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Jazzkaar 2017

Martin Longley By

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Jazzkaar 2017
Tallinn, Estonia
April 21-30, 2017

Jazzkaar covers most territories. This exceptional 10-day festival presents the best players on the indigenous Estonian scene, imports big-name acts from the USA, and also invites some choice artists from around the rest of Europe. Some shows represent jazz in mainstream mode, whilst others twist towards the innovative. There is also a strong commitment to bands who skirt the edges of rock, pop and electronica, as well as a significant number of global-ethnic performers. This year, most of these arrived from Afro-Middle Eastern quarters. The festival's hub is the Telliskivi Creative City, originally an industrial quarter of Tallinn, sitting close to the railway tracks, but now re-born as an arty café-and-studio zone, complete with curry, craft beer, a bakery and a bike shop. We need never leave the area!

Even so, there are a handful of shows booked at the Nordea Concert Hall: the scat-obsessed singer Dianne Reeves and the much-better-than-expected fusion funksters Spyro Gyra. One gig that could almost have inhabited the Nordea was that played by the veteran Stateside drummer Steve Gadd, but perhaps it was fortuitous that he appeared at Vaba Lava instead, the main-venue stage at Telliskivi. Here, he enjoyed a capacity crowd that encouraged greater heights from a band that was already clearly fired up with the sheer joy of performing. This was one of those shows where all elements cohered with a smouldering energy, the crowd feeding off the artists, but these musicians also making it seem that it was they who were doing the feeding, displaying a rare degree of pleasured enthusiasm. Gadd's crew were truly ambassadors of the blues, because that's the genre that they inhabit most fully, even if it's loaded with jazz and funk extras. Ultimately, Gadd delivered what was pretty surely the entire festival's greatest set.

Oh yes, and country music too! As Walt Fowler crisped his flugelhorn around the grooves, Michael Landau provided an incongruously tootlin' country guitar solo, followed by Gadd himself, placing an early drum solo in the centre, just to establish who was at the helm. His style was measured and precise, loaded with power and sensitivity. "The Wind Up," by Keith Jarrett, was superseded by "Green Foam," an ode to the sonic drumhead-dampening material used at their last studio recording session. Like a specialist sequel to Booker T's "Green Onions," and indeed, definitely descended from that ditty.

All band members are equal here, Kevin Hays soloing with a hard-edged Fender Rhodes sound, then the tempo slowing to a grind, perfect for Landau's finely-controlled, fully-activated blues howl solo. He's the composer of "Africa," the next number, a cool creeper that's not noticeably influenced by the sounds of that continent. "Duke's Anthem" isn't devoted to Mister Ellington, but rather Frank Zappa's old cohort George Duke, its slow and moody nature not really reflecting the frequently hyperactive style of its dedicatee. The grimy chugging of "Sly Boots" (by Larry Goldings) creates a homage within a homage, and then the blues returns in force for the encore, such an extra-number bonus rarely being more deserved.

At the other end of the seat-number scale, Jazzkaar also runs a sequence of intimate home concerts, where tickets are bought, and 'secret' addresses are revealed. Most of these events include nibbles and beverages, as if the audience is dropping in on their close social circle, which was probably the case in some instances. The best of these concerts were Andre Maaker's solo acoustic guitar set, where he also included a few vocal songs, and the duo set by pianist Kristjan Randalu and drummer Bodek Janke.

This latter pair's deliberately imposed handicap of interpreting mostly familiar jazz standards in a manner which actively sought to conceal their origins was amusing, puzzling, gripping and ultimately hugely rewarding, providing the solution to the problem of being perpetually drawn towards famed chestnuts and yet wanting to maintain a level of freshness, individuality and experimentation. Mostly, the mind's eye framework would be obscured via rhythmic jiggery-pokery, thematic adventuring and/or radical pace mutations. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck, for instance, were in and out of sharp focus, sometimes instantly recognisable, and at others only tangible after several minutes of scampering. Randalu adopted a very subtle approach of severely rationing the tune-progressions, and heavily elaborating lines with a tastefully grandiose flourish. Janke was intent on discovering ratcheting rhythms that clunked and hobbled, skipping like real-time glitches, turning digital collage fantasy into tangible skin and bone arrhythmia

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