Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 7-8
In the meantime, while Henriksen and Isungset were working on their unorthodox instruments, American saxophonist Dave Liebmandubbed "Jazz Ambassador" by the festivalwas doing a little outreach of his own. The saxophonist was brought to Estonia to conduct, amongst other things, a three-day workshop at the city's music conservatory, as well as put on a performance at Tallinn's Vene Kultuurikeskus, an opulent theatre seating nearly one thousand people. Liebman's quintet was put together by guitarist Jak Sooäär, a mover and shaker on the Estonian scene who is more often heard in rock-edged free improvisations, including his latest release, Karate (Leo, 2011), where the guitarist's trio is augmented by Russian saxophonist Alexey Kruglov.
From left: Jaak Sooäär, Dave Liebman, Mihkel Mälgand, Tanel Ruben
Missing: Kristjan Randalu (piano)
For this performanceand the following evening's repeat at the Kontsertimaja in Jõhvi, about 100 miles from TallinnSooäär recruited Krisjan Randalu, an Estonian pianist already making an international name for himself, recently described, by New York-based, Italian expat saxophonist Matteo Sabattini, as "the only pianist I know who can play my charts." Randalu studied in New York at the Manhattan School of Music, and was this year's recipient of the Estonian Elion Jazz Talent Award, presented prior to the Liebman group hitting the stage, along with 21 year-old pianist Joel Remmel, who was deservingly awarded the Young Jazz Talent Award.
Sooäär also enlisted his own trio's drummer, Tanel Ruben, as well as bassist Mihkel Mälgand, and selected all the material for the 90-minute show from across Liebman's vast repertoire, going as far back as "Loft Dance," from Drum Ode (ECM, 1975), to more recent material, like the title track to Negative Space (Verve, 2008) and "Fuschia," from the saxophonist's recent duet record with pianist Jean-Marie Machado, Eternal Moments (Bee Jazz, 2010).
As would be expected from Liebman, it was a smoking set and, while it would be impossible for this groupput together on the relative quickto approach the kind of empathic work of the saxophonist's longstanding quartet with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko, there were plenty of strong moments from the group, in particular Randalu, whose ability to think out of the box made him a tremendous accompanist and even more compelling soloist, especially on the fiery "Loft Dance." Sooäär clearly has plenty of chops, but his performance was marred slightly by his toneoverdriven but, at times, a tad thin. He demonstrated no shortage of ability to navigate changes and build solos with dramatic peaks, but could stand to learn a lesson from Liebman about the value of space: the saxophonist has long possessed a reputation for fierce expressionism, but even when the temperature was at the boiling point, and the entire group was kicking hard, he never failed to let his playing breathe, making sure that melody always had a place.
Liebman introduced most tunes, providing insight for an Estonian audience not, perhaps, familiar with the New York scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in particular the loft scene from which "Loft Dance" got its name, where Liebman and a wealth of other up-and-comers like Bob Berg, Michael Brecker and Steve Grossman cut their teeth. He introduced the set-closer, an incendiary version of John Coltrane's classic "India," as being written ..."before The Beatles went to India, and before 'world music,' back when we were just 'interested,'" he quipped. Starting on wooden flute, with Randalu strumming, harp-like, inside the box, the song really took off when Mälgan and Ruben came in alongside Sooäär's pumping power chord rework of the song's fourths-driven changes. It was a powerful ending to a set that was enthusiastically received by the capacity crowd, who cheered even louder when the group returned for an encore that was based on a traditional Estonian folk tune.
The following eveningand at the same venuecontinued the theme of providing an even younger group of musicians the opportunity to hone their craft, as the European Jazz Orchestra took to the stage for two sets of compelling and contemporary big band music, written by its Finnish conductor, Jere Laukkanen, and Estonia's own Raul Sööt. The EJO is an annual project, funded by a number of countries, where musicians from across the continent are brought together for some intensive rehearsal, culminating in a 15-date tour, with the final two stops in the two cities designated as European Capital of Culture for 2011: Tallinn, of course; and Turku, Finland.
The 17-piece orchestra featured musicians from Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Austria, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Scotland, Sweden, Slovenia, France, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland...and one non-European, Canadian trumpeter Simon Millerd. Amongst the many new namesnames which, based on their performances in Tallinn, deserve to become better-known, and soonwere a few familiar faces. Pianist Pablo Held, from Germany, already has three release as a leader on Pirouet, including the recently-released Glow (2011), while British-born/Norwegian-based trumpeter Hayden Powell is a member of Magic Pocket, who delivered a terrific performance with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra at the 2010Molde Jazz Festival. But the biggest applause, from this Estonian audience, was reserved for bassist Peedu Kass, winner of the 2010 Elion Young Jazz Talent Award. The bassist's opening solo at near the end of the second set, on "The Icebreaker's Son," was a folk-tinged combination of near-strummed pizzicato and soaring arco that proved Kass was as strong a contender on double-bass as he was, elsewhere in the set, on electric.
The material covered a lot of ground stylistically, and gave everyone in the group at least one chance in the spotlight, with the soloists coming, for the most part, to a microphone at the front of the stage. But the best fun was saved for the encore, a song that moved between funk and a faster groove, where groups of players came to the front for some heated trade-offs. One of the best was from trombonists Vid Žgajner (Slovenia) and Patrick Kenny (Britain), embodying a perfect combination of friendly competition and clear appreciation/respect. In fact, there was a lot of friendly bantermusical and otherwisegoing on throughout the entire show, making it clear that participation in EJO was a bonding experience for the young players. It will come as no surprise, as these players' careers kick into higher gear, to find some of them collaborating outside EJO in future.
With three more days left in Jazzkaar 2011, it was sadly time to move onnext stop: Bremen, Germany, for Jazzahead, a jazz trade show featuring artists and industry folks from across the continent, and two intense days of networking and showcases. But it couldn't have been a better year to pick for a first visit to Estonia: between the programming of Jazzkaarwhere the emphasis was heavily on the music of its own artists, even though the final stretch would feature bigger names like Bobby McFerrin and Richard Bonaand a sampling of some of the other programming scheduled for the rest of the year, it's clear that Tallinn 2011 may be inherently smaller than some of the larger Capitals of Culture of previous years, but that has, in no way, dwarfed the creative spirit and imaginative thinking that comes from a culture centuries old, but being interpreted and presented in an absolutely 21st century fashion.
All Photos: John Kelman