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Rigas Ritmi Festival: Riga, Latvia, July 3-6 2013

Rigas Ritmi Festival: Riga, Latvia, July 3-6 2013
Bruce Lindsay By

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Rigas Ritmi
Riga
Latvia
July 2-6, 2013

Latvia's Rigas Ritmi 2013 was the 13th edition of this compact but always intriguing celebration of music—or, more precisely as the title indicates, a celebration of rhythms. The distinction is important for although jazz is at the heart of the festival it shares the spotlight with other styles. The 2013 program starred performers inspired by the Great American Songbook, musicians who worked across jazz and hip-hop and, in the person of Laima Jansone, someone who is just beginning to explore the potential of new cross-boundary collaborations.

As in previous years, Rigas Ritmi offered big name concerts in the 1200-seat Riga Congress Hall and some popular free gigs on a series of outdoor stages. The Misisipi (sic) riverboat played host to three midnight jazz cruises, taking audiences down the River Daugava as they listened to acts including the Andreas Varady Trio and guitarist Ori Dakari. Each morning started with a master class at the studios of Latvian Radio, giving eager students the chance to get up close and personal with talents such as Robert Glasper and John Medeski..

Vocalists featured strongly in the 2013 festival. In fact, only one of the acts appearing at the Riga Congress Hall—Medeski Martin & Wood—failed to include at least one vocal number. Four young singers performed in the smaller venues across the four days of the festival. Daniel Cacija, Laura Budreckyte, Elina Viluma and Evelina Protektore all work within what might broadly be termed the mainstream, performing standards, blues or contemporary songs. Each of them was still developing as an artist but displayed plenty of promise, with Cacija and Budreckyte shining most brightly.

It was a pleasure to be a guest of the festival organizers for the second time, arriving in Riga late on the Wednesday evening and so missing the first day's events, but the following three days offered plenty of opportunities to experience the festival and soak up some of the culture of Latvia's capital city.

Thursday, July 4

Exactly what constitutes a "master class" can be open to interpretation. The Rigas Ritmi master classes varied in style and content from day to day, but they all provided some fascinating insights—sometimes into the skills of performance, at other times into the ideas and opinions of the presenters.

For the most part, Robert Glasper's Thursday morning maste rclass took the form of a question and answer session, with Glasper responding to questions about a range of topics including his production work, his relationship with singers and rappers and his own development as a musician. Glasper was funny and charismatic, answering questions with insight and honesty.

In response to a question about audience attention spans, Glasper said that they seemed to be shortening and that as a result the music scene was filled with "a bunch of bad artists singing the same song." However, Glasper made it clear that his criticism wasn't leveled at every singer: he spoke highly of Justin Timberlake, stating that ..."he loves music." Asked which singers he would like to work with, Glasper responded with an intriguing list—Bjôrk, Thom Yorke, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel all got his seal of approval.



Glasper also featured prominently in the main event of the day, the Congress Hall double bill of the Robert Glasper Experiment and Somi, an Illinois-born child of Rwandan and Ugandan parents who is blessed with a beautiful voice.

Experiment performed first. The quartet proved to be a stimulating experience, both aurally and visually. Bassist Burniss Travis, an undemonstrative yet imposing presence, provided the music's foundation with throbbing, low-end bass patterns. Glasper surrounded himself with a bank of electronic keyboards, the Fender Rhodes proving to be his keyboard of choice for most of the set. Drummer Mark Colenburg, seated stage right, was in terrific form, working with Travis to provide the grooves but also producing some hard-hitting solos.

But Casey Benjamin was Experiment's visual centre. The vocalist, keytarist and saxophonist had real stage presence and his energy and enjoyment was obvious. Benjamin made use of the vocoder on every song and though it sounded less intense than when seeing band in 2012, it still made most of the lyrics indecipherable—a pity, as many of the lyrics are worth listening to and Benjamin's unaltered voice may just be a hidden gem. As an instrumentalist he impressed particularly on alto saxophone, playing with a fiery passion.

The set contained numbers from Experiment's hit album Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012), obviously familiar to many audience members. A brief, laidback, take on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a lovely performance of Sade's "Cherish The Day" were highlights. After a standing ovation from much of the near-capacity crowd the band returned to encore with another beautiful tune, "Gonna Be OK."

Somi shared Experiment's ability to create an irresistible groove, but in her case she used it to underpin a set of songs that spoke affectingly of her life and especially of her experiences of living in Nigeria during the previous year or so. "Ginger Me Slowly," inspired by the Nigerian slang for making somebody feel good, was cheery and fun. Most of her songs dealt with more serious subjects such as grief and poverty. The combination of her voice and her songwriting talent created some of the most affecting songs of the festival, the finest of which was "Last Song," a sad yet uplifting celebration of life which Somi wrote in memory of a friend killed in an air crash.

The evening closed with the first midnight jazz cruise on the Misisipi. The boatload of late-night revelers cruised up and down the River Daugava in the company of the Andreas Varady Trio and Riga Jazz Quartet. Andreas Varady, a 15-year-old guitarist recently signed to Verve Records, was accompanied by his father Bandi on bass guitar and his 11-year-old brother Adrian on drums. The trio played a set of upbeat original tunes that stayed close to the tradition of players like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell without simply mimicking any one guitarist. The Riga Jazz Quartet—pianist Viktors Ritovs, drummer Artis Orubs, saxophonist Toms Rudzinskis and bassist Edvīns Ozols—played with three of the young vocalists, staying with the American Songbook for the most part although Daniel Cacija's version of "Stormy Monday" took a bluesier direction.

Friday, July 5

Friday began with two workshops. Keyboardist John Medeski ,of Medeski, Martin & Wood, gave the first. The highlight was his opening piano improvisation, a performance of some energy and power that drew on George Gershwin's "Summertime." Medeski's stated aim was to discuss the importance of slowing down and learning by ear, both useful pieces of advice. He also entered into a discussion of life as a working jazz musician. It was an intriguing insight into that life, but his tale of the band's difficult early years and his declaration that things ..."have never been as bad as they are now" made for somewhat grim listening. He then revealed that the band's income had fallen in recent years and was now only about half of what it had been at its peak. Probably not what the audience, mostly aspiring jazz players, wanted to hear.

By contrast, Andreas Varady gave a workshop filled with the optimism and enthusiasm of youth. Varady delivered his talk with an engaging mix of confidence and self-consciousness, giving insight into his playing, his practice regime and his life as a touring musician. He also played extensively, often in partnership with brother Adrian who joined in with a set of congas that the brothers found in the studio that morning. An impressively fast yet precise "Donna Lee" was a clear demonstration of Varady's talent.

Medeski, Martin & Wood opened Friday night at the Congress Hall. The trio played its set as a single piece, with no interactions with the audience and little variation dynamically. The mix of jam band, prog rock, Acid jazz and Gregg Allman-style boogie seemed technically skilled but lacked excitement. The audience response was more than favorable, however, and the trio returned for an encore. It turned out to be the best number of the performance: all three men moved to front and center, playing acoustically—Medeski on melodica, Chris Wood on double bass and Billy Martin on tambourine—belatedly facing the audience rather than each other and creating one or two humorous musical moments.

Anyone in search of audience interaction, genuine emotional connection, dynamics and sheer delight needed to arrive at the Congress Hall in time for the evening's headliner. Butterscotch, a young beatboxer, singer and instrumentalist from California, was a joy. Looking sharp in a dark suit, white shirt and tie and carrying a beautiful, pale wood, acoustic guitar she walked on stage alone and gave a low-key, almost fragile, rendition of "The Very Thought Of You." Her singing voice may have lacked power, but it was full of emotion.

Butterscotch introduced "Summertime" with a story of how her grandmother's cousin, Anne Wiggins Brown, had been the original Bess in Porgy And Bess. If that tale seemed to set things up for a traditional reading of the song, then Butterscotch's beatboxing and cries of "Let's get funky" and "Let's break it down" soon moved things firmly into new territory, mixing the song's melody and lyrics with some strong, soulful, rhythm. Maybe not what Gershwin had envisaged, but a great example of how a fresh perspective on the harmonies and rhythms of a song can shift its emotional impact while still respecting the melody and message of the original.

Joined onstage by the superb rhythm section of bassist Claus Fischer and drummer Rhani Krija, Butterscotch continued the performance with a mix of classics and original tunes. "My Funny Valentine" and Sade's "Smooth Operator" bookended Butterscotch's own "Perfect Harmony," on which she vocalized a trumpet part. By the time a beatbox version of "Misty" was followed by another original, "Silver Lining," some serious dancing had broken out in the front row. Butterscotch invited the group on stage to dance and join in on the chorus.

Butterscotch closed the show with "Obsession," which she wrote with Marcus Miller, then encored with a solo beatbox performance. This young artist has still to release her first album but she's already an outstanding talent. Where she'll eventually choose to go with that talent is still open for discussion, but as festival organizer Maris Brietzkalns said, she is definitely "a new star."

Saturday, July 6

Butterscotch got Saturday off to a great start with the most informative, entertaining and interactive of the master classes. Beatbox 101, as she termed it, took a dozen workshop participants through the rudiments of the beatboxer's art and also gave insights into the more complex aspects of the style. With a combination of gentle persuasion and friendly cajoling Butterscotch persuaded almost all of the participants to try out their newfound skills on the mike. Two of them revealed a particular ability and were rewarded with the chance to duet with Butterscotch—an experience which she seemed to enjoy just as much as the students.

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