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Rigas Ritmi 2015

Bruce Lindsay By

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Rigas Ritmi
Riga, Latvia
July 1-4, 2015

The 15th anniversary of Rigas Ritmi was celebrated in fine style in Latvia's beautiful capital city. Māris Briežkalns, the festival's artistic director, had programmed Latvian artists and internationally-known musicians in a mix of large and small, old and new, venues. From the mediaeval squares of Old Riga to modern clubs and concert halls, the four-day festival presented around 20 performances: jazz was the central focus, but funk, soul, hip-hop and folk all featured across the weekend.

Big name stars included Bugge Wesseltoft, Paolo Fresu and Raul Midon. Co-incidentally, both 2015 Downbeat Rising Star Vocalist award winners—Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimee 99—made appearances, Harris starring in the festival's major concert in the company of the excellent Latvian Radio Big Band.

The festival's rather low-key opening concert took place on the Origo Summer Stage, an outdoor venue in front of Riga's main railway station. The event was free, as were other open-air performances, and attracted a large and receptive, if ever-changing, crowd. The concert featured singer Kristīne Prauliņa, winner of the 2014 Riga Jazz Stage competition, making her first appearance of the week, and the Bunch Of Gentlemen, a powerful 11-member funk and groove outfit full of the swagger and enthusiasm required to project their good-time vibe across and beyond the crowd.

Rigas Ritmi's serious business got under way the following morning as the main program of concerts, club gigs, showcases and workshop events began. The concerts got the big crowds, but some of the festival's gems were tucked away in the smaller venues.

The Riga Congress Center

Riga's large and imposing 1200-seat Congress Centre main hall played host to the festival's most prestigious concerts, all of which attracted large audiences. The opening concert of this series featured a double-bill of Bugge & Friends—a septet led by keyboard player Bugge Wesseltoft and including trumpeter Erik Truffaz and tenor player Ilhan Ersahin—and up-and-coming singer Ester Rada.

Bugge & Friends was playing its first concert of a tour promoting its self-titled album (Bugge & Friends Jazzland Recordings, 2015). The band favored lengthy numbers, characterized by layers of sound (often electronically altered) and rolling rhythms. The results were hypnotic, almost somnolent. Ersahin and Truffaz took on most of the lead playing, the strong tone of the tenor complementing the more fragile sounds of Truffaz' trumpet. Wesseltoft moved swiftly between keyboards and occasionally injected a little humor into the proceedings, underpinning one Truffaz solo with phrases from "Frère Jacques."

Rada, born in Israel of Ethiopian parents, presented a set that mixed her own songs with those associated with one of her inspirations, Nina Simone. Backed by a sextet, Rada delivered the songs with verve and her soulful voice grabbed the attention from the beginning. Her version of Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" lost the gorgeous melody of the original in favor of more emphasis on the tune's rhythmic pulse. Her own "Life Happens," with its easy groove and singalong feel, and a cover of "Feelin' Good" were highlights.

Friday evening's bill consisted of a duo performance from trumpeter Paulo Fresu and bandoneon player Daniele di Bonaventura and a solo set from New Mexico born guitarist/singer Raul Midón. Due to scheduling clashes (the bane of any jazz festival reviewer's life) I missed the Fresu/Di Bonaventura set and the first half of Midón's appearance. A pity, because feedback on the duo was positive and the closing half of Midón's set was one of my festival highlights—his guitar style was impressive, mixing percussive rhythms with flowing melodic lines, the emotional power of his vocals betraying the influence of Richie Havens and Stevie Wonder.

The Saturday evening double bill was the 2015 Rigas Ritmi's focal point. Cuban pianist Ramon Valle opened with a beautiful solo set which included a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and original compositions such as the lovely "Levitando," the bright and happy "Principe Enano" and "Five Sisters," a tune dedicated to his siblings that shifted subtly through romantic passages and jaunty dance rhythms. Valle's intimate, at times introspective, performance was greeted with reverence by the audience (it was notable throughout the festival that the audiences were attentive and responsive).

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