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Jazzkaar 2014

Jazzkaar 2014
John Kelman By

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Jazzkaar 2014
Tallinn, Estonia
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 identity—an 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 Performance—Ülo 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 concert—a piece of contemporary music by classical composer and blues keyboardist Ülo Krigul—it was perfect, and for good reason: Krigul wrote the piece specifically for that space.

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, Krigul—who, in addition to composing the hour-long piece, also played prepared piano and harmonium—also 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.

Largely drone-based, with very slow and languid development, it was the kind of music that could engender a number of responses, from hypnotically meditative to, for those not used to this kind of music, boredom and even discomfort. But fans of ambient music and electronic drone music by artists like Steven Wilson (when wearing his Bass Communion hat), along with those who were prepared to accept music that didn't have much of a pulse, much of a melody and whose harmonic evolution was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, were treated to a wonderful opening performance that may have been only loosely connected to jazz in its minimal improvisational opportunities, but which was somehow fitting nevertheless. Jazz is, after all, something that means much more now than it did a century ago.

During a lunchtime hang with Krigul a couple days later, the composer revealed the challenges of making the composition work in the venue, and the amount of rehearsal required to ensure that its use of the room, almost as another instrument in the ensemble, was such that the ultimate performance could be considered a success. It certainly seemed so; the audience was remarkably quiet—transfixed, even, especially in a hall where a pin drop would sound like a cannon—and, with a surprising, brief double bass melody emerging near the end, to rise above layers of processed vocals, deep gongs and gentle electronics, the applause was certainly enthusiastic enough to suggest that this opening gambit to Jazzkaar 2014 was, indeed, an overall win for both the composer and the festival.

April 19: Noor Eesti Jazz / Vaiko Eplik & Kristjan Randalu

The following afternoon, a series of seven young artists/groups participated in an event called Noor Eesti Jazz (The Young Estonian Jazz), where each performer was given a mere two songs to demonstrate, showcase style, what they were all about in somewhere between ten and twenty minutes. While the acts varied and, as would be expected, some were certainly better than others, the overall impression left was that Estonian jazz is beginning to emerge with its own voice—one that referenced the American tradition in some cases, but in all cases also cross-pollinated everything from Estonian folk music and classical music to harder-edged fusion...even a little punk rock thrown in, for good measure.

It was also an afternoon that demonstrated how small and interconnected the jazz community in Tallinn is, with two drummers handling five of the seven acts, two basses sharing four of the performances, and even one singer appearing in both her own group and that of one of the drummers, Kaspar Kalluste.

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