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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 "The Wind Up," by Keith Jarrett, was superseded by "Green Foam," an ode to the sonic drumhead-dampening material used at their last studio recording session.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

Randalu and Janke returned three days later, on the Vaba Lava stage, with the pianist's Limes Occidentalist outfit, an aggressively internationalist quintet, featuring the French guitarist Nguyen Le. The other two members are clarinetist Kinan Azmeh (Syria) and bassist Petros Klampanis (a New Yorker from Greece). Janke's background is complicated, born in Poland, but living in Germany for most of his days, and seemingly with strong Russian connections. In this band, he comes across as more of a conventional big-sound sticksman, compared to the subtle tinkerings he made during the earlier house concert. Clearly a player of diverse methods.

Lê, of course, is completely steeped in the Vietnamese tradition of his parents, managing to infuse jazz-rock licks with a completely bendy-string tonality, as if he's simultaneously playing several of the traditional one-string đàn bầu instruments, complete with foot-pedal distortion. Starting slow and sombre, with a wailing, funereal clarinet solo, it's soon apparent that Azmeh and Lê have already grown a close rapport, matching their high-toned whines towards the tune's climax. Lê is particularly precise, whether playing clipped riffs or streaming off into an elaborate solo. The two have a returning dialogue throughout the set. A clarinet-guitar duo has Randalu joining soon, then Lê rising up for his own solo. A heavily reverbed pairing of piano and clarinet ensues, and the other players gradually re-enter. Randalu and crew keep up the chase of shifting dynamics with remarkable dexterity and balance.

There's a Jazzkaar approach which favours earlier evening sets for a seated audience, switching to a mostly- standing environment for the later show, usually presenting a band that will appeal to a younger crowd, playing music that surges up to the edges of jazz. Sometimes, with a band such as GoGo Penguin, a trio from Manchester, England, the 'sideways' act can be emphatically jazzy. Back on the festival's opening night, at Vaba Lava, the piano-bass- drums formation of the Penguins acts as a tightly locked, glass face of post-minimalism, another one of those combos who collide repetition and force with the jazz equivalent of post-rock, or math-rock, whichever we shall call such a complex thrusting motion.

This is quite impressive, but has the disadvantage of sounding way too worked out, and inevitable. The Gogos gig together so frequently that they're now a precision machine. This might be a lack felt only if the audience member has already caught them on several previous occasions. To the newcomer, they must surely retain the old power that we can recall from our very first confrontation. The Penguins do manage to fulfil the promise of a jazz intricacy, informed by rock and electronica motions, but with an actual acoustic bent, even if heavily amplified through the sound system. They just need a gnarly old stick slipped through their well-oiled spokes.

On the festival's third day, the Sunday tradition of Telliskivi freebie gigs is maintained, with a liberal programme of short sets, scattered around the entire area, most of them lasting around 30 minutes. It's the open-day, completely accessible part of Jazzkaar. Around noon, Maimu Jõgeda (accordion) and Kaari Uus (enhanced cello) played a restful set in the busy Pudel Baar (the crafty beer joint mentioned earlier), just sitting on chairs in the corner, and establishing a folk-classical calm around the interior, ensnaring the assembled within their sonorous mist.

Later in the afternoon, saxophonist Aleksander Paal Quartet was in the same house, returning after his higher profile, and stormier, appearance at the 2016 Jazzkaar. He was joined by guitarist Jaan-Alari Jaanson, not straying from a mellow jazz mainline, but still having the sound of shock, given that the festival didn't include a massive amount of old-school soft-swinging. The climax of this Sunday freebie-feast was, not surprisingly, provided by Estonian singer/pianist Kadri Voorand , this time in duo setting with her new regular bassman Mihkel Mälgand. All areas are covered, including jazz, free-form, dramatic song and electronic interference. There's a slight hesitance due to a tight turnaround, and the stage set-up not being fully arranged, but Voorand's quick-thinking solves any technical hitch, turning it into part of the show.

In the voluminous Nordea Concert Hall, the jazz-funkin' Spyro Gyra kept it harder than expected, with frequent tussling solos provided by guitarist Julio Fernandez and founding saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, with drummer Lionel Cordew unable to contain his own extended solo, close to the set's conclusion. A substantial show it may have been, but the Gyras kept on switching styles and altering internal relationships, maintaining the interest and avoiding any vocal or synth hysteria, often the double plague across this fusion landscape. Thankfully, not as smooth as feared...

Within the hour, back at Telliskivi, a very different band opened the later evening session at Punane Maja, the smaller stage that alternates with Vaba Lava next door. This was a quartet devoted to the upright acoustic bass, featuring four of Estonia's prime jazz low-toners: the father-and-son team of Heikko and Taavo Remmel, along with the festival's pair of ubiquitous players, Mihkel Mälgand and Peedu Kass. Much of the repertoire involved arrangements for all four players, but there were also a number of permutations, featuring various duo pairings. Even when all four were onstage, variation would be provided via differing methods, perhaps one bassist bowing, another rapping percussively on his wood- body, whilst the others flash fingers across the strings in the expected jazzin' fashion. They skated from Monteverdi to Massive Attack, the latter's "Teardrop" constructed via percussive raps and taps, with drawn-out bow-groans, Kass taking solo position, revealing a quavering, trebly-toned expressiveness. Then, the Remmel family took a tune, followed by a duo from the other pair, which opted for an open-form, clattery tack, making a rickety progress. As a full ensemble, the four succeed in coordinating beautifully, even including a choreographed twirling of their bulky axes. This was a relatively short 40 minute set, but nevertheless crammed with varied bass and repertoire permutations.

Your scribe witnessed the Estonian pianist Kirke Karja only three weeks earlier, during Tallinn Music Week. Her set was well-delivered, but very slight compared to the gripping show she played here at Jazzkaar. Karja's quintet features a reed front-line that swaps between various members of the saxophone family, choosing soprano, alto or tenor to suit the thrust of each work, which were premieres of an all-new songbook, "Earcut," hopefully with an album on the way.

Mairo Marjamaa and Lauri Kadalipp spurt out solos of writhing intricacy, followers of the Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman and Steve Lehman paths. Karja has a hard, percussive, hyperactive piano style, making it difficult to avoid thoughts of such players as Cecil Taylor, Alexander von Schlippenbach, or even Don Pullen. There's a vigorous angularity, prompting shouts from the bar at the venue's side (whether of pain or ecstasy, it's hard to judge), but then a peculiar tranquility dawns during the following number, clambering up to doomy steps. Karja's combo projects an aura of youthful mania, against the stage's flashing LED cubes. There are subsequent sombre developments, and a completely stunned silence hangs in the air at the end.

A highlight of the next evening was Papanosh, a French quintet who have been together for a decade, but who aren't so widely known outside of their homeland. Here's a gang who sound like they're dipped in film noir, opening with a sleazy Earl Bostic crawl, gliding into a Latin alley, with the inevitable deep crimson lighting from the stage- cubes.

Actually, by this halfway point of Jazzkaar, we were really fully appreciating the imaginative variations possible within the square panels that cover both of the Telliskivi stages. They can flicker insanely during an up-tempo electronica outbreak, or remain cooly on shallow breathing mode for a more old school jazz quietness. Colour and line choices are seemingly unending.

Papanosh have a more spacious slant on the Lounge Lizards vibration, though slightly straighter in their approach. The following tune kept a detective pursuit character, but with a crabby Zorn-ed solo and splintered piano, switching to swirling Dashiell Hammond. There were under-the-lid activities, then two-in-the-mouth saxophones, finishing up with "Funereal Boogaloo," which wasn't noticeably deathly.

Jumping ahead another day, the line-up is one of the best in a single evening, being topped by the wondrous Steve Gadd set, detailed above. The Randalu band (also dealt with earlier) started off the run, then were followed at Punane Maja by The Firebirds, a Danish trio, formed by drummer Stefan Pasborg, and devoted to jazz-contorted interpretations of classical greats. They use Igor Stravinsky as a Rite Of Springboard. The Firebirds dig Russian composers, but have also lately dug back into their own roots, peaking the set with some Carl Nielsen. They began with three movements of "The Firebird" (from said Stravinsky). Three movements of a piece is a good chunk, and this a ratio they repeated later in the set. Not that much of the threesome's resultant interpretation was often immediately recognisable, as they favoured a heavy jazzing approach, an orchestral palette crumpled down into drums, keyboards and clarinet or saxophone. Given a lounge-y, kitschy treatment, before beefing up on tenor, they breezed into "The Rite Of Spring," with a raunchy Fender Rhodes groove, almost turning into a Duane Eddy styled driver as it move on, and once again, we might be forgetting the source now. When Nielsen's "Aladdin Suite" arrived, its perky orientalism was much closer to the sonic nature of the original, and Denmark provided its sons with the set's best stretch.

Following the Steve Gadd set was a tough circumstance, but the Estonian saxophonist Mairo Marjamaa acquitted himself quite well, next door at Punane Maja, launching into a marathon alto solo, powering at a hurtle from the outset, maintaining a crazed momentum, as each quartet member ran through their own solos, fully establishing their sonic wares, making a group entrance statement before piling up the hardcore density and bullish rushing.

The Estonian drummer Toomas Rull is an old hand on the scene, an eccentric composer, given to inserting narrative, deep-voiced pronouncements during his pieces for quartet, as featured on his current Quotes album. There's quite a significant dosage of funksome jazz present at this year's festival, with Rull's input being no exception. He prefers a 1970s fusion aura, with keyboardist Raun Juurikas feeding his gear through a laptop-and- effects array, painting a soundscape, whilst bassist Mihkel Mälgand (him again!) extrudes mutated, tarry tendrils, and trumpeter Allan Järve pokes thistles through his mute. Rull has a clay-pot Indian ghatam to slap, making up loops on the spot, before elaborating around them on his drum-set. Following a period of introverted drifting, they launched into another fully funked number, again with Rull's vocal intonations, and a hard Fender Rhodes crangle on the keys. Rull's voice was distorted into a robotic tinniness, for a Frank Zappa-styled blues, reaching into a soft soul heart.

On Jazzkaar's penultimate day, the German singer Alice Frances was flanked by a pair of keyboard/sampler multi-instrumentalists, offering energetic tangents on electro-swing, taking the usual fusion antics over an extreme border that nudged towards a ridiculous parody. Initially irritating, their sheer manic pumping soon courted feelings of amusement and wonder, as each perverse sonic pile-up developed. Few combos can make such a balance between sickly commerciality and avant-swing knees-uppery! Diseased horn samples blurted forth, as Frances trotted onward in her conventional 1940s vocal incarnation, pushing this style further than usual towards modernism. The beats got heavier, the samples more extreme, and the vocals more stylistically exaggerated, with operatic outbursts, matched against techno, ragga and Cabba (Calloway).

Tigran Hamasyan played a solo piano set, the Armenian subtly vocalising percussion sounds, emulating his own sometime ensemble, imposing a concentrated, meditative, mood-soaked atmosphere, and just about the only artist during this festival to request a dulling of the stage-cube illumination-activity, settling on a row of simple cloud- white spotlights, all angled downwards. Perhaps his approach was too pointedly set around announcing how meaningful and artistic his display was going to be, a touch too aloof, but it was hard to argue against the current of his expressive, virtuosic river of notes.

Perhaps Hamasyan suffered through having to play not long after the Palestinian oud-player Adnan Joubran, who had opened the late afternoon with another one of Jazzkaar's best sets, magisterial and spellbinding. Delivering such wonderment right at the beginning of the day's schedule was unavoidably going to prompt comparisons, as the rest of the evening's programme unwound. At first, Joubran was flanked by cello, tabla and mixed percussion, his opening piece invested with a spiritual aura, but this not precluding a swift tempo. The second number was centered around Amrit Hussain's tabla attack, and the third involved an oud/cello duet. In a strategic move, flautist Sylvain Barou was kept in reserve until the fourth selection, around 30 minutes in, making his dramatic entrance from the wings, beginning his blowing before being sighted. Next, it was cellist Valentin Mussou's turn to excite the particles, as he turned on the fuzz-distortion for an incongruously extreme cello solo. Joubran's colleagues hail from France, India and Iran, so this was another actively international line-up, and one of several such collectives appearing during this year's Jazzkaar.

Photo Credit: Sven Tupits

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