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Estonian Jazz and the Avant-Garde: Far-out in the Baltics


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Estonia is a land of music. Its runic folk song tradition predates the Vikings and its people lift their voices at the slightest provocation. Not surprising, then, that Soviet rule was finally ended in 1991 by the bloodless Singing Revolution —a cycle of mass demonstrations in which a fifth of the population gathered to sing national songs. It's also not surprising that there's now a burgeoning —and very healthy —jazz scene in Estonia, centred around the Jazzkaar international festival, held every spring in the capital Tallinn. Jazzkaar —now in its 16th year —remains the focal point of the Estonian scene, when all of Tallinn comes alive with a vast variety of jazz, from mainstream to avant-garde: the full 'jazz arc' described in the festival's name.

A key musician and scene-maker in Talinn is Jaak Sooaar: guitarist, composer, leading figure in the Estonian avant-garde and jazz community, and one half —along with German saxophonist, Daniel Erdmann -of self-styled "free happy jazz duo, Erdmann/Sooaar Dessert Time. He's convinced that Estonia's history and close geographical proximity to Western Europe have helped to foster the independent and unique mindset that's helping to get this scene off the ground. "Estonia was different from the rest of the Soviet Union. We always knew what was happening in the world because we saw Finnish TV. There were some things which you were allowed to do here, like have long hair, which you couldn't do if you lived in St Petersburg —they would take you to the police station and cut your hair.

It was a relative freedom that made Estonia naturally receptive to the avant-garde, and created a fertile ground that the most exploratory international musicians were happy to take advantage of when the Soviets finally left. Sooaar explains: "The avant-garde players were looking for new possibilities. In the '90s when we first had opportunities to play here they were the first guys to come over because they were not afraid and they didn't want too much money. In the first festival here, Steve Lacy played solo in a big hall, packed. Leroy Jenkins played solo violin. They played for maybe a thousand people. It was new and interesting and those guys came because they were searching.

This searching nature has persisted in Estonia, upheld by local musicians who insist on pushing the boundaries and mixing genres. A fine example is the Weekend Guitar Trio, an award-winning jazz/ambient/Improv group, which has worked with UK free-jazz/DJ duo, Spring Heel Jack, and which features a local legend by the name of Mart Soo.

Soo taught guitar at the Music College in Tallinn for some years (ex-pupils include Jaak Sooaar) and was previously part of a now-legendary Estonian free-Improv group called Tunnetusuksus ('Perception Unit'), which remains an inspiration to many younger Estonian musicians. In fact, Sooaar claims that today Estonia is "a guitar country because of Soo's influence, in much the same way that Lithuania is full of saxophonists because of the educating work of Vladimir Chesakin of the Ganelin Trio. In 2005 Soo played at Jazzkaar as part of a local trio backing the veteran French improviser and composer Jacques Di Donato in a wild and energising set of free-funk-rock that blew the cobwebs away and proved that this small country is producing some of the most exciting Improv around.

However, in keeping with the theme of the 'jazz arc' that is so important to Jazzkaar's conception of jazz, Estonia is also producing some more mainstream, though still exciting, acts —with particular inclinations towards female vocals. Tallinn-based Hinkus are an R'n'B influenced outfit that wouldn't sound out of place in a London club, while Sofia Rubina is an astonishing 18-year old singer, amazing international audiences with a repertoire that brings in elements of klezmer and gypsy music.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's also a very strong affinity for experimental electronic music in Estonia —to a certain degree influenced by nearby Scandinavian electro-jazz groups such as Supersilent and Wibutee. Tonis Leemets of Weekend Guitar Trio (and another ex-pupil of Mart Soo) explains the prevalence of genre-defying hybrids in Estonian electronic music: "When DJ culture came to Estonia in the 90s, it was such a small scene and such a new thing that everybody was listening to everything. You could have drum and bass, house, hip hop and jazz at one party. We couldn't afford separate clubs and different scenes for that. We were hearing everything and getting influences. For over a decade, Leemets has been turning these influences into something else, helping to create some of the most innovative electronic music happening anywhere, not just with the Weekend Guitar Trio, but also with his now defunct group Treee.

However, probably the most influential and original of Estonian electronic outfits is Kismabande, a group notorious in Estonia for never sounding the same twice, and who performed a sizzling, abstract set of futuristic electronica at Jazzkaar 2005. The group is led by Aivar Tonso, an outstanding figure on the Estonian electronic music scene since the early 1990s and head of the avant-garde record label Ulmeplaadid —an unlikely favourite of the late British DJ and champion of the alternative, John Peel.

With Jazzkaar showing no signs of slowing down, and the scene in Tallinn bubbling up in ever-more effervescent combinations, the future looks bright for Estonian jazz. Recently, Jaak Sooaar has founded the Estonian Jazz Federation, modelled after Scandinavian equivalents —organisations pledged to furthering the cause of local jazz -and also set up a jazz club in Tallinn, both of which endeavours are going a long way towards crystallising a still-embryonic scene. Sooaar's not resting there, though. Future plans include making a record with The Estonian Guitar Octet and a series of concerts bringing jazz heads together with contemporary classical musicians. Throw into the pot the invigorating presence of European Improv and Scandinavian electronica, not to mention traditional Estonian folk forms, and this tiny Baltic state looks set to produce something truly fresh and exciting.

A musical revolution, indeed.

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