves meant that, too.
Stages were set for performance precision earlier in the evening as local princess- to-be Kadri Voorand and The Netherlands' cheerfully chugging Ploctones warmed up squeezed-in, standing room crowds at the RCC. The early acts played wildly different sets on different floors of the building, but each reached an elevated level as well-received, offbeat counter-balances to Reeves' straight ahead approach.
The Ploctones are led by guitarist Anton Goudsmit, a brainy, zany type who would appear to have a built in fan base around the spacier extremes of his homeland. Goudsmit coaxed his hollow body Gretsch into a variety of switching, stretched chords while the rest of the band (Efrain Trujillo/sax, Martin Vink/drums, Joroen Viertag/bass) kept up with a knowing flourish.
"This is the most beautiful place we've played," said Goudsmit staring into the double balconies. The Ploctones launched into the type of flailing fusion that they promote as a puree of punk to pop. Close enough. Under phrases that screeched to a halt then switched directions drastically, bluegrass blues rose indeed. On "Shortcuts" the intensity between guitar and sax had the crowd yelling in approval. The subtle, searching tones of Bill Evans's "Time Remembered" were perfect for drifting away to the nearby coastline, while "Pig's Eye," a penis homage, brought the set to a loud, pun-intended head.
Voorand showed she may just be a break or two from breaking out into the global market. On Echo of a Feeling (Sheikid, 2009) Voorand demonstrated an advanced vocal and songwriting ability along the lines of classic ballads or swing. On her CD cover Voorand looked almost too youthful for the depth of her compositions and delivery. Tonight, seated between bassist Taavo Remmel and guitarist Virgo Sillamaa, Voorand took a different tack with her "You and Me" project, based on a collection of Estonian poetry. Voorand's interpretations ranged from whispers, jests and romantic murmurs to smooth, intimate storytelling. Voorand explained singing subtexts from stimulus like "the color of August is like apple." Even untranslated language was clear.
"My music has always been more about harmonies," said Voorand after her show. "There was much more freedom tonight because we had open moments where we didn't know what to do. I wanted a concert about the words. As a musician I was very pleased it was welcomed so warmly."
Voorand admitted her own uncertainty as to what response the low-key format would elicit from a consumer base known for partying, but her light, expressive persona, singing range and literary loops paid off. Voorand explored some of the scatland Reeves would later map out, and had the audience giggling one moment then applauding boisterously the next. Less than two hundred patrons could sardine themselves into the small hall designated for Voorand, who later said she was surprised at the turnout for a poetry theme. The charming Voorand doesn't need to be modest. Big talent deserves a big hall. Keep your eye out for this lady.
Funky fusion took front and center the next night, as George Duke turned the already cozy Rock Cafe into a steaming, sweaty playhouse of grooves. The revamped industrial space was crammed with around 500 revelers who might have been too much for US Fire Marshalls but just fine with the well lubricated masses who were ready to get down.
"Some of you know what we do, and some of you don't," Duke grinned to the crowd, a wide-ranging mix of ages, "What we do is everything!"
Duke and his band, including smooth backing singers Shannon Pearson and Lamont Vanhook, tore through extended medley-based jams for an American songbook from the '60s through tomorrow that backed up Duke's assessment. "Oh, Oh" from Duke's collaborations with Stanley Clarke hooked the first five rows of people that were pressed against the stage into a dance party, and the group never slowed down after that until they had worked up everybody in the place.
George Duke Band
After rolling into a fifteen minute instrumental of old school fusion and heavy techno-funk Duke connected some personal mileposts ranging from his highest charting, early '80s hit "Sweet Baby," to current releases like "Everyday Hero" and "I tried to Tell Ya." The audience reacted like every tune was a family favorite, and the band fed off that energy. Around a third of the set featured vocals. The swarm sang along to most of them.
Upright master Michael Manson, who has been with Duke for a variety of genres, slapped his electric bass silly, while Jef Lee Johnson kept his guitar feedback tuned to the key of Zappa most of the time. Gorden Campbell was a true force behind the drums and Andrew Papastephanou backed up Duke on keys without interfering with the star. The sound in the granite cavern type venue wasn't the clearest to be heard, but for heart pumping beats it wasn't bad at all. Duke's nearly two-hour set was a feel good affair, and the jumping, posing floor clearly got the feeling as dozens swayed en masse.
By the 90-minute mark some fans started to drift outside for a smoke or ride home but most stayed in the sauna-like scene. That gave people more room to dance, and when Duke hit his synthesizer effects board many free spirits bopped into individual motions that made Duke appear like a master of marionettes. It was almost 2am and the trains had stopped running. No matter. Duke and his band were bringing everybody home.
All the stops were pulled out and the high priests of all-powerful nasty invoked when Duke single-key surfed into hearty samples of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone during a huge "I Want To Take You Higher" finale. Admirable heights were scaled. If all ambassadors were as effective as George Duke the world would be a much more danceable place. Some Estonians polled indicated they didn't know anything about the USA except regarding the music and the military. Draw your own conclusions.
Gigs and Digs
Most performers at Jazzkaar may not be international stars,but that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of world class talent on display. The duo of Korea's impressive, challenging vocalist Youn Sun Nah and extraordinary Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius offered a wildly original set of acoustic scorchers. Wakenius riffed poignantly while Youn Sun Nah covered Bossa Nova scat and inflections from Tania Maria to Yoko Ono. It came as close to performance art as to mainstream jazz.
During Nat King Cole's "Calypso Blues," Youn Sun Nah hypnotized the crowd with hand gestures as if she were literally throwing her special effects style voice from a whisper to a howl around the stage, illustrating why she was chosen '09's winner of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. She can even breathe in amazing tones. As the intensely beaming Youn Sun Nah drew appreciative murmers from the audience the understated but still powerful Wakenius maintained a nice balance with crystal clear picking. Covers of "My Favorite Things" and a fine "Don't Go Away From Me" in flawless French added another dimension to standard catalogues. Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon" could be the type of trademark calling card to gain this well-matched duo major recognition.
Youn Sun Nah (left) and Ulf Wakenius (right)
Facial expression played a key role in many Jazzkaar performances, and the Russian Cultural Center was a proper venue for that, with excellent sightlines from every ticketed viewing point. Murals of fiery Russian sea battles adorned the lobby areas, accented by detailed architecture and museum worthy busts of past administrators and officers. An engraved plaster hammer and sickle still adorned the stage. A progressing, time-lapsed video collage of the venue and audience introduced each group, while similar but distinct background footage added a sense of evolving continuance to the acts.
The videos also played well over in Rock Cafe, with other strobe lit flashes of enhancement that continued Jaazkaar related imagery but also illuminated the almost polar opposites of festival venues. The Russian Cultural Center had brightly painted, creamy walls and detailed curved stairway columns. Rock Cafe had dark, weathered bricks, beat up memorabilia, and multi-stained facilities. Each place had tons of personality, and rotated shows were a fun filled double-feature.
Jazztronik is Japanese trumpeter/DJ/producer Shigeru Terauchi's funky house conglomerate and Rock Cafe was a good fit as the house. Jazztronik faced the formidable task of playing funk in the same setting George Duke had lit up the night before, and they didn't dishonor themselves.
With the singularly named vocalist Eliana, keyboardist Ryota Nozaki, bassist Ichiro Fujiya and drummer Masanori Amakura, Jazztronik began in a frenzy that took a few moments to catch on but soon got into a rapid fire groove. The crowd of around 350 liked mutant styled effects on the keys and horn but alternately responded most to doses of frantic fusion or plain old formal piano chords.
Jazztronik could handle soul or traditional quartet charts but they were at their best when pushing boundaries. Hard bop segued into Bossa Nova as the band got the crowd thrashing.
The Nils Wogram Nostalgia Trio showed how well their concept of trombone, Hammond B3 and drums can work. Some of their show at RCC was hit and miss but as many good scientists know, not every experiment yields flawless results. Wogram is definitely on to something. As a single segment, the song "Affinity" was as strong as anything to be heard. If you like the Hammond organ this was your show.
Touted bass prospect Peedu Kass delivered a strong set with his 005 quintet. Sometimes when almost everybody is trying to find a new direction the sounds can get strained. In sticking to a standard form for his small hall appearance, Kass pulled a nice, unusual move and provided a welcome escape from too much innovation overload. Kass didn't try to be too pushy, he just did his job, very well.
Clazz, a music club/restaurant that lives up to its name, had jam sessions many nights if you could find any open ground. Maybe beautiful, dark haired waitresses in skin tight silk had something to do with the tables being full of rowdy chaps, but at least they paid attention to the music. Theatre NO99, a brightly decorated underground jazz hive adjacent to opera and symphony halls, held an intimately packed overflow house for Sweden's Marti Tarn Group with Nils Berg, a little gem of a set that seasoned observers listed among the festival's nicest surprises.
Among other favorites in a program very strong on unusual vocals were Finland's a capella group Party of Five, who had one of the most well attended, enthusiastically received shows of the series. Their instrumental imitations on Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" was so remarkable one could be forgiven for insisting they must have swallowed magic reeds. Even if a cappella isn't your cup of Tallinn tea, the performance was enjoyable.
Further vocal kudos went out to unique Swedish lyricist Lina Nyberg, who explained to the audience that she would be presenting relatively new works featuring songs based on names. Songs like "Claude," "Alice" and "Cinderella" showed how far out the theatrical Nyberg is as a singer/songwriter, and she did a good job of taking listeners along for the ride.
Maybe the most impressive thing among many high points of this year's Jazzkaar was the creative range of female vocalists involved. Reeves certainly delivered. The other girls did too. Ma Tallinn should be proud.
2011 and Beyond
Jazzkaar currently runs annually in April. After starting up as a Fall festival in economically difficult times, durability has been a virtue. Jazzkaar consistently offered good quality and an awareness of diverse aesthetics and ethnicity. In response the community has grown as a consumer base reaching a ticket level of 25,000 sold. With the crucial support of Estonian cultural funding and sponsors like Elion, Tallinn 2011, Sokos Hotel Viru and Estonian Air both art and business can thrive.
Nils Wogram Nostalgio Trio
Artistic Director Anne Erm has been a driving force behind Jazzkaar since 1991 and keeps the fires going as a producer of Estonian jazz radio. The dynamic Ms. Erm, along with ultra-efficient journalist sweetheart Madli-Liis Parts, among others, coordinated a fantastic festival that continued to earn its growing reputation. "With my background as a singer and composer I have to feel the music on a personal level to invite someone," explained Erm. "It's always risky. The audience wants something new, but they have to know someone enough to buy tickets." Almost anyone who experiences Jazzkaar finds a bounty of pleasurable reasons to return. British tourists have already discovered Tallinn's comparatively cost effective benefits. Stag parties are an industry told by many "gentleman's clubs." One has to wish Estonian tourism the best but also hope a growing rush doesn't lead to an overload of tourist buffoons. For now, class still shows in most quarters.
As Dianne Reeves noted with repeated gratitude, Skype was invented in Estonia. Nowadays, that kind of calling card catch phrase could open the door to an international flood of visitors. The 2011 Culture Capital festivities could mark a bright spot in Estonia's free history. Anne Erm and her team intend to make the most of the spotlight opportunity next year offers. "We are preparing a very special program of unique collaborations, both Estonians and others, to build bridges," said Erm. If 2010 was a final test run, 2011 looks very promising.
It will still be a few months before the "Culture Capital" wave hits or misses Tallinn's Old Town squares. The citizens' smiles and the sounds of new jazz already set a tone for the city and the era. It was fitting that on its most prominent nights, Jazzkaar 2010 was a global assembly. For at least a little while, in a timeless Baltic night, Tallinn was already a capital in the world of jazz.
Page 1: Ruth Sotnik
Page 2: Heiti Kruusmaa
Page 3: Mari Kadanik
Page 4, Jazztronik: Ruth Sotnik
Page 4, Nils Wogram Nostalgia Trio: Heiti Kruusma