Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 4-6

Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 4-6
John Kelman By

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

Gourmet Duo / Joel Remmel Trio / Rebecca Kontus / UMA & Andi Pupato
Jazzkaar Festival 2011
Tallinn, Estonia
April 23-25, 2011
It may be small—both geographically, sandwiched between the Baltic Sea and Russia, with only 159.2 square kilometers and a population of a mere 1.3 million as of its last census—but Estonia has a cultural tradition that dwarfs many larger countries. And for a country that, until 20 years ago, spent vast chunks of its history occupied by other countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Poland (briefly) and the Soviet Union, it has retained a cultural independence engendering, over the centuries, a rich folk tradition, and a strong choral heritage that has, over the past few decades, been defined by composers including Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and of Erkki-Sven Tüür.

One of Tallinn's walls, now home to an open air market

Wandering around Tallinn, the country's capital and largest city, with a little over 400,000 people, it's no surprise that it was selected as 2011 European Capital of Culture. Leaving the Sokos Hotel Viru and entering through the tower gates into the old city is, for someone living in a young country like Canada, a profound experience. There are plenty of signs of Tallinn's long history—the country first settled around 8500 BC and, prior to German invading during the 13th century, a pagan land worshipping nature spirits. The walls that fortified the city in the 13th century still remain, though they're now tourist attractions and, at their foot, home for a string of local vendors selling clothing, including handmade wool sweaters, gloves, toques and more—no surprise, given the average temperature in July is brisk 17° Celsius, and an even brisker -9° in the midst of Estonian winter.

Still, with spring upon the city, once the temperatures hit double digits the locals can be found, in huge numbers, at outdoor cafés. It may be a small city, in relative terms, but it bustles just the same, with large crowds out, even on Easter Sunday. Those of a religious persuasion could celebrate the holiday in one of a number of old churches, like St. Olaf's, a tremendous old structure with a 160 meter Gothic spire that was built in the 15th century. The Christianization of Estonia in the 13th century caused a number of magnificent structures to be built, catering to worshipers of Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Lutheran persuasions—a total of 16 structures that are reason enough to visit the city.

The Spire of St. Olaf's Church

But there's so much more. Wandering the streets of old Tallinn, it's possible to find craftspeople still practicing everything from textile to glass-making; even marzipan—that amalgam of almond and sugar that, in its early days, was considered a cure for everything from anxiety to sexual disfunction—is crafted into a myriad of shapes, while other artists build a menagerie of ceramic animals, each given their own unique names, to which the artist and owner of the shop will be happy to introduce, if only you ask.

Old and new seem to coexists comfortably, with buildings being renovated, rebuilt or newly built, amidst structures that date anywhere across the last 700 years. Kadriorg Park is home to a series of older structures, many of which have been converted to museums, near the current home of Estonia's president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The Kadriorg Palace, now an art gallery, was built in the 18th century by Tsar Peter I for his empress, Catherine, and is a particularly stunning structure, nestled in grounds that are now used by Tallinn residents as stunning, in-city parkland.

Kadriorg Palace

In addition to the many venues designed for the arts, many of these old structures are used for special presentations, and attending Jazzkaar is as good an opportunity as any to sample many of them. The first three days of the festival largely focused on Mustpeade Maja (Blackhead's Guild), a Renaissance-era structure used as a combination performance space, art gallery and museum. But as Jazzkaar moved into its second stretch—one which focused even more on Estonian musicians—it also changed locations, with a full day of programming at Kadriorg Park, in seven different venues; on Easter Sunday, a tremendous performance at Oleviste Kirik (St. Olaf's Church); and, on the following day, a multimedia show at the more modern KUMU art museum.

Chapter Index
  1. April 23: Gourmet Duo
  2. April 23: Joel Remmel Trio
  3. April 24: Rebecca Kontus
  4. April 25: UMA & Andi Pupato

April 23: Gourmet Duo

With Jazzkaar kicking off a full afternoon of programming at a number of venues in Kadriorg Park, the emphasis on Estonian talent also demonstrated the surprising breadth of reach, surprising for such a small country. Gourmet Duo's target audience was, however, an audience whose tastes lean more to the lounge side of the jazz equation. Pianist/vocalist Yvetta Uustalu and electric upright bassist Tõnis Tüür would have been right at home in a piano bar, but here, in the lovely E. Vilde majamuuseum—in a lounge converted to performance space, with chairs added to the lush couches, tables and chairs, to seat perhaps 30 people—the duo delivered a set heavy on standards, including music from Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday, but with a handful of Estonian songs thrown in for good measure.

Gourmet Duo, From Left: Yvetta Uustalu, Tõnis Tüür

Uustalu possessed a lovely, expressive voice, with good range and intonation; her piano work was heavy on the mainstream and, if not particularly adventurous, then certainly fitting the duo's lounge vibe, with enough flair to be impressive but enough adherence to a song's melody as to be accessible to a "jazz lite" crowd. Tüür, unfortunately, was less impressive; a fine enough timekeeper, to be sure, but with a tendency to become a little heavy handed—not with bursts of virtuosity, but with sudden punctuations that were too dominant and obvious. A good ensemble player, his solos demonstrated a weaker ability to navigate the material's changes than Uusatlu, who was clearly the better-versed player.

All that said, the audience enjoyed the set; but after the more adventurous music of the past three days, Gourmet Duo's performance was simply too lightweight, too safe and too unadventurous to be more than a pleasantry. And when the duo pulled out Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," they crossed the line into wedding band territory. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but did they deserve a place at Jazzkaar?

April 23: Joel Remmel Trio

On the other hand, a quick jaunt over to Kadriorg Palace for pianist Joel Remmel's set—already in progress, Gourmet Duo going well over their allotted time and it being very difficult to politely leave the room mid-set—was a revelation. The 21 year-old pianist represents the kind of jazz future that's needed everywhere in the world. Creative, contemporary and committed, the sum total of his trio's ages may be less than some of the journalists writing about them, but their youthful appearances only belied the unexpected depth of the music and the interaction of the trio.

Joel Remmel

The music was written by the 21 year-old Remmel, performing in a very live room in the Palace on an opulent white piano, accompanied by his 17 year-old brother, Heikko, on bass, and a young female drummer, Aleksandra Anstal who, when the trio took a bow at the end of its set (and after a loudly demanded encore by the full room), was dwarfed by both the tall, lanky brothers.

The brothers come, it turns out, from a very musical family; their father, Taavo Remmel, is considered the country's finest bassist. Clearly a fine teacher to Heikko, who may only be 17 but demonstrating a remarkable facility on the instrument, with a tremendous, singing tone—and restraint, rare at any age, that made his solos speak volumes with a minimum of fuss. Equally, Anstal proved capable of the kind of confident groove, delicate touch and a comfort in rubato settings that's a particular—but clearly not proprietary—purview of the Norwegians. While her solo towards the end of the set was a tad on the obvious side, it's a minor quibble, as Anstal clearly possessed a focused sense of development that means great things on the horizon.

From left: Heikko Remmel, Aleksandra Anstal

As there clearly are for everyone in the trio, whose music sometimes resembled that of Esbjorn Svensson and e.s.t., but without some of the kitsch that occasionally seeped into the late pianist's music. Joel is, in fact, this year's recipient of Young Jazz Talent, one of three annual jazz awards in Estonia, this year awarded by appointed Jazz Ambassador Dave Liebman. That he was to win this prestigious award—which includes a cash prize to be applied either to a recording or live performance—was something the young pianist would not find out until April 27, four days after this performance, but it was clear, from the audience's enthusiastic response, that Remmel may well be the next great pianist to come out of Estonia, after the more established, 31 year-old Kristjan Randalu.

The trio interacted at a remarkably deep level, whether navigating trickier changes or laying back in a rubato tone poem. Delicate touch abounded, but delivered with the kind of confidence that made every note count. If this is amongst the best this country has to offer, then there is plenty of hope for keeping jazz young, alive and vibrant.

April 24: Rebecca Kontus

The church tradition of Estonia looms large, even as it seeps into areas of music more often considered secular. Singer Rebeccas Kontus got her first taste of live performance at the age of two in the small seaside town of Pärnu (population: 44,500), where she was born, at a Christmas concert at its Pentecostal Church. Still in her twenties, Kontus has racked up a remarkable number of accomplishments, including work with eight different groups, ranging from the Tallinn Gospel Choir, with two albums to date; C-Jam, a cello quartet that covers everything from Brahms to The Beatles; Eurvosion popsters Suntribe; the funky R-Corp; and her own projects, including a jazz duo and trio. She's released three albums as a leader to date, including Võin ma Tulla (Self Produced, 2010), which was the basis for her concert at St. Olaf's Church.

From left: Heikko Remmel, Rebecca Kontus, Elvin Toodo

Võin ma Tulla takes traditional Estonian church/choral music and gives it a contemporary facelift, and so it was only fitting to be presented on Easter Sunday, in the massive, 700-year old cathedral, where the stone walls are so thick that the temperature remained considerably chillier than the warmer spring weather outside its massive stone structure. Kontus had the lyrics—largely biblical hymns—projected on a screen beside the stage, and if this did not exactly encourage her audience to sing along, it did make for a strong connection between the church and her music, which fit in the contemporary jazz mold—not smooth, not by a long shot; but accessible, melodic music with strong, memorable choruses and plenty of room for her quintet to shine, along with her voice, which was sweet without being saccharine.

Kontus' group was, with one exception, the same as on the record, including guitarist Marek Talts, who demonstrated terrific taste in tone and execution, wandering through some of the tunes' changes with considerable aplomb and restraint, adding a little wah-wah here, a touch of echo there and, on the opening "Võin Ma Tulla," a little fast-strummed acoustic guitar that was informed, no doubt, by Pat Metheny's Midwestern ambience. Matis Metsala stayed mostly with grand piano, but switched to synth for the balladic "Rohkem Korraga Ei Maksa Võtta," creating a soft cushion of strings bolstered by bassist Heikko Remmel and drummer Elvin Toodo' soft, but unshakable groove, opening up to a David Sanborn-informed solo from saxophonist Danel Aljo. Remmel was the only player not on the recording—that was Peedu Kass, who won the Young Jazz Talent in 2010—but he sure didn't sound like a sub; familiar with the music, and interacting with the rest of the group, whose smiles and nods of approval, throughout the 70-minute set, were clear indication of the fun they were having.

From left: Danel Aljo, Matis Metsala, Heikko Remmel, Rebecca Kontus, Elvin Toodo, Marek Talts

With the lyrics in Estonian, Kontus is clearly aiming at her local market with this project, but even without understanding the lyrics or her song introductions, it was a compelling set of tasty grooves, even tastier playing, and considerably more was revealed under the hood of these tight arrangements than their easygoing vibe would suggest.



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