Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3

Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-8

Punkt Festival in Tallinn / Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar
Jazzkaar Festival 2011
Tallinn, Estonia
April 20-22, 2011
It's one thing to visit a European country and marvel at the history that has been made in centuries past; it's another to arrive somewhere where the history was recent; yet another, still, to stay where that history was actually made. When the relatively small (current population: 1.3 million) country of Estonia gained its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, it was a time of massive change. Twenty years later, there are still plenty of reminders of the country's past, but, equally, there are signs, everywhere, of the results of free speech, free thinking and free expression.
But staying at the Sokos Hotel Viru, where "new" Tallinn meets "old" Tallinn, it's hard not to be reminded just how invasive the former Soviet Union was, not only in the lives of its inhabitants, but to those who came to visit, during the time of its regime. The hotel's elevators suggest that the building—Talinn's first skyscraper, built in 1972—has 22 floors, but there's a door, on the supposed top floor, clearly marked "no unauthorized personnel beyond this point." To the average person, that might simply suggest a laundry room, or some such facility for hotel staff. But, prior to 1991, that door led to stairs, climbing to a 23rd floor that was once home of the KGB, the infamous Soviet intelligence agency. The hotel was built to encourage tourism to the seaside Estonian capital, but the visitors were, in fact, under constant surveillance. Tourism may have been encouraged, as a means of economic stimulus, but it was considered essential that visitors to Tallinn be kept away from the locals, to prevent exchange of information and to ensure that visitors left with a vision of Estonia that was of the Soviet Union's construction, and not, in fact, the truth.

Sokos Hotel Viru, Tallinn's first skyscraper, on the cusp of Old and New Tallinn

The hotel was built by laborers, brought across the Baltic sea from neighboring Finland—the story, to provide a job opportunity to these poor, starving people; the truth, because they were more efficient, with superior tools and materials—but amidst the city's most beautiful hotel, with every possible amenity and service a visitor could want (there was even a recording studio), there was a separate and, at the time unknown, infrastructure of cameras and microphones. The story goes that one tourist, alone in his room, complained to himself that there was never any toilet paper in the room. Two minutes later, a knock on the door, and he was handed a roll. Like every room in Sokos Hotel Villa, there were hidden microphones being monitored by KGB staff on that "invisible" 23rd floor; staff who made a very quick exit, overnight, during one day in 1991, leaving the floor to become the KGB Museum, opened in January, 2011, as part of Tallinn 2011, the year where Estonian culture is celebrated as part of the European Union's annual choice of a city as a "European Capital of Culture."

Each year, one (sometimes two, occasionally three) cities across Europe are selected for the honor—an honor that the cities bid for (usually against other cities in their country). Winning the selection means a 12-month celebration, like that of Stavanger, Norway in 2008, and for Tallinn, it means 251 projects, ranging from theater and film to music and poetry. There are also celebrations of the country's history in other areas, such as architectural design and textiles, but the overall purpose of Tallinn, as 2011 European Capital of Culture, is to present a vibrant picture of the city, and the country: of its past, present and possible future.

Some of the events are expanded versions of existing ones, such as the Jazzkaar festival, now in its 22nd year. A festival that has always balanced a roster of international artists with the growing jazz community in Estonia, the 2011 edition has a number of vital things to offer, but most importantly its presentation of a two-day version of Norway's Punkt, the festival that has literally changed the way music can be heard and developed, through its premise of live remix: regular musical performances taking place in one room but, immediately after their conclusion, a second performance, in a parallel music space, where additional musicians take selected fragments from the first show as inspiration for a real-time remix that sometimes weighs heavily on its source music, but invariably goes somewhere altogether different. The remixes, true laboratories of musical experimentation, don't always succeed, but in their relentless risk-taking, are always worth experiencing.

But that's just one of "251 projects, that end up being something like seven thousand events, if we count every day of an exhibition as an event," says Maris Hellrand, International Communications Manager for Tallinn 2011. "It started in '85, when Athens [Greece] was the European Cultural Capital. The whole thing started at the initiative of Melina Mercouri [former actress and then-Greek Minister of Culture]. She felt there was a lack of a European cultural dimension in the EU, so that was the idea behind it. Of course, over time, it grew, because they noticed that, when they awarded the title, it benefitted the cities in terms of tourism, and it helped mobilize the people in the city to come up with new ideas, and to get new ideas implanted that would not otherwise have been. So it's become very, very popular, and you have many, many cities applying for the title each year, so after awhile, they decided to give it to two cities at the same time, otherwise, there are so many cities that they would have to wait fifty years for the title.

"The jury decides which country, and within the country the cities compete with each other," Hellrand continues. "In our case, it was decided it would be Finland [Turku] and Estonia, and there were four cities in Estonia competing. Tallinn has better infrastructure, and having seen a few of the other cities that have had this title, the size of Tallinn fits perfectly [population: 400,000]; if it's a smaller city it's just too large a task, too difficult to do it in a meaningful way; if it's too large a city, take Istanbul last year, nobody even notices something going on."

One look at the city, and it's hard to escape the impact of Tallinn 2011. Billboards everywhere advertize the many events taking place concurrently throughout the city. But what's, perhaps, even more remarkable about Tallinn is how rich the culture is, above and beyond its current status. Performance spaces abound; live music seems to be everywhere. Clearly, culture is a big part of the city's fabric. But being European Capital of Culture has created a context where otherwise lofty but difficult to achieve aspirations become possible. Art for art's sake.

"It's a perfect year, because it's also the 20th anniversary of our independence," says Hellrand. "As a lucky coincidence, the Euro was also introduced this year. Everything has become more expensive, yes, but it's all relative. Take a taxi from my home to the ferry terminal, and it's three Euros. Take the ferry to Helsinki [Finland], and take a taxi from the ferry terminal to the town center and it's twenty Euros."

It's no small task to coordinate a full year of programs, and yet the committee running Tallinn 2011 is, in relative terms, quite small. "The Tallinn City Heritage Department initiated it," says Hellrand. "They were smart enough to include people from many backgrounds, both professional and political, so people from all kinds of fields with all kinds of views were involved in formulating the idea. Then, when Tallinn was awarded the title in 2006, the foundation was formed; it still belongs to the city, but it's a separate entity—we're not like city/government employees. There's a Programming Department, and a Marketing/Communications Department, altogether over thirty people now. The first CEO of the foundation was Mikko Fritze, a German who grew up in Finland, and has a professional background at Goethe Institute; he's a very charismatic person, and a very inspiring leader, so somehow he's managed to create quite a good vibe; it's quite an extraordinary place to work.

"There was a year-and-a-half call for ideas, that ended in September, 2009," Hellrand explains, "so until then everyone had to propose what they wanted to do, and there was a creative council that, again, was put together, around ten people from different fields, well-respected professionals in their fields; not controversial or politically disputed whatsoever. So they made the final decisions about what comes in and what does not."

Some European Capitals of Culture, while ultimately successful, have failed to support local artists—a key criteria, it would seem, in succeeding as a means of promoting the culture of the city and its country. Not so, for Tallin 2011. "That was very, very conscious decision from the beginning, that it's not about paying big money for big international stars and bringing them here," says Hellrand. "Rather, it's about having something that comes from here. That is what Turku [whose budget was three times that of Tallinn's] has been criticized for. We do have international projects, and some big names, like during Jazzkaar now [including Bobby McFerrin and Dave Liebman], but it's really not overwhelming or the largest part of it."

Hellrand's assertion that it's more about Estonian artists is supported by the Punkt festival, which occupied the first two days of Jazzkaar 2011. While the festival's co-artistic directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, brought a number of the festival's usual suspects—guitarist Eivind Aarset, singer Sidsel Endresen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen—three of the festival-in-a-festival's shows featured Estonian artists: the Segakoor Noorus choir that performed the music of Veljo Tormis in 2010, at Punkt's home base in Kristiansand; Ensemble U:, a contemporary classical chamber ensemble; and Weekend Guitar Trio. In the case of Weekend Guitar Trio, its performance as a second collaboration with Bang, wearing his "live sampler" hat, after their performance in London, England, earlier in the year, but in every case the performances were remixed, by a combination of the Norwegian artists, German producer/composer/soundscapist Jan Peter Schwalm and British producer/composer/songwriter Guy Sigsworth, resulting in an expanding network of international musicians, quaintly known as "the Punkt family," who strive to dissolve borders of style, geography and culture, to respect and incorporate the music from around the world, but ultimately creating new and innovative music where the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

But Punkt isn't the only example of international collaboration—or remarkable innovation—being brought to Tallinn 2011. Sixty Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero turns the premise that live music is something that takes place once, and when it's over, it's over (despite the proliferation of live recorded music arguing otherwise, usually a flawed premise) on its side, and applies it to a medium that has always been inherently about documentation and permanency: cinema. Film directors from around the world have been asked to contribute a 60-second film, with no dialogue and no music, but otherwise with no restrictions. The film collage will be projected in public in August, on a screen built in the sea, but as each frame passes through the projector, it will be immediately burned, and when the entire performance has completed, the screen itself will be destroyed as well.

Not all projects have such brief life spans, but there are others with their own built-in shelf life. NO99—a theater company whose original productions have been simply titled by their numbers, beginning with 99 and decreasing, one number at a time, to zero, at which point the company will simply cease to exist—is building a theater from straw, which will be open between May and September, and will also be destroyed the end of its run.

There's plenty more, leading up to the closing ceremonies, which will include Arve Henriksen and Terje Isungset's World of Glass, a collaboration with local artists who are designing and building instruments made of glass that will be used in a performance by the Norwegian trumpeter and percussionist, not unlike Isungset's Ice Music series, where he builds instruments of ice for single performances, after which they simply melt back into the earth. But unlike those instruments—and, for that matter, Sixty Seconds of Solitude and NO99's Straw House—these instruments will be permanent creations, to be debuted in Tallinn, but hopefully leading to other uses afterwards.

Chapter Index
  1. April 20: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day One
  2. April 21: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day Two
  3. April 22: Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar

April 20: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day One

While Punkt Festival—the live remix festival that's heading into its seventh year in its hometown of Kristiansand, Norway—established a name for innovation early on, its reputation continues to grow, and in ever expanding circles. Co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Eric Honoré have been collaborating with better-known artists like England's David Sylvian since earlier in the 2000s, but the last few years have seen the expansion of the "Punkt Family" beyond all expectations. In 2010, in addition to having Björk/Madonna producer Guy Sigsworth participating in live remixes, saw Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones deliver a brief solo set—unexpected, as he'd come to the festival as an attendee, but became so enthralled with what he saw that he simply had to participate—and an even more unexpected sit-in with Norwegian improvising group Supersilent. Punkt 2011 will see Jones return for a full solo set, and Sylvian is attending for the first time, as Artist in Residence, contributing an installation at the town's art gallery, but also curating an entire evening of the festival, bringing in a number of artists who participated on his last album, the remarkable Manafon (Samadhisound, 2009).

Segakoor Noorus

But Punkt has also driven its concept of "no borders" into the realm of classical music, more than once, with past performers including British composer Gavin Bryars and the 2011 edition promising a performance of Being Dufay (ECM, 2009), by singer John Potter and electronic composer Ambrose Field. The 2010 edition in Kristiansand brought Estonian composer Veljo Tormis to the festival, along with the Segakoor Noorus, the large Estonian choir, adding yet another new dimension to the festival—and grist for a stunning remix from Norwegian experimental singer Maja S.K. Ratkje.

And so it seemed fitting, when Punkt was invited to Tallinn as part of its 2011 European Capital of Culture celebrations, that it should revisit the collaboration once again. With a number of Norwegians on hand for the remixes, and a live performance of Bang's beautiful debut, ...and poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2010)—along with Bang and Honoré, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, singer Sidsel Endresen and guitarist Eivind Aarset, visual artist Tord Knutsen, and sound engineer Johnny Skalleberg—Punkt made a first trip to Tallinn, as it has London and Mannheim in previous years. It's a movable feast, but not one that just brings its Norwegian culture to distant destinations. Instead, Punkt looks to expand its network of artists, and so, other than Bang's Poppies show, the other three performances that were to be used as fodder for live remixing were all Estonian.

From left: Jan Bang, Fiona Talkington

The first evening, in addition to Segakoor Noorus, also featured Ensemble U:, a six-piece chamber ensemble performing new music compositions by Estonian composers. Because of the delicate nature of some of U:'s music, it was not possible for Knutsen to use his video projector to create the visual imagery that's as much a part of Punkt as the music; but the opening performance, by Segakoor Noorus, made clear just how integral Knutsen's visual arts are, and how they define Punkt as much as any of its other markers. It also made Punkt in Tallinn a little more "Punkt" than its trip to Mannheim, in the fall of 2009; a fine festival, to be sure, but without the visuals, somehow a little less than the entire package.

The host of BBC Radio's Late Night Junction, Fiona Talkington, introduced the evening, with a brief explanation of Punkt and the concept of live remix. It's hard to appreciate just what it means without actually experiencing it; a live musical laboratory where the music of one performance inspires musicians of another to take fragments of the same music to other places, often impossible to imagine by the performers of the source material. Segakoor Noorus' set was similar to its September 3, 2011 set in Kristiansand, even ending with the same piece, the dark and angular "We Are Given," though the choir was dressed in slightly more contemporary fare, and not the traditional dresses, worn by the women, and Amish-like black suits, worn by the men, in Kristiansand. The performance in Tallinn's Mustpeade Maja—an old venue with a concert space seating approximately 350, and another space, used as the Alpha Room for the live remixes, seating a smaller number—was, unlike Kristiansand's Agder Theatre, entirely acoustic, with only a couple of microphones, high above the audience, used to capture the choir for the remix.

The choral tradition in Estonia runs deep—centuries old, in fact. But while Tormis' writing is unequivocally reflective of that tradition, it's equally modern, one reason why the composer, having just celebrated his 80th birthday in 2010, is one of the country's most famous, aside from, perhaps, Arvo Pärt. With a mixed choir, his music could be whisper-quiet or maelstrom-like in its intensity. Singers created pulses with repeated phrases like "Too-wa, too-wa, too-wah," and there were times where the music felt more like a contrapuntal conversation than melody-driven song.

Erik Honoré

But there were moments of sheer lyricism, in particular early in the set, when a single soprano was featured. But for the most part, it was ensemble work that drove the choir, as it made its way through a 40-minute set drawn from albums including Forgotten Peoples (ECM, 1992) and Litany to Thunder (ECM, 1999). Conductor Raul Talmar was as animated as he was in Kristiansand, coaxing the best out of the choir. And, while it was, perhaps, a less momentous event for Tormis to stand and be recognized at the end of the set, compared to his appearance in Kristiansand, it was still a moving opportunity to watch him receive his due, from both an appreciative audience and the choir who so clearly loves and understands his music.

Maja Ratkje's single-woman remix in Kristiansand, took the choir's performance to places Tormis would likely never have conceived (but clearly appreciated); in Tallinn, Bang, Honoré, Aarset and Henriksen delivered a remix that demonstrated just how differently a near-identical set of music could be interpreted. In the true spirit of Punkt, while a choral loop formed the starting point for the remix, it wasn't long before the performers began to extrapolate beyond its boundaries, and as the loop was gradually removed from the mix, it became a mesh of Aarset's subtle soundscapes, Henriksen's melancholy lyricism, and a less-than-obvious pulse that, as ever, Bang seemed to be moving to long before it began to become clear to the audience. Dark dissonance and otherworldly sounds blended with melodic concerns and soft cushions of texture. Then, out of the ether, a solo voice suddenly emerged—the soprano from the choir—a tone so pure as to push the remix into another direction, as it suddenly blended with choral support in an atmosphere of seeming stasis. The solo voice was then harmonized and looped seamlessly, as Henriksen's soft, shakuhachi-toned horn began to push the dynamic again, his dense lines sampled and fed back by Bang in real time, gaining density and volume, while Aarset created deep, low-end rumbles, pushing towards an evolving but cross-rhythmic series of pulses.

Ensemble U:'s Taavi Kerikmäe

For the Punkt initiates, both the choral performance—in particular, because much of the audience would have been familiar with it—and the ensuing remix were the perfect examples of what Punkt is about. While remixes are experiments and, as such, don't always succeed, this one was a tremendous opener, and set a high bar for the rest of the two evenings' remixes.

Since forming in 2002, Ensemble U: has focused its attention on contemporary classical composition, bringing the music of composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage to Estonian audiences. Founded by pianist Taavi Kerikmäe—also a busy performer on the free improvisation scene—and flautist Tarmo Johannes, Ensemble U: has released two CDs to date, with a focus on bringing attention to fellow Estonians including Helena Tulve, Märt-Matis Lill and Tauno Aints.

Its forty-minute set presented no shortage of challenges; while aspects of the performance, especially the second piece, Tulve's "Stream 2," felt, at times, like there was a strong improvisational component, and that time was a hard commodity to come by, it was clear, by Johannes' body language throughout the piece, that time was, indeed, an element, as cellist Levi-Danel Mägila, violinist Merje Rooomere, clarinetist Helena Tuuling and percussionist Vambala Krigul focused intently on the flautist. Flittiing string lines, percussively hit by bows, were mirrored by the flautist and clarinetist, who used small rocks to tap out their own rhythms, while Kerikmäe's prepared piano combined with Krigul's combination of tuned and unturned percussion, to create an oblique aural landscape.

Ensemble U:, from left: Helena Tuuling, Tarmo Johannes

When Bang was interviewed for All About Jazz in 2010, he talked about the various criteria that he and Honoré searched for, as possible grist for live remix, and it was clear, from the start of Ensemble U:'s closing piece, Valdimir Tarnopolski's "O, Pärt—Op Art," that this would be the piece drawn on most for the remix to follow. An homage to Pärt's tintinabulism, the piece revolved around a simple minor chord, its notes played by individual instruments, and with relative brevity, initially with almost interminable space between them, but gradually coalescing over time, into a cascading series of notes, played as longer tones. That it was the performance's most consonant piece was one potential reason to choose it, but more importantly, the very space that defined it, and which left plenty of room for a remix to look at stretching time, and filling in some of the spaces.

The Ensemble U: performance was defined by a remarkable patience, as different instruments cued partners in alternating pairs—clarinet and violin, followed by clarinet and cello, and finally by clarinet and flute—as the entire ensemble gradually moved, with a singular purpose, to a gentle peak, only to reverse the trip, and move towards greater use of silence between notes.

And so, as the crowd made its way to the Alpha Room, where the remixes took place, Bang, Honoré and Endresen began their remix, built around the simple chord of " O, Pärt—Op Art." Ensemble U:'s performance was filled with long pauses, the remix began to build more quickly into an ethereal but more note-dense space, Endresen beginning with a simple, four-note motif, Bang sampling her voice and sending it back looped and staggered to create something of a vocal tour de force. Endresen's evolution from a more conventional singer to truly one of the great contemporary vocal innovators—creating miniature cells of sound, articulation or texture, and gradually bringing them together into an expanding arsenal of modular sounds, driven by a voice that may be capable of odd, guttural utterance and sibilance, but is equally capable of sonorous beauty—has been especially important over the past half decade or so, with her distinctive language first documented on albums like Merriwinkel (Jazzland, 2005) and One (Sofa, 2007).

Sidsel Endresen

But it seems that even in the space of relatively short periods of time—like the distance between her Punkt 2010 duo performance with guitarist Stian Westerhus and now—new ground continues to be broken, both in her finding new cells and her ability to continue creating new permutations and combinations. Her remarkable timbral breadth, control and a seemingly endless wellspring of ideas provided their own grist for Honoré and Bang, who created polyrhythms, panned across the stereo field. And just when it seemed as though there was nowhere left to go, the trio took a soft left turn, as one series of ideas faded and a new series began.

April 21: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day Two

As the second evening of Punkt got underway in Tallinn, Fiona Talkington conducted a brief public interview with Jan Bang, where he talked about the expanding network of musicians that are a part of the Punkt Family. "[Drummer] Jon Christensen once said, 'Music is the best passport,'" Bang began, and if there's any single event that supports the idea, it's Punkt. More than just a festival, it's a concept, an aesthetic. With each passing year, Punkt gets just that little bit bigger, and it was clear that, when the festival was invited to Tallinn, it was with this idea in mind, as the collective expanded through new collaborations with Ensemble U: and Weekend Guitar Trio.

Jan Bang's ...and poppies from Kandahar, from left: Jan Bang, Eivind Aarset, Sidsel Endresen, Arve Henriksen, Erik Honoré

For the only non-Estonian part of the main hall programming, Bang brought his ... and poppies from Kandahar project to Mustpeade Maja. It was a different collective of musicians than at his Punkt 2010 performance, including Honoré, Endresen and Henriksen, but without the input of trumpeter Jon Hassell and bassist Lars Danielsson. But with the addition of Eivind Aarset, ...and poppies retained many of its structural components; still, it also went to different textural places, with the improvisational component equally strong, layered over the foundation that Bang first created, when he began writing the suite of music early in 2010, from his home just outside Kristiansand.

The performance was a slightly abbreviated version of the album, and yet there was no sense of disruption or lack of continuity, as the quintet moved through the early part of the record, largely amorphous, but ultimately settling on the sensuous groove of "Passport Control," one of the album's highlights, and a clear highlight here as well. Endresen's singing on "The Midwife's Daughter," again, demonstrated how her own very personal language has continued to evolve in the space of just a few short months. Aarset was unable to perform at Punkt 2010, due to a commitment in Japan, but he was a vital part of the recording, and here, his ability to emulate an mbira, and use of an E-Bow to create serpentine melodies that intertwined with Henriksen's expansive textural breadth, lent a different complexion to the performance that was at once more intimate and more sweeping.

Knutsen's projections were stunning; rather than trying to make different rooms fit his work, like any good musician he adapts his work to the room. The fact that there were three walls to work with, rather than the usual single plane of the large stage at Kristiansand's Agder Theatre only gave him the opportunity to work into visuals that often seemed three-dimensional in nature. And as the set drew to an end, as it did in Kristiansand, with Endresen's title track from Undertow (Jazzland, 2000), there was a palpable feeling in the audience, a true sense of closure, as Endresen delivered a haunting version—gentler, and more ethereal—that made clear, her more oblique improvisational directions of the past several years notwithstanding, that she remains a singer of haunting lyricism, with a voice capable of speaking volumes with the slightest inflection.

J. Peter Schwalm

The remix of ...and poppies was originally to be a solo performance by German composer/producer/soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm, but with producer Guy Sigsworth attending the festival as a guest, and with keyboard in tow, a relatively last-minute decision was made to include him in the remix...and it was a terrific idea. Schwalm, who has collaborated for many years with Brian Eno, is no stranger to Punkt, having taken part in remixes in both Krisitiansand and Mannheim in previous years. And there's no doubt he'd have done a fine job solo. But with the addition of Sigsworth, whose delicate piano created a Harold Budd-like sense of atmospherics, the remix took on an entirely different complexion, as the two worked with Schwalm's samples from Bang's performance, Henriksen's trumpet echoing and pitch shifting over a warm wash of sound that gradually took shape and began to push patiently forward.

It's always intriguing to hear a remixer's choices, and in particular the chance to hear the same music remixed by a different collection of players. J.A Deane's remix of ...and poppies was more about stasis, and Schwalm's interpretation also possessed its own floating quality; but, equally, he used more direct reference to the source performance, at one point grabbing Endresen's vocal line and turning it into a staggered choir, with a deep bass chord acting as a repetitive motif.

Weekend Guitar Trio, from left: Robert Jürjendal, Tõnis Leemets, Mart Soo

Another highlight of the remix was Sigsworth's use of a hammered dulcimer sample, which lent a harp-like folk element to the remix. In many ways, Schwalm and Sigsworth's remix was about the value of paradox, and the use of it to create a surprisingly seamless whole from a collection of disparate sources.

Estonia's Weekend Guitar Trio began as just that—three guitarists who got together on weekends, to work on material that ranged from detailed structure to more unfettered improvisation, all with the use of technology to expand their aural palette. As the trio approaches its 20-year anniversary in 2013, with four recordings out, including the recent Coca Inca (Self Produced, 2009), WGT incorporates elements of jazz, electronic and world music. Form meets freedom, echoes of Steve Reich-ian minimalism meet Robert Fripp-esque soundscaping. The Fripp influence goes even deeper: the trio began after Robert Jürjendal attended one of the ex-King Crimson guitarist's Guitar Craft seminars; but it's the diverse backgrounds of each player—with Tõnis Leemets' interest in IDM (intelligent dance music) and electronic music combining with Mart Soo's background in jazz and free improvisation—that lend WGT its distinctive, collective sound.

Eivind Aarset

WGT can make a joyful noise all on its own, but its collaboration with Jan Bang—beginning at the Eesti Fest, curated by Fiona Talkington in London, earlier this year—was another inspired idea. That performance also included singer/poet Toyah Wilcox, but in Tallinn it was a purely instrumental music, filled with shimmering guitars, cushioned soundscapes, ambient textures and minimalist motifs, where the three guitars moved, round-like, through a series of angular lines that came together in varying harmonic combinations. Bang broadened the sonic spectrum throughout the set, as the trio performed a number of original compositions. With each guitarist focusing on a different variant of his instrument—Jürjendal using an acoustic guitar that, still, was fed through a rack of electronics; Leemets' choice, a Gibson ES-335 slim line hollowbody; and Soo, a larger semi-acoustic—each player had a voice and a sound, but it became clear that Weekend Guitar Trio was more about the collective sound than the contribution of any single player.

For the remix, another guitarist who is so often heard as part of a seamless whole, was featured more prominently, as Eivind Aarset joined with Arve Henriksen and Erik Honoré for the last remix and the finale of Punkt in Tallinn. While Henriksen remained a strong personality, and Honoré's presence was about the choices to cull from Weekend Guitar Trio—and how to morph them into something else—there was plenty delineation to make this a remix where Aarset's contributions were more dominant, dominance rarely heard these days, outside the context of his own Sonic Codex group.

If there's one attribute that joined all of the musicians involved in the Punkt in Tallinn remixes it was patience. Everyone seemed comfortable with the idea of letting ideas unfold gradually, inevitably, with changes in direction oftentimes signaled by one musician, but in such a way that there were rarely sudden shifts. Instead, evolution was sometimes so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and yet the evolution was absolutely present. Henriksen, in addition to playing trumpet and cornet, whistled, created singing sounds from water glasses, and used a metal plate as a percussion instrument. Aarset, meanwhile, used his large array of effects pedals, and laptop, to build sonic washes, and create mini-motifs. The remix seemed more inspired by WGT, than culled directly from sound samples, even though Honoré certainly brought samples into the mix. Transcendent in its atmospheric beauty, it was a fine way to end Punkt in Tallinn. It's always a risk, given the experimental nature of live remix, that there will be as many failures as there are successes, but one of the most significant aspects of this two-day Punkt was how absolutely every remix was spot-on in its use of source material as a means to inspire something else that was somehow connected, but utterly and entirely different.

April 22: Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar

With Punkt over, Jazzkaar returned to its normal programming, though normal is a relative term. First up on April 22, was an appearance, at the same venue, of percussionist Talvan Singh. Born in England, of Indian descent, Singh first garnered attention when—after growing up listening to a combination of punk music, traditional Indian music and the emerging techno scene 1990s London—he was recruited as tablaist/vocalist on the Siouxsie and the Banshees hit, "Kiss Them For Me." Having studied for two years in India, his cross-cultural upbringing rendered him too dilute for classical Indian purists, but he found a busy home in pop music, not only as a touring member of the Banshees, but as percussionist and director for Björk and her breakthrough album, Debut (One Little Indian, 1993). In the nascent drum 'n' bass scene of the mid-1990s, the often rainbow color-haired Singh created an even bigger name for himself through his Monday night Akokha club nights at East London's Blue Note, which led to his 1998 solo debut, OK (Island, 1998) and further collaborations with artists including David Sylvian and Madonna.

From left: Talvin Singh, Niladri Kumar

Singh's hair is no longer dyed, but his Jazzkaar performance, while demonstrating, in no uncertain terms, his affinity for his Indian tradition, still remained rooted in the 21st century, through his use of programming, and some effects processing on his tablas. And while the show leaned even harder on tradition in his collaboration with Niladri Kumar, the virtuoso sitarist also used a small looping device, to create rhythm loops, over which the duo could improvise. The duo was touring to support Together (World Village, 2011), and the packed room at their 3:00 PM show was treated to a mix of old and new, sublime and exhilarating, and a tremendous demonstration of simpatico playing that made their 90 minute set a true revelation.

Opening the set with the album's title track, an intro of ambient synths led to an opening table salvo from Singh that ultimately turned to a simple series of chord changes, over which Kumar played an equally simple, singable melody. Even in a context of such restraint, however, it was clear that his command of his instrument was thorough; the sitar is an instrument that can handle large-interval bends, but Kumar seemed to be able to push them beyond all reason. As the song gradually picked up steam, Singh pushing the pulse with a driving rhythm, Kumar began to hint at the virtuosity Singh referred to, when he introduced him at the start of the set.

But it was the next piece—an extended medley of tracks culled from the album—where both Kumar and Singh demonstrated their deep empathy and individual strengths. Kumar began alone, playing so quietly that it was almost necessary to lean forward to hear him, despite the banks of speakers on both sides of the stage. There was no programming this time, but Kumar did, occasionally, create a rhythm loop in real time; and, as Singh joined him, it was clear just how patiently both players allowed the piece to evolve over 30 minutes or more, and with a series of climaxes where each successive one seemed to eclipse the last. The eye contact was constant, and between the sweat and grins, it was clear the two were having a tremendous time.

Talvin Singh

Singh utilized four tabla drums of differering sizes, and demonstrated tremendous control, as he brought them in and out of the mix, at times even creating simple bass lines to support Kumar. A third piece was driven by a strong 4/4 pulse, but with heavy emphasis on the "two" and "four," and a repeating synth melody, as echo was added to Singh's tablas at the soundboard, creating an even more complex mesh of polyrhythms. While Singh introduced the set, Kumar took a moment to speak to the audience before the closing piece, joking "If you like the album, buy it; if you don't like the album, buy it for someone you don't like...either way, please buy it," as the duo launched into an almost impossibly up-tempo closer that peaked with Kumar reaching higher and higher into the sitar's upper register, only to finally swoop down in perfect synch with Singh, for an abrupt and powerful ending. It was a given that the enthusiastic crowd would demand an encore.

The set was also defined by some very tasteful lighting, with deep blues, indigos and reds creating a warm contrast to the brisker afternoon colors and climate outside the venue, a tiny pocket of intimacy that made it a revelation for those unfamiliar, and clarification for those who were. Together was the result of a year of touring, and there's no doubt that this collaboration deserves to continue; on the strength of the record, and of the performance, this is a duo with plenty to say.

Visit Punkt, Sidsel Endresen, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Tord Knutsen, J. Peter Schwalm, Guy Sigsworth, Segakoor Noorus, Veljo Tormis, Ensemble U:, Weekend Guitar Trio, Talvin Singh, Niladri Kumar and Jazzkaar on the web.

Photo Credit
All Photos: John Kelman

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