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Jazzkaar Festival: International Jazz in Estonia


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...the music we still call jazz has, by now, transcended its American origins, has become a truly global folk music, a music that assimilates and makes room for all other musical forms
Tallinn, Estonia
22nd April - 30th April 2005

Take two nights in Tallinn, medieval capital of Baltic Estonia, at the 16th annual Jazzkaar festival, two nights pretty much chosen at random from the week of concerts, and you'll notice two interesting and important things that say a lot about the state of jazz in the 21st century. Firstly, as the name suggests, you will witness the full 'jazz arc', an impossibly wide selection of music that fits under this sometimes infuriatingly loaded label. Secondly, and perhaps not unconnected to this, you might not see one single American act the whole time you are there. Charles Lloyd has already played his headline set earlier in the week (rumoured to be his last ever festival date); Israeli-American bassist Avishai Cohen has done his thing the night before. By the time our whistle-stop survey begins it's time to see what the rest of the world can do.

Most of the concerts are based around the Sakala Centre, a grand, Soviet-era construction comprising a cavernous main hall that once played host to important Communist party functions and, upstairs, a smaller lecture hall with tiered seating behind sturdy wooden desks, built for note-taking or midnight diplomacy. Thursday night, though, there's a lesson in anarchy taking place here, led by veteran French multi-instrumentalist and improviser Jacques Di Donato, backed on this occasion by the Estonian Trio Kerikmae-Laasi-Soo, cranking out a completely improvised slab of cosmic-free-funk-space-jazz-rock.

For just four men, there are a lot of instruments on stage: Theremin, Casio VL Tone, synthesiser, Fender Rhodes piano, transistor radio, acoustic bass guitar, wooden flute, clarinet, drums, electric guitar and e-bow. Di Donato is a sprightly, bearded figure behind the drum kit, a frenzied ball of energy, driving the music on to repeated crescendos. Bassist Rivo Laasi and guitarist Mart Soo are stalwarts from Estonian free-improvisational super-group, Tunnetusuksus, and they display a fine-tuned sense of empathy, but it's the young Kerikmae on keyboards and assorted equipment who's the real revelation here, squirming in his seat with pleasure as he throws in Fender Rhodes stabs and jabs like Keith Jarrett backing an electric Miles Davis.

It's also enormous fun to watch the musicians surprising themselves as they navigate this uncharted territory - as when they land bemused in an unintentionally hilarious cowboy stroll. Above all, they're revelling in a sense of play and exploration that is completely childish, in the very best sense of the word - with the elder Di Donato an embodiment of gnomic wisdom come full-circle to reside once again in folly. Finally, at the end of the journey, it's a joy to witness the wonder and delight on the faces of the musicians as the improvisation comes to a natural and satisfying conclusion, with Di Donato's plaintive clarinet a soothing valediction.

Later that night, the action switches to the main hall for pianist Omar Sosa's lean trio featuring fellow Cuban Miguel "Angá Diaz on percussion and Childo Tomas from Mozambique on electric bass. It's a distinctly international 'world-jazz' sound with timeless Cuban and African elements mixed in with modern electronics and HipHop beats. On paper, then, so-far-so-ordinary, but in practice the result is lifted into another realm by a kind of spiritual sincerity, backed up by some truly virtuoso playing.

The band is simply as tight as can be, held together by Tomas's thick but agile basslines and Diaz's percussion, played not on the usual jazz kit but on a selection of congas, bongos, cymbals and gongs, with the authority and metronomic precision that made his contributions to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon so important. Sosa largely eschews piano pyrotechnics in favour of moods, atmospheres and textures, brought into being by minimalist and perfectly timed touches of colour. He's also an energetic and charismatic showman, jumping to his feet and spinning round like a dervish when the spirit moves him.

The set ends with Sosa encouraging the audience to join in singing a simple melody. As the voices lift joyfully up to the high ceiling, they somehow wordlessly express what the whole performance has been about: unity, brotherhood, global peace and love. And amen to that, brother Omar.

Friday's first big act takes the stage of the main hall in the early evening, as Sufi mysticism meets Mediterranean insouciance in the form of Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

From the outset, the most arresting - and loudest - element of this performance is Youssef's frankly astonishing voice: the ancient, dusty cry of the muezzin, liberated from the mosque and let loose on the jazz aesthetic, with an intensely powerful energy and reach that renders the microphone obsolete. By contrast, his playing of the oud - a Middle Eastern lute - is low-key and restrained, often supplying little more than the basic materials for a trance-like rhythmic zone, with clicks and slaps to the instrument's body electronically looped and augmented with plucked circular figures.

Paolo Fresu is well-known on the European jazz scene with fairly spotless avant-garde credentials, having played with luminaries such as Kenny Wheeler, Uri Caine and John Zorn. Tonight, he provides heavily processed trumpet and flugelhorn, sometimes sounding like a choir of distant machines, at other times, providing little more than an atmospheric background hum. However smoothly non-committal his approach initially seems, he does however have an interesting take on the old standard, "Nature Boy", that briefly sees his fingers flying on the valves.

Ultimately, though, as the duo guides us through a series of meandering soundscapes, the performance doesn't seem to amount to very much, lacks focus and remains oddly unmoving. What's more, one can't help feeling that the audience got left behind somewhere near the end of the very first number, as is made painfully obvious by a spectacularly misjudged attempt to get the crowd singing, which suffers terribly from comparison to Omar Sosa's heartfelt communion of the night before.

Then it's back to the lecture hall upstairs for a primer in 'free happy jazz' with Erdmann/Sooaar Dessert Time. German, Daniel Erdmann, on tenor sax and Estonian guitarist, Jaak Sooaar, together create a very European sound, expertly navigating a selection of short, precise and intricate pieces, packed with disjointed, almost unmusical figures that are, nevertheless, given substance by dint of being played in perfect unison. It creates a curious aural picture of a clockwork child locked in a xylophone factory at night, while at other times it sounds like Anthony Braxton jamming with the Magic Band's Zoot Horn Rollo.

Above all, it's a good-natured, humorous recitation, enhanced by some first-class playing: Sooaar's electric guitar is uncluttered, clean and precise, while Erdmann makes his horn work hard, often taking advantage of the space within the compositions to ascend to a kind of fluttering, toneless, windy sound, like a metal bird flapping its wings.

The duo is joined on stage for an improvised section by Estonian vocalist Anne-Liis Poll, who astonishes with an otherworldly vocalese: a gripping, forgotten language of shrieks, trills, grunts, coughs and epiglottal murmurings. It's enormous fun that only partially loses its way when Sooaar takes a bow to his guitar strings for a superfluous interlude of sawing.

Experimentation very satisfactorily dealt with, the show ends with a hilariously deadpan, restrained bossa nova encore that raises titters from all corners. It's as if Dessert Time have provided a comprehensive answer to Frank Zappa's old question of whether humour belongs in music. The answer: yes, but only when the music in question is this imaginative, captivating and entertaining.

Later, the action is hotting up in the main hall downstairs, for a late Friday night double-bill. Tallinn's kids are out to have some fun and the chairs and tables have been cleared away for dancing. So, you can understand how the majority of those present are utterly confounded by Estonian outfit Kismabande's sprawling, improvised, sci-fi electronica. Coming across visually like a bunch of web designers checking their emails live on stage, Kismabande lay out an intelligent, introspective, sizzling mix of sounds that for the first half an hour doesn't even include any discernible rhythm. So much for dancing. The mood picks up towards the end of the set with deep, lysergic bass ripples, but the audience can still only sit cross-legged and watch, for the most part bemused · though undeniably entertained.

The moment that Norway's Xploding Plastix come on stage, it seems to be more what the audience had in mind for a Friday night: big, club-friendly, block-rockin' beats with keyboards, samples and a real-time drummer. It's energetic and striving very hard to be epic but, in the final analysis, stacked up against some of the music that has come before, it's actually somewhat empty and tiresome.

But the important thing is that someone's digging it. If Jazzkaar stands for anything it's a showcase for the increasingly diverse and divergent musical styles that nestle under the ever-accommodating umbrella of the 'jazz arc.' We've witnessed two nights of incredibly varied, international sounds, none of which conform even remotely to the clichéd images of jazz: no smoky basement clubs, no sharp suits and track marks, no Times Square insomnia laments. In fact, no American acts in sight at all.

And this is the other important message that Jazzkaar brings. It is more obvious than ever before that the music we still call jazz has, by now, transcended its American origins, has become a truly global folk music, a music that assimilates and makes room for all other musical forms with which it comes into contact, which allows cultures the world over to express themselves in a shared tongue, a common idiom that all nations can understand.

Yes, jazz was born in America, remains probably the single greatest contribution the Land of the Free has made to the modern world, its ultimate artistic statement. But jazz is evolving relentlessly. It continues to mutate and grow. Jazz will survive long after the names of the nations of the world are nothing more than memories, in a time when all men will be free. Where there is jazz, there is hope.

Photo Credit
Annika Metsla

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