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Jazzkaar 2018


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Jazzkaar 2018
Tallinn, Estonia
April 20-29, 2018

In the year of Estonia's celebrations, having attained a full century as a Republic, its Jazzkaar festival continues to be amongst the very best of the European range. Held annually in Tallinn, and primarily centred around the Telliskivi Creative City, the festival continued its internationalist strategy, combining artists from the USA, UK, and multiple European countries, not least of which involved the indigenous artists of Estonia itself. Jazzkaar's embracing policy holds a strong jazz core, surrounded by adventures into rock, pop, electronica, improvisation, global-ethnic and moderne classical sounds. This is now Jazzkaar's expected omnivorous approach to musical exploration.

The piano squatted right in the centre of this year's programme, with several groups led by composing trinklers. ECM leader Manfred Eicher was in town, primarily to celebrate the release of the Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu's ECM Records debut, Absence, and giving a talk a few hours before the concert. The primary voice was Eicher's, not surprisingly, but this casually commanding honcho-figure did actually have many interesting observations to make, and was in a cheery and open state-of-mind. Randalu chipped in some comments, but was as perhaps expected, a secondary presence. The lights in the small bar-space where the talk was held gave Eicher's flowing locks a silvery purple hue, like some otherworldly sage.

He'd caught Randalu in an NYC club, and resolved to record the pianist. During the recording sessions, there was one piece on the album that its composer believed to be concluded, but Eicher softly whispered into Randalu's headphones, urging him to continue. Something completely unpredictable happened, and a certain aspect of Eicher's production strategies was revealed. He also told us how much thought goes into the silences between tracks, the length of mulling-over time, perhaps explaining his initial reluctance towards streaming services. Eicher believes that the editing is of massive importance, as with movies. Privately, he's surely still reluctant on the Spotify front, but has been unable to resist the pressures of what is now the 'music business.' "The auteur is becoming replaced," Eicher observed, sadly, although he suspects that the landscape might revert, eventually. We can already sniff the first stirrings of revolution against the complacency of the algo-social-nosebag, waiting, tensed to tear off our blinkers.

The Randalu set revealed a pushier sound, when compared to the album contents, which is often the case with an ECM act's live incarnation. Plus, an outfit will naturally heighten and intensify their material on the stage. Guitarist Ben Monder remained the most introverted member of the trio, in stark contrast to his razoring work for Starebaby, the new Dan Weiss prog-jazz combo. Monder came across as if he was playing alone in a room, rather than in front of a jammed festival crowd. He barely acknowledged his involvement with the audience, or even his playing colleagues.

On "Partly Clouded" Randalu made spidering, hyperactive runs, exploding into action, whilst the Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari contributed splashy cymbal work, the leader's composition sounding positively volatile compared to the album's placid pools. "Adaption" had dense rippling from all three players, with simultaneous cycling patterns, creating a (Philip) Glassian swell. Randalu's pieces can become labyrinthine and highly involved, making an inward expression of virtuoso technique. Monder was looking intently at the score, as if he wasn't sure enough to let go, although his next move was, surprisingly, to release a frosted blizzard of accumulating effects, building to a crescendo, as Randalu scattered tiny rivulet phrases around the space. Following this, Monder floated back, leaving the piano and drums to roam the newly-available room, leading into "Absence," and its calm unfolding, into which Monder returned, with his prickly picking.

Still remaining on the piano stool, only two members of Nik Bärtsch's Mobile quartet were able to make it to Tallinn, due to a snarl-up at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Fortunately, one of them was the leader, who formed an enforced salvage-duo (Immobile?) with drummer/percussionist Nicolas Stocker, the premiere of a formation which gave an inspired performance of minimal repertoire re-interpretations. Tuned bells became part of the rhythm, as the makeshift duo's incredibly funky cycles evolved, echoing Mike Oldfield, with their cerebral springiness. Out of disappointment at a stranded half of this Swiss band grew a gratitude at being able to witness their remains in an exciting new shape, given just an edge of the unknown and the uncertain, even though Bärtsch and Stocker dealt with the situation exceptionally well, acting just like a rehearsed duo.

All personnel were present for the Delbecq 3, with French pianist Benoit Delbecq investigating an Afro-inclined improvisational approach, loaded with percussive rhythms, captivating tune-cores and imaginative textures. His other 2 are the Canadian Miles Perkins (bass) and Emile Biayenda (percussion), from the Congo. Delbecq has played with Biayenda since 1994, and this sticksman is crucial to the stance of the group, his very varied techniques supplying a leading character. Biayenda started out on water-gourd, changing tones via delicate differences in submersion, brushes and delicate bowing all part of the technique, conclusively plopping his gourd in the bowl to signal a sharp end. A highlight was "The Loop," referring to Chicago's elevated train system, and a number which Delbecq also plays when in solo or duo states, preparing part of his piano interior, for loping and/or rickety effects. "Family Trees" had a lurking exotica fascination, as if John Cage had stealthily entered a Martin Denny session, creating an entrancing mood of mystery. The Delbecq 3 took the art of improvisation into strange and uncharted territories, operating in areas rarely heard within this field.

Local bassist Heikko-Joseph Remmel is a regular at the festival, but this time he brought out a new quartet that included a pair of Finnish players, Mikko Karjalainen (trumpet) and Aleksi Heinola (drums). The line-up was completed by the Estonian pianist Joel-Rasmus Remmel. A bossa nova haze spread across the 1938 standard "You Go To My Head," operating in straight-ahead mode, the band wisely leaving their leader to play a completely solo bass segment. Remmel made some delicate plucks and soft strikes, with an eloquent phrasing of melody, swiftly building up a swinging pace. A funksome 1960s momentum was introduced for "Bolivia," featuring a notably high soloing standard for all four band members. A ballad fragility returned for "My Foolish Heart," with Karjalainen soloing on the flugelhorn.

The Danish duo of Bremer/McCoy had a seeming sound system stacked behind them, but it wasn't quite clear over whether it was being used in place of the conventional stage gear, or with some sort of mixed ratio. Morten McCoy's upright piano was also umbilically linked with a reel-to-reel tape machine, everything determinedly old school, but to craft a soundscape that was part new-fangled and part hoary/cranky. Bassman Jonathan Bremer appeared to be comparably 'natural.' Some might have viewed their reserved, ambient stance as precious, but the pair won over via a hyper-quiet and concentrated sincerity.

The Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire can be found at many festivals in recent times, which partly accounts for the rapid advancement of his band rapport, through frequent gigging in the company of Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Justin Brown (drums). The leader's tone is soft, warm and powdery, starting with an open vista, then growing in fluster. Brown busied himself around the skins, with tight hits and finely controlled cymbal-glowing, with some kind of tubular cluster attached to his hi-hat. Akinmusire topped the set off with a repeated note-pattern, accompanied by an enormous drum solo, Harris cranking up his Fender Rhodes. Akinmusire made burbling vocalisations deep into his horn, and Brown made one last drum-crash to help send the last trumpet note out into the ether, for a climax that held a primitivist relish for repetition and accumulating energies.

The Taner Akyol Trio delivered a strongly atmospheric set, featuring the Turkish leader's saz, along with piano from Antonis Anissegos and percussion from Sebastian Flaig, who used a customised kit that revolved around a frame drum core. It was their third number that facilitated full ascent, as Akyol took a vocal, and a majestic character emerged.

Jazzkaar provided a relatively early opportunity to view The Bad Plus, in their fresh incarnation, with Orrin Evans now replacing the long-running Ethan Iverson on the piano. The repertoire is dominated, as of old, with numbers penned by bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, but Evans is already contributing original compositions, and looks set to be a significant provider of material. Many of the old trio's customary works remain in place, but there's a fresh invasion a-building. The bad pulse remains the same, or at least similar, but Evans has a way of freeing up soulfully, when it's time to either solo, or take the tune higher, as a group endeavour. On another hand, his tendency is to introduce a spiky post-Cecil Taylor abruptness, or even a Don Pullen pugilist gospel hammer-attack. Whereas Iverson moved around a cerebral strut, or an avant lounge emphaticness, Evans is now winkling out unexpected facets of those hitherto familiar chestnuts. The set climaxed in fine style with Anderson's "Big Eater," loaded with hyperactive speed-responses from around the threesome ring.

The next (late) set involved the Berlin guitar trio Komfortrauschen, their mission being to sound like a techno dj, but employing drums, bass and guitar, often masked via extreme effects alteration. At first, we could wonder why they needed guitars for such sonic activities, but around 40 minutes into the performance, they cut the MIDI devices and rocked out, the guitar and bass actually sounding like electric guitar and bass. Even when they returned to the electronics palette, they'd been irrevocably endowed with a new power, their house angle veering into an intense minimalist zone, stripped to a purely pulsing space, making teaser pauses, before lurching off again. Komfortrauschen moved from a phase where your scribe was seriously considering leaving the building, to a point where the atmosphere was charged, between crowd and band, built up by the unstoppable momentum of hard repetition.

In the newly re-christened Alexela concert hall, singer Laura Mvula began a mini-UK evening, projecting to a full crowd with maximum chattiness, surprising with an encouraging down-to-earth character, full of witty observations. Listening to Mvula's music, this personalised attitude might not be expected, as some of her songs sound more formally arranged. This produced a winning contrast between drama and demeanour. Mvula had a funky band in place, with drums, electric bass and keyboards, with herself contributing occasional keytar parts. Again, the recorded work can sometimes sound cumulatively one-dimensional, but this nature was transformed, live onstage, vivified by Mvula's personality and charged delivery, as well as the band's groove interactions.

Not long afterwards, countrymen Sons of Kemet ripped up the joint back at Telliskivi, playing to a surging stand-up crowd, immediately setting up a manic mood of pumping tuba, stuttering tenor saxophone cross-riffs and doubled drumming dynamism. It was one of their more powerful performances, and this from a crew whose 'normal' level is extreme in the intensity marketplace. Theon Cross is becoming ridiculously agile on the tuba, delivering speedy articulations that belie the assumed cumbersome nature of this grumbly big horn.

Next came a three-part showcase gig, designed to highlight guitars, electronics, and their interfaces. Beginning with the Mauno Meesit Trio, the leader's guitar joined by electric violin and drums, a Wicker Man-styled prog-folk ambience ensued, calling up thoughts of Popol Vuh, those soundtrackers of Werner Herzog movies, back in the day. Echo and/or reverb ruled the roost, with the odd scraped and stroked whine glass. They also introduced a Viking rock thunder, using a prayer bowl, and this time suggesting a stack of Mogwai records, impressing as all three members attended to the percussing needs of a single, majestically amplified 'acoustic' guitar.

Argo Vals sent his own guitar through a table of effects, gaining spangled repeats and diaphanous delay sprays, building a symphonic glitch plateau upon which he soloed above beats and popcorn pliks. He aspired to an accessible response to Steve Reich, the Aphex Twin and the Durutti Column. To conclude the showcase, Modulshtein constructed around an electronic foundation, with one of the threesome also playing clarinets. A low bass blubber propelled their robo d'n'b, then another member picked up his guitar, working around the blips and whorls. A turntable entered, and a John Carpenter soundtrack mood permeated the concrete walls, eventually rotating towards an Algerian rai feeling. Modulshtein were certainly varied in their stylistic reflections!

The Leonid Šinkarenko Quartet played early the next day, their bassman leader representing the old guard of Lithuanian jazz. His approach led to a different sound, harking back a few decades. Sinkarenko plays a six-string electric axe, and his drummer Lina Buda has big hair, plus a big rock-style kit to match. There's a tough spillage of sound, ripping at the edges, against a jabbing base theme. Keyboard player Dainius Pulauskas picked up an alto saxophone on the second number, helping to deliver a two-horn introduction with trumpeter Valeriu Ramoška. A dramatic groove was initiated, with the leader's electric solos displaying strong characteristics of an acoustic upright tone.

There are a handful of festivals that are getting deeply into the home concert concept, and Jazzkaar is one of these, offering a strong programme of intimate gigs in private dwellings, locations only announced following ticket purchases. The pianist Kirke Karja is another one of Estonia's finest players, young and rising fast in prominence. Towards the end of the festival, she gave a solo recital that revealed yet another of her many aspects, concentrating on improvisation, but within a moderne classical vocabulary. She made introductory ripples, darkening in the bass regions, high patterning happening up at the other end of the keys, blossoming with soft, lowered repeats. She padded through varying phrases, making emphatic chiming strikes, presenting this solo version of her suite work for the first time. Karja acknowledged influences from Stravinsky and Debussy, her deep winter rumbling entertaining the possibility of bright spring dappling, in a rolling and tumbling tune that switched time relationships between her hands.

It's always fortunate when a festival reaches a thrilling climax, and tenor man Bill Evans provided just such a blow-out with his Petite Blonde II revival. Joining the leader were Ulf Wakenius (guitar), Gary Grainger (bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums), although it was only the latter player who appeared on the original 1992 album. The Swedish Wakenius had his amplifiers facing backwards, to the stage curtains. Was this a warning sign of intensity to come?

This bunch were eager to stir up a storming maelstrom from the outset, the members grouped closely together, feeding maximum adrenalin to each other, racing and palpitating with everything on full thrust. This was fusion jazz with super powers, imbued with a hardened, gritted edge. Evans comped on the piano when not taking heated solos on tenor saxophone, letting Wakenius scorch his own trail. This was their tenth show in a row, in pretty much that many days, as they (and we) drank in the momentum of their zooming European tour. Evans had penned a new book of tunes for the tour, but he also returned to "The Hobo," switching to soprano, chasing over a stop-start rhythm. Shockingly, he took a vocal whilst seated at the piano, completely incongruous, as the tip-toe-stretching high notes emerged. Evans was this year's Steve Gadd, as that drummer had provided the similarly barnstorming optimism-vibed stormer set at the 2017 Jazzkaar.

"DC Time" was a tight funker, with Grainger slapping his bass hard, whilst Evans and Wakenius trotted out closely compacted dual lines. The set concluded with an as-yet-untitled new number, a 'blues in seven.' Once again, Evans and Wakenius delivered strafing solos, with angular time-swerving, growing towards an avant country funk blues explosion. Their only slip was an encore with the Bill Withers song, "Ain't No Sunshine," with Evans singing again, getting into some piano-and-voice scatting. Not the best possible selection, but otherwise, a mighty set to finish the festival...

Photographs: Matti Komulainen

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