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Rigas Ritmi Festival, Riga, Latvia, July 4-7, 2012

Rigas Ritmi Festival, Riga, Latvia, July 4-7, 2012
Bruce Lindsay By

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Rigas Ritmi Festival
Riga, Latvia
July 4-7, 2012
As city-based jazz festivals go these days Rigas Ritmi (it means Riga Rhythms) is a pretty small affair. But small is beautiful, as they say, and a combination of inventive programming and the lovely city of Riga, the capital of Latvia, made for a very pleasurable few days. The festival was established in 2001 and takes place each year in early July—which, in 2012, turned out to be an exceptionally warm and humid few days. It attracts internationally known artists as both performers and educators, and it also promotes Latvian musicians through its series of Showcase events.

Latvia is a relatively small nation with a population of around 2.2 million people. Riga, the largest city (as well as the capital), is home to around 650,000 people and has an intimate, friendly, feel. The center of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old city dates from around 1200 while, just outside the center, the influence of Jungendstil (Art Nouveau) is also strong; UNESCO recognizes Riga's buildings of the period as the finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. Harsh winters can make daily activity difficult, but during the summer much of Riga's social life takes place at the open air bars, cafés and restaurants that surround its ancient squares. The Festival's Artistic Director, Maris Briezkalns (pictured left), is one of Latvia's top drummers and a passionate supporter of his fellow musicians. I attended the 2012 festival as a guest of the festival organizers, with colleagues from the jazz communities of North America and Europe. We were there not only to hear some of Latvia's best young musicians but also to participate in a panel discussion on jazz which was recorded by Latvian National Radio.

The festival concerts took place at a range of venues, including the small and intimate Club Artelis, the Open Air Leisure Park EGLE and the 1200-seat Riga Congress Center. Rigas Ritmi also organizes concerts at other times of the year—singers Kurt Elling and Youn Sun Nah will play the Congress Center later in 2012—but the July festival is the year's focal point.

With two or three events taking place each evening, as is usual with multi-venue programs, it was impossible for one person to see all of the acts on offer and so concerts by visiting artists such as pianists Antonio Ciacca (the Jazz At Lincoln Center Director of Programming, who also led one of the workshop series) and Hiromi were missed, as well as some of the performances by Latvian musicians, including the Future Folk Orchestra and vocalist Intars Busulis.

The events seen mixed international and Latvian artists in a range of programs that varied in style and content. The international acts have already established their reputations across the world, but for the most part the Latvian musicians have yet to break through beyond their own country. It will hopefully only be a matter of time. The Latvian performers impressed on many levels. They were technically skilful and demonstrated an affinity with different jazz styles. It was also obvious that some of these musicians were showing an imaginative approach to the intermingling of jazz with their own musical culture. This is clearly an exciting time for jazz in Latvia.

July 5: At The Club Artelis

Thursday night at this beautiful and welcoming venue was devoted to sets by two young ensembles based in Latvia. North By Northeast, a quartet of young Latvian musicians, demonstrated strong technique on a series of original tunes. The band formed in 2011 and won the 2012 Keep An Eye Jazz Award. The set was tight, professional and melodic, with guitarist Matiss Čudars often adding a rockier edge to the remaining members' more obviously jazz stylings. The band takes inspiration from classical and folk musics, as well as from jazz, although this wasn't obvious in its set, which seemed to draw directly from North American contemporary jazz. North By Northeast is full of potential; once it finds its own distinctive sound then it will be a force with which to be reckoned.

The Laima Jansone Trio was the find of the Festival, with great visual appeal and an original and exciting sound. Jansone plays the kokle, a traditional Latvian instrument, and performs in classical, rock and folk ensembles as well as solo. The kokle she played at this concert was a custom-built instrument which she has designed to be amplified and used with electronic effects. The well-established Latvian rhythm section of acoustic bassist Andris Grunte and percussionist Artis Orubs completed the Trio. Orubs was in the process of experimenting with his percussion setup, upending his bass drum so that he could play it with his right hand and using a variety of kitchen implements, including egg whisks, to create a constantly changing mélange of sounds.

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