April 16-28, 2014
Any opportunity to return to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia in Eastern Europe, is one worth grabbing. Beyond the somewhat surreal feeling of being in a country that, just 23 years ago, was a completely different place, Tallinn is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with an old town separated from modern Tallinn by high walls that were once fortifications but now act as everything from tourist attractions with coffee shops built into the upper levels of the walls to a gathering place for market vendors selling everything from nuts to knitted goods. Estonia is a country still emerging from the shackles of Soviet rule, but even during those dark days it had its own identityan identity that has, however, blossomed further since 1991, when it returned to independence.
What's perhaps most surprising, when learning that Tallinn's annual jazz festival, Jazzkaar, was celebrating its 25th anniversary was that doing the math reveals a festival that actually began prior to independence, and that it's had the same Artistic Director, Anne Erme, for its entire run. Erme is easy to speak with and quick to point out that the festival has managed much success with a small budget; the last visit to Jazzkaar
was in 2011, the year Estonia adopted the Euro. That, in itself, represented a huge challenge for a country whose salaries are still well below the average in Europe, even as it has also meant that the cost of living continues to rise to meet some kind of parity with the rest of its European Union partners, making it all the more remarkable to see what has changed with the country, the city and the festival since last visiting three years ago.
For one thing, there was no Merepaviljon (Maritime Pavilion) in 2011, a new venue on the waterfront that seats roughly 750 and sports a stage design for Jazzkaar that proved you can make something look truly beautiful on a shoestring. With the festival logo acting as a massive backdrop for the stage and a series of cables running from the high ceiling to various points on the stage, there was plenty of grist for some superb lighting, making for performances that looked every bit as good as they sounded in the room. April 18: Opening PerformanceÜlo Krigul, "Lend nr JK025"
But the opening performance at Jazzkaar didn't take place at Merepaviljon; instead, the opening gala for the festival's silver anniversary took place in a venue that was first used for the closing ceremony to Tallinn's 2011 year as European Capital of Culture.. Three years ago, the Seaplane Port Hangers were still being converted from their original purpose (shipbuilding/repair) to a venue that is now a museum and, occasionally, a performance space. The event in 2011 struggled with the problems of a huge open hangar with plenty of hard reflective surfaces, but for Jazzkaar 2014's opening concerta piece of contemporary music by classical composer and blues keyboardist Ülo Krigulit was perfect, and for good reason: Krigul wrote the piece specifically for
Entering the building, Jazzkaar fans had to make their way through a maze of dimly lit tunnels with cloth walls, the sound of droning, ambient-like music accompanying the journey to the center of the Hanger, where there was seating and something resembling a stage, but the lighting was so dim that it became clear this was not a performance to be seen, it was a performance to be experienced
. With a sextet of Estonian musicians, including rising star vocalist Kadri Voorand (who sang wordlessly) and bassist Peedu Kass, Krigulwho, in addition to composing the hour-long piece, also played prepared piano and harmoniumalso took advantage of the wealth of tonalities available through the participation of Kaia Karjats (gongs), Mart Taniel (prepared piano, electronics), Reigo Āhven (percussion) and Siim Āimla (saxophone). Of equal significance was sound engineer Tammo Sumera, who worked with Krigul to realize a composition designed very specifically for the venue, taking advantage of its specific (and, under most circumstances, less than ideal) acoustics to render a performance that engulfed the audience rather than coming at it.