The Congress Hall's closing concert offered the intriguing prospect of sets from the Riga-born kokle player Laima Jansone and American vocal star Diane Schuur
. It was an idiosyncratic pairing: Jansone's experimentation and Schuur's pop-influenced take on standards. Schuur was a real entertainer, adept at engaging with an audience and getting them onside. But on the night it was the young kokle player who impressed the most.
In 2012, Jansone had impressed during a Rigas Ritmi gig at the Club Artelis alongside percussionist Orubs and bassist Andris Grunte. The trio had at that point played together only once or twice but it was already developing its own mix of tradition and modernity. A year later, things had moved on and the additional experience the musicians had gained as a unit showed in the imaginative sounds they created.
Grunte cut a fairly standard jazz figure, on double bass or bass guitar, a strong musical foundation that every so often would launch into some powerful solos. Orubs' more eccentric approach made him as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Sporting a rather marvelous pair of trousers, he seated himself behind an array of instruments that was, if anything, even more extensive and weird than it had been in 2012. In addition to his upturned bass drum and his collection of whisks, spoons and other kitchen utensils Orubs had added a bicycle wheel to his percussive arsenal. Armed with such a wide variety of instruments, Orubs could have made use of any or all of them in his first solo but instead he chose to clap, slap and otherwise hit his own body and the stage floor.
Seated between these two imposing musicians the slight, traditionally-dressed, Jansone clasped her koklean instrument that has changed little in 300 yearsand prepared to play. It was Jansone's birthday, but a difficult flight home from Helsinki that afternoon had left her little time to relax and she looked a bit self-conscious at times. There was little obvious impact on her performance however. In the early part of the set, Jansone brought out the kokle's light, almost mystical, sidewistful, romantic, melodies that seemed to float across the auditorium. There was a Fender amplifier on stage and, out of sight of most of the room, a selection of foot pedals. When Jansone changed instruments and brought the effects into play she moved into altogether different sonic territory, creating wave after wave of sounds that were challenging, aggressive and spectral.
Just as Butterscotch brought a fresh, hip-hop sensibility to songbook classics, Jansone brought contemporary musical awareness to an ancient instrumental tradition. At one point her kokle sounded like nothing else than Neil Young
's guitar circa
"Like A Hurricane"; that may be taking things a little too far, but Jansone and her trio were still experimenting, still taking risks. The young Latvian and her kokle are full of potential, an exciting and fascinating mix of ancient and modern.
Schuur's performance was enthusiastic, but her quartet took some time to gel. Schuur seemed a little uncomfortable at times and momentarily forgot the words to "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "For Once In My Life." However, saxophonist Julian Siegel
crafted swinging tenor solos on "Change Partners" and "Here's That Rainy Day." It all came together in fine style on "Louisiana Sunday Afternoon." The song was a highlight of the festival, a terrific combination of instrumental and vocal prowess that connected immediately with the audience; all four players seemed to raise their energy levels and Schuur and Siegel, on soprano sax, interacted perfectly.
Walking from the Congress Hall to the Misisipi riverboat for the final midnight cruise only took about ten minutes, but it was a ten-minute trip through a surprising variety of musical genres as the open air bars in Riga Old Town were kicking into gear for Saturday night. That short walk across the capital's medieval center took in dance, techno, hard rock and rockabilly. Then as another Rigas Ritmi venue came within earshot, the Open Air EGLE stage, the sound of a sitar cut through the air, gradually followed by vocals, guitars, tenor saxophone and percussion. This was the Frank/Pashkevich Experience stretching out on "Afro Blue."
Sadly, arriving rather late at the EGLE stageand missing a second chance to hear the young Lithuanian singer Laura Budreckyte, who had impressed many people with her performances earlier in the weekthe midnight cruise did provide a last chance to hear Cacija, Viluma and Protektore, backed once again by the Riga Jazz Quartet, including the excellent Orubs, now back behind a more standard drum set than the one he'd played with Jansone just a few minutes earlier.Closing Thoughts
This year's Rigas Ritmi took place at the same time as a major
celebration of the folk music and traditions of Latvia: the Latvian Song And Dance Celebration, which featured around 40,000 singers, dancers and other performers (including drummer Orubs). The event, which takes place once every five years, filled the city with bands, choirs, dance troupes and craftspeople, all in traditional dress. It was clearly a source of great pride to the Latvian people and grabbed a surprising amount of space on Latvian television. Did it impact on attendance at Rigas Ritmi? Probably not too much, as the open air events were all well-attended and each of the Congress Hall concerts sold well.
It was once again a pleasure to be invited to attend Rigas Ritmi and to enjoy the hospitality of Latvia's capital. In 2014 Riga becomes the European City Of Culture, which will bring a year-long series of events to the city. Hopefully Rigas Ritmi will benefit from this and continue to bring top quality jazz and its relatives to this beautiful Baltic capital.Photo Credit
All Photos: Bruce Lindsay