The Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär
reaches his 50th birthday on Monday 25th April, and celebrates by playing a gig at the Jazzkaar festival in Tallinn. Most of Sooäär's prominence in the country, and around the rest of Europe, emanates from his inspired output as an adventurous jazz guitarist, but he has occasionally side-stepped into the realms of rock, folk and classical musics. His recent recorded work and live performance has concentrated on the Sooäär-Ounaskari-Yaralyan trio.
Sooäär's latest group explores the music and chemistry of Eesti Keeled, first assembled in 1999 for that year's Jazzkaar festival. The central concept was to combine the strings of guitar and kannel, the latter being an ancient box zither instrument that lies at the heart of Estonian folk music. At first there were two of each, with additional vocals, either in song or in poetry or text narrations. Original member Jaak Johanson, an actor, singer and orator, died in 2021, and Sooäär was involved in a musical homage at last year's Viljandi Folk Music Festival.
Sooäär elaborates: "Eesti Keeled has quite a special story. 'Keel' means a tongue, a string, or a language, in Estonian, so basically we could call the band Estonian Strings, as at the beginning we were a kind of string quartet. In 2001 we were joined by two great singer/guitarists, and suddenly it became very popular. I think that the last concert we played was in 2013 or 2014."
Your scribe asked Sooäär how it was, to creep towards folk, from the jazz edge. "Somehow the folkish vocabulary is a part of our culture, at least when one sings in choirs," he says, referring to the native position of choral voices in Estonian culture, and indeed its general national identity. "It was usual that during family parties people sang together. This is unfortunately disappearing now. But I was not an expert, so I also had to learn..."
The current line-up of Eesti Keeled also features Tuule Kann (kannel), Pille Karras (bass kannel), Ain Agan (acoustic guitar), Riho Sibul and Vaiko Eplik (vocals/guitars). Sibul is the leader of veteran rock band Ultima Thule, and Eplik has a significant status as a solo artist. "I decided to celebrate my birthday with this group, as it has been very special, and we have been very good friends," Sooäär continues. "Usually, I like to go forward, but now I decided to look back and remember this great period of my life. Probably these are the last concerts of this group."
How have the rehearsals been going? "It's been fine. Somehow, you meet old friends, and it's the same. This band has a very specific sound. It's very soft, the music is not aggressive, so it's like a floating therapy. We have a rehearsal for a few hours, and we don't notice, it goes by very fast. We always have very long concerts, and we're always thinking, who will fall asleep first, the audience or us? But we never did. I'm not sure about the audience," Sooäär smiles.
"The kannel is not really used in jazz or improvised music, although nowadays, a little bit more," he muses. "The instruments we play are chromatic, and they were constructed after the second world war. It took quite a lot of testing and trying out, to see what fit. Now we kind of know."
Sooäär keeps his electric guitar quite low in volume, plugged directly into his amplifier, with no effects pedals. "I think it gives another colour to the group," he says. "There are a few traditional tunes in the repertoire, but it's mostly my songs now, written specially for this occasion. I always work quite spontaneously. If something feels right, I just try to see what can be done with the idea."
The jazz trio Sooäär-Ounaskari-Yaraljan has been relatively active in recent years, in and out of lockdowns. "We have new music ready for an album now. I think we'll record, and we have some concerts internationally, this summer."
Sooäär has also played a few Bach gigs recently, interpreting the composer's violin concertos, in a quartet with harpsichord. "I don't think that anybody ever played these on electric guitar. It was quite experimental in this way, but we play what's written, and then I expand with some improvisations, repetitions. My main concern as a jazz player was that I'd lose focus, but all the concerts went really well. It's quite technically demanding, to play in a very high register."
Also, to coincide with his 50th birthday, Sooäär has assembled a songbook of his tunes, with material spanning old to new, from different groups and genres, and open to interpretation by different instruments. This is no solo guitar notation project. Multiple parts are laid out, for potentially inspired reconstruction.