April 22-May 1, 2016
The Jazzkaar festival has been an annual event in Tallinn, Estonia, since 1990, when Soviet dominance was crumbling. Its roots lie in the original 1966 and '67 jazz festivals, before these were banned by those Russian occupiers. Surely the presence of honorary hippie Charles Lloyd
, on a ground-breaking Eastern Bloc tour might have been a factor? Jazzkaar's artistic director Anne Erm was involved in those first two 1960s festivals, and has continued her influential role until the present day.
Tallinn is a peaceful, scenic city, nestled next to Russia, at the edge of the Baltic Sea. Its Old Town is a strong attraction for tourists, but the festival itself inhabits the cultural centre of Telliskivi Creative City, a converted factory site, populated by arty bars and cafés. This is only the second year that Jazzkaar has inhabited this complex. Most of the gigs during the festival's 10-days take place here, alternating between the larger (Vaba Lava) and smaller (Punane Maja) stages, in adjacent buildings.
The majority of artists hailed from the USA and Estonia itself, but there were also individual representatives from the UK, Norway, Russia, Cuba, Lebanon and Germany. A particular joy of Jazzkaar is the contrast between global stars and indigenous acts, unfamiliar to most outsiders. So far, Estonian jazz is nowhere near as well-travelled as, for instance, the heavily-exported artists of Norway.
A couple of UK acts took care of the electronically-orientated groove-pulsation zones, with Hidden Orchestra appearing late on the opening night, led by bassist and knob-twiddler Joe Acheson. They surely played beyond their allotted set-length as sloping beats gathered the crowd nearer, sinking into a seductive stream of electro-acoustic marrying, with violinist Poppy Ackroyd bringing unlikely tones to the spread. If the Hidden folks were sneaky in their audience wooing, keyboardist Mark De Clive-Lowe opted for a more bombastic attack, his current largely London-based Church band being the hardest he's ever gathered together. Sometimes, this Los Angeles-dwelling New Zealander can err on the side of mainstream soul or funk, too obviously aiming for crossover success, but with saxophonist and flautist Finn Peters prominently featured, De Clive-Lowe is spotlighting a groove toughness that sheds any lightness, aiming to gore the deep guts. His choice of Tawiah as singer also lends an edge to the proceedings, with her understated, slinky syllable-tripping avoiding any soul-hysterics. This was another extended set, but the Church combo were possessed by a gripping urgency, quaking under their own momentum.
Another festival highlight arrived early, on its second day. Keyboardist Bachar Mar-Khalifé is Lebanese, but lives in Paris, and he's the son of renowned oud maestro Marcel Khalifé. Playing with his bass and drums trio, Mar-Khalifé might be refining the new genre of Pomp Arabic, like unto a magnificent mélange of Queen and Hot Chip (or Hot Cheb?), pillaging from metal, reggae, and Algerian rai, concocting an absurdly full-on Middle Eastern electro-disco stomp. His synthesiser spirals suggested the finest hard-cheese distortions of prime-vintage rai music, overloading until reaching a sharp abyss, then dropping down into a delicate acoustic piano sequence. The mood crept from sombre to kitschy, with great taste, Mar-Khalifé's vocal prowess suited to the negotiation of both extremes.