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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.

That singer was Kadri Voorand, back from the previous evening's opening event. Voorand is also a fine pianist, and what's most remarkable about this gifted singer in her mid-twenties is how far she's come since meeting her at Jazzkaar in 2011, when she had just graduated from university. A much more confident performer who has largely left straight-ahead jazz behind and whose absolute lack of compromise has turned her into an increasingly significant name in Estonia, Voorand's own group, featuring the very fine guitarist Virgo Sillamaa and rock-steady double bassist Mihkel Mälgand, was the second group to perform, following another excellent guitarist, Erki Pärnoja, and his quartet featuring pianist Joel Remmel (winner of the festival's 2011 Young Jazz Talent Award), double bassist (and brother to the pianist, with whom he performed in a piano trio in 2011) Heikko Remmel and drummer Āhto Abner, clearly a popular player as he showed up in three of the afternoon's seven groups.

Pärnoja was a strong opener, a guitarist with a slightly gritty tone that eschewed all manner of guitar posturing and histrionics. The music was electric in the way that a more internationally renowned guitarist, Pat Metheny (who was scheduled to appear the following weekend with his Unity Group), has been electric: somehow avoiding the sometimes dirty "F" word (fusion) while, in fact, being absolutely a fusion artist in the truest sense of the word. But instead of Metheny's Midwest American positivism, Pärnoja's music was imbued with something considerably closer to home, with a more melancholic, eastern Europe-informed sense of folkloric lyricism, even as the group's approach to the music was, paradoxically, somehow joyous.

Voorand's set was more experimental in nature, although that needn't suggest that she was lacking her own sense of lyricism, especially on her opening piece, where she sang, from the piano bench, a song about (as she kindly explained in English for the non-Estonian guests) "an Estonian girl, the sea, and a man." A bed of impressionistic piano arpeggios gradually moved to a more defined melody; as a singer, Voorand has clearly become both more expressive and confident. On an upward trajectory in Estonia, there's little doubt she could make a mark on the international scene, were she to change the language of her lyrics.

As Voorand moved center stage, near a small table filled with electronics, she turned more expressionistic still, scatting with added effects including harmonizing her voice both an octave below and in harmony, as well as looping those harmonies so she could continue scatting over a bed of voices. As she danced freely around the area near her effects, her youthful exuberance was infectious as she engaged in some push-and-pull interaction with Sillamaa, a guitarist who was clearly capable of cutting a broad stylistic swatch, while Mälgand kept things firmly anchored. The only thing that was missing from the second tune was a drummer, though even without one, Voorand came close to blowing the roof off the Pavilion, and was met with huge rounds of applause.

Between each act, as the stage was being set up (quickly and efficiently—a challenge in itself), a screen to the left of the stage was used to broadcast introductory interview clips with the artists. While in Estonian, it was still easy to feel the personalities of the artists, as they sat on a set of steps and did everything from speak to play double bass to use a pair of drumsticks to pound out a pulse. It was a clever way to keep the audience occupied between acts.

While singer Sofia Rubina demonstrated admirable scatting chops and greater reverence for the American jazz tradition, in particular with her opening look at "Just You, Just Me"—a song nearly 100 years old, first heard in the 1929 musical film, Marianne, but since interpreted countless times by everyone from Oscar Peterson and Benny Goodman to Joe Pass and Abdullah Ibrahim. But while her second tune, a look at Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," was a little more adventurous, her stricter adherence to the mainstream begged the question: "Why?" With so many singers culling music from the Great American Songbook, in order to rise above the rest there needs to be something specific, something different, and despite Rubina's fine voice, there was, sadly, little to distinguish her—though her backing trio of an unidentified pianist, bassist Mihkel Mälgand and drummer Āhto Abner (the latter two each making their second appearances of the afternoon) were certainly more than capable, and their participation in a number of performances that afternoon demonstrated, even further, their own individual stylistic breadth and depth.

Bassist Peedu Kass followed, another player encountered in 2011 as a member of the European Jazz Orchestra that performed with special guest Dave Liebman. Equally adept on electric and double bass, for his Jazzkaar 2014 performance he opted for an all-acoustic trio that—featuring Āhto Abner back in the drum chair and, most notably, nylon-string guitarist Andre Maaker—felt a little Oregon-esque at times, but in a very good way. Maaker was superb and, beyond a tone to die for, Kass also demonstrated no shortage of chops...but never in anything less than service of the music, something he demonstrated even more decidedly when his trio-mates left the stage and he delivered a solo version of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." Beyond evolving personal techniques and a clear understanding of the song, Kass evoked a visceral, bluesy feel that laid waste to any claims of American proprietary ownership.

Again, after a short break where he was interviewed onscreen, pianist Joel Remmel took to the stage with his wife, singer Laura Remmel, and drummer Kaspar Kalluste. While it's easy to make jokes about one of the cardinal rules of bands (never date the singer)—and there are enough exceptions to be found to render it less than true—the sad truth about Remmel's performance is that he would have been better off without her. While she was certainly more experimental than Rubina, and a positive way to look at her would be to say she had tremendous range, the truth of the matter is that when she left lyrics and melody behind and began to improvise, more often than not it was an almost painfully shrill contrast to some of the surprisingly delicate and impressionistic work coming from her husband and Kalluste. She also employed effects; a running theme with almost every Estonian vocalist (Rubina excepted) seen at Jazzkaar 2014 was the use of electronics, but while some (Voorand, in particular) were finding individual ways with them, others, like Laura Remmel, were not. It was unfortunate pairing, as pianist Joel and drummer Kalluste were clearly in synch, in the tradition of duos like Enrico Pieranunzi and Paul Motian, and the audience response confirmed that a better choice might have been to remain as a duo.

Kalluste's group followed—hot on the heels of his release, Kaspar Kallluste Trio + Kadri Voorand (Nu Beat, 2014)—seconding both the singer and guitarist Virgo Sillamaa from her group, heard earlier in the afternoon. Add electric bassist Marti Tarn and the result was a group capable of everything from delicate free play to punk-inflected aggro. The opening piece began with Kalluste and Sillamaa alone in duo, with Tarn and Voorand slowly entering to move towards a more lyrical core. With the piece slowly dissolving into freer terrain, and Voorand using delay to create some psychedelic overtones that slowly faded to silence, the group suddenly leapt back in with a more complex piece of avant-funk that alternated between long-held notes and staccato phrases that ultimately won out, Voorand bouncing around the stage and singing with reckless abandon. It was a fine set that, in addition to spotlighting Kalluste as a drummer, writer and bandleader, also continued to assert both Voorand and Sillamaa as musicians worth watching.

The afternoon closed on a decidedly straight-ahead note with pianist Holger Marjamas, whose unrelenting smile throughout his short set made him quite likely the happiest musician next to American drummer Joey Baron. A standard piano trio featuring bassist Heikko Remmel and, again, Kalluste on the kit, its opening look at Bill Evans' classic "Very Early" was lovely but, perhaps, a bit too reverential; instead, it was Joe Henderson's classic "Inner Urge" that cemented Marjamas as a pianist also worth keeping an eye on. His a cappella intro was a thing of beauty, and when the rest of the trio engaged, he proved himself capable of more expressionistic playing as he tore through the legendary saxophonist's chart. It was a fitting end to an afternoon that made clear Estonian jazz is alive, is well and is growing. With this much development taking place for some of these performers since 2011, who knows what the future will bring?

With a short break, it was back to the Merepaviljon for a sold-out show by a most unlikely duo that won the 2011 Estonian Music Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album with Kooskõla (Mortimer Snerds, 2011). Singer Vaiko Eplik is better known in Estonia as a successful pop musician, but whoever suggested he team up with pianist Kristjan Randalu—one of Estonia's most notable jazz exports, having spent time living, studying and playing in Germany and New York City, and whose quintet performance with Dave Liebman at Jazzkaar 2011 had the American saxophonist truly standing up and taking notice—clearly saw something that most folks might not. Eplik—who also utilizes a bevy of effects on his voice, in addition to contributing some occasional acoustic guitar to this Jazzkaar performance, which represented the duo's first meeting since the 2011 live performances that yielded Kooskõla—was, in fact, a perfect foil for Randalu, each musician pulling the other into areas they might not otherwise travel, the end result being a freely interpreted set of music, written largely by Eplik but arranged by Randalu.

Without understanding the lyrics it's difficult to completely assess what transpired, but what was clear was that, though they may not have played together in some time, there was a clear bond that connected the two musicians. Eplik possessed a strong voice that was sometimes altered in intriguing ways with his floorboard of effects pedals, though when he kicked in some distortion it didn't quite work—at least most of the time; there was one point where, combining distortion with a pitch shifter controlled by a food pedal, Eplik sounded less like a voice and more like a Moog synthesizer, à la '70s-era Keith Emerson. It was an effective combination that was truly unique amongst the numerous vocalists found experimenting with technology at Jazzkaar.

Randalu, for the most part, remained a most lyrical companion; though with his broader jazz vernacular he did find ways to take the music slightly out, only to reel it back in again with some terrific tension and release. A virtuosic player who has long since gone beyond the need to actually prove it, Randalu, together his vocal companion, made for an exhilarating, at times boundary-pushing and almost always accessible set that, while clearly working from a script, also allowed plenty of freer terrain for the duo to explore. Sometimes it worked better than others, but the overall impact of the show was undeniable. It's always interesting to see how different audiences demonstrate their enthusiasm: in North America, the standing ovation has become de rigueur, while in Norway fans applaud in time; in Estonia, it appears, the way to demonstrate greater enthusiasm is to stamp feet on the floor. It certainly made for a joyous noise that brought the duo back for one final song, followed by a signing session in the building's foyer that kept both artists busy and their vendor very happy, as many copies of Kooskõla were exchanged for hard-earned Euros.

April 21: Stéphan Oliva

Jazzkaar's Monday evening—Easter Monday, following a day of free performances sponsored by the festival at the Merepaviljon, culminating in a 6:00PM show by the popular Tanel Padar Blues Band & Guests—moved to a much smaller, intimate venue: NO99 Jazziklubi, the city's preeminent jazz club. The performer was French pianist Stephan Oliva, performing music from his recent Vaugement Godard (Illusions, 2013), the third in a trilogy of solo piano outings that have also explored Film Noir (Illusions, 2010) and Lives of Bernard Herrmann (Sansbruit, 2010). Completing his trilogy with music culled from the films of Jean-Luc Godard—ranging from Michel Legrand and Ketil Bjornstad to Martial Solal and Oliva's own Godard-inspired writing—the pianist's Tallinn performance was imbued with profound subtlety and a gorgeous blend of improvisational élan and well-scripted arrangements.

It was also the perfect venue for Oliva; dimly lit, with rich reds and dark woods, NO99 Jazzklubi feels like a jazz club; the only thing missing was a layer of smoke obscuring the ceiling and a little more noise of clinking glasses. But what made Oliva's performance special—beyond his being an astute pianist with a particularly great ear for interpretation—was that the evening acted like something of a calm island amidst the more energetic music programmed around it. Even when he shifted from darker impressionism to firmer expressionism, with plenty of emphasis on his instrument's lower register, Oliva maintained an ability to build ethereal chordal passages, his left and right hands then moving more deftly across the keys to create an intense collage of light and dark—but leaning, far more often, to the dark—creating a dichotomy that the pianist comfortably brought together into a unified whole.

"Portrait de la Guerre" was a clear highlight, bringing together elements of Legrand, Gabriel Fauré, Bjørnstad and some original music, while "A Bout de Souffle" demonstrated his love of Solal. A relatively short set at just over an hour, but more than enough to act as a reminder that Oliva is a pianist who, while better known in Europe, has sadly remained largely beneath the radar in North America. He may not make it there often (if at all, these days), but his fine trilogy of film music adapted for solo piano is all that's necessary to appreciate his strong interpretive skills and patiently restrained virtuosity.

April 22: Avishai Cohen & Andres Mustonen Quartet / Marius Neset Quartet

One of the toughest gigs in jazz has to be the soloist invited to a jazz festival to perform with a group of local musicians. Rehearsals are minimal, and it's not always evident whether it will be a marriage made in heaven...or hell.

Expat Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen was a case in point. Invited to Jazzkaar to perform with violinist Andres Mustonen's Quartet—also featuring Jaask Sooäär (a mover and shaker in the Estonian jazz and music education scenes), drummer Tanel Ruben and double bassist Taavo Remmel (father of pianist Joel Remmel)—there were some moments of wonderful synchronicity but, more often than not, the performance dissolved into a cutting contest where it appeared that Mustonen and Sooäär were vying for attention rather than listening to what was going on around them.

The concert began auspiciously, where a fusion edge combined with Baltic and Middle Eastern tonalities in an exciting way, especially thanks to the unshakable support of Remmel and Ruben. But as the concert unfolded, it seemed compositionally mired in a single space—or, if not compositionally, then in the manner in which the group approached playing the music.

The fault was not Cohen's: the trumpeter has been garnering increasing acclaim in North American for his work with siblings Anat Cohen and Yuval Cohen in The 3 Cohens, as well as for his work in the ongoing SFJAZZ Collective since 2010, participating in the group's tributes to Horace Silver, Stevie Wonder and, most recently, Chick Corea. His solos were as strong as ever, as he seemed to be looking for common ground with his band mates, but every time he left any space, Mustonen and Sooäär seemed duty-bound to fill it. Sometimes a little space is exactly what the music needs.

Mustonen was impressive, to be sure, but even his physical presence onstage seemed to demand, rather than command, attention. Sooäär actually resorted to a rock 'n' roll stance at one point, moving to the edge of the stage and putting one foot up on a monitor. As good a reader as he clearly was, navigating some of the music's complex, dervish-like melodies with ease—and clearly a soloist with some potential—both he and Mustonen could have learned a thing or three from Cohen's ability to command attention solely through the strength of his playing—and, equally, his not playing.

it was unfortunate, as the idea of bringing American artists to Jazzkaar to collaborate with local musicians is a good one, and there's no doubt that Mustonen's rhythm section was more than capable. But just as Dave Liebman's 2011 collaboration with Sooäär's hand-picked quintet was marred by the guitarist's inability to let the music breathe, it's indeed unfortunate to report that, three years later, little has changed. Cohen had to keep his game face on through the show, but as the set progressed, it certainly seemed that, even for a pro like him, it was becoming increasingly difficult. If at least part of the purpose of bringing in more well-known musicians to collaborate with Estonian players is to educate, it's sadly clear that this objective is not being met, at least in some respects.

What a joy it was, then, that whatever deficiencies were present in that concert were quickly dispensed with when Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset took the same stage at Merepaviljon with his road-tested quartet featuring longtime members Ivo Neame (piano) and Anton Eger (drums)—both also well-known as members of Phronesis, alongside bassist Jasper Hoiby—and Petter Eldh, a relative newcomer to the group but a bassist with no shortage of cred for many projects, in particular as a member of Django Bates' Beloved Trio, which spent a week in Luleå, Sweden last year, putting together a stellar program of the pianist's Charlie Parker-inspired arrangements and original music for the trio and Norrbotten Big Band—music which continues to live elsewhere, as the Beloved Trio is now beginning to perform it with other big bands.

Neset's first major release, Golden Xplosion (Edition Records, 2011)—produced by and including performances by Bates, coincidentally—was the saxophonist's second, but since that time he's been on a run that's mirrored the way he approaches his tenor and soprano horns, releasing two more albums on Edition and most recently, Lion (2014), from a commission with the increasingly renowned Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, representing a move to Germany's ACT Music imprint. Neset may well be the most significant young saxophonist (still on the shy side of 30) to emerge in the past few years but, beyond his irrepressible strength as a performer, he's been honing his chops as a writer, too, and in a variety of contexts, ranging from his surprisingly wonderful record with another up-and-coming Norwegian, tubaist Daniel Herskedal, on Neck of the Woods (Edition, 2012)—an unlikely duo of saxophone and tuba that somehow works, fleshed out, at times, with the lovely choral work of Svanholm Singers—to 2012's Birds (Edition), which occasionally expands the quintet of Neset, Neame, Høiby, Eger and vibraphonist Jim Hart with additional horns, flute and accordion for an album that's as ambitious in concept as it is superb in execution.

Pared down to a core quartet, trimming down the music of Birds might be lacking in lesser hands, but in the more than capable control of Neset, Neame, Eldh and Eger, it made for an absolutely thrillin set where, like the performance before it, there was some vying for attention, but instead not in an intentional way; if anything, this was a group whose primary focus was the music and collaborative interaction. Still, it's hard to take your eyes off the highly animated Eger—possibly the craziest drummer, visually, this side of The Muppets' Animal, but never in a way that looks for attention: it's just how he is...and while he is capable of some wild and crazy playing, he's equally adept at contributing delicate textures, softer timbres and gentler pulses.

Neame, a quieter person and more circumspect (but still never less than impressive) player commands attention because he's just that good, while Eldh fits in the middle ground (and, onstage, the middle position) between the two: a player capable of injecting humor into the proceedings, his years with Bates have clearly served him well.

But if Neset's showcase at Jazzahead! in 2012 was nothing short of explosive, two years and plenty of clocked up road time have clearly taught him even more about how to structure a set. A visceral saxophonist who, more often than not, doesn't select one of his horns for a tune, but uses both, switching between them as the music demands, Neset has nevertheless always known the value of space, as willing to take things down to a whisper as he is to bring them up to a flat-out roar. His command over consonant multiphonics may not be as heavily used as fellow Nord Hakon Kornstad, but they're every bit as controlled.

Whether it was the single-note repetition that underscored the beginning of the title track to Birds—which is the album's first track and was also this show's opener, successfully (and, to some extent, magically) pared down from the recording's 12-piece to this lean quartet—to the appropriately named "Boxing," where Neset's intervallic leaps seemed to represent two contrasting players, the music was complex but never for its own sake. And when Neset turned to "Sane," a beautiful ballad from Golden Xplosion, he made clear that simpler, more elegant forms were not beyond his reach.

Coming back for a well-deserved encore with Golden Xplosion's episodic, cinematic "Angel of the North," Neset and his quartet demonstrated that the burst of interest in this young Norwegian saxophonist has been neither a fluke nor an unsustainable event; instead, it's clear that Neset continues to hone, evolve and garner increased recognition. If his show at Jazzkaar 2014 was any indication (along with an advance listen to Lion), it's clear that Neset is a name that will continue to find well-deserved attention—and that as good as things are, the best is surely yet to come.

Wrap-Up

While the festival continued on until April 28, with some heavy hitters in the final weekend to include Cassandra Wilson and Pat Metheny Unity Group, Jazzkaar's unfortunate crossover with Jazzahead meant an early exit from Tallinn. Still, it was a wonderful week with many, many high points and very few lows. Like Neset, Jazzkaar at 25 might be a relatively young festival on a continent where a sizable number of festivals are approaching their 50th year, but with Anne Erme at the helm, there are clearly plenty of good reasons to consider returning to Estonia, to Tallinn, and to Jazzkaar in the future.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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