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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
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.


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