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Jazzkaar 2018

Martin Longley By

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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.

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