Tallinn International JazzKaar Festival April 20-28, 2007 Estonia's JazzKaar, a 9-day, 13-town celebration of jazz, has had a rough couple of years. In 2006 the festival lost its longtime central venue, the mammoth old communist party headquarters in Tallinn, scattering JazzKaar's concerts to a hodgepodge of locations around Estonia's almost too perfect, Disney-like capital of spires, medieval walls and cobblestone streets. And this year, with ticket sales just getting back on their feet, ethnic riots broke out across the city in response to the government's removal of a Russian World War II memorial from the center of Tallinn on Apr. 25th, just as the heart of the festival was kicking into gear. Your reporter arrived in Tallinn about four o'clock that afternoon, caught three concerts, then returned to his hotel around midnight to find angry police in riot gear pushing protesters out of the old city and straight past his hotel's front door. JazzKaar, however, went on, nervous but undaunted; most concerts throughout its closing weekend were well attended, with international acts receiving a warm welcome from enthusiastic (if rather edgy) audiences. Even without civil strife, JazzKaar can be a wonderfully disorienting experience for the American concert-goer. Estonia has clearly turned its face toward the free-market West since this former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991, but JazzKaar remains very much a homegrown - and home- attended - event. Though English is widely spoken in tourist-heavy Tallinn, the festival's glossy guide is written without English translation and acts are introduced solely in Estonian as well (when introduced at all - more than one group simply wandered onstage and began playing, without fanfare). And, though this year's JazzKaar drew musicians from as far afield as Brazil and Australia, approximately half of the festival's 200 performers were Estonian, with many others coming from Scandinavia and the neighboring Baltic states; few names outside the headliners are likely to be familiar to globe-hopping American jazz fans. (Indeed, with the notable exception of guitarist Mike Stern, who guested the previous night with Norwegian pianist Jan Gunnar Hoff's group, the six days of JazzKaar which preceded this writer's arrival consisted largely of artists outside his purview.)
The 'Kaar' in JazzKaar means 'rainbow', and the festival mostly lives up to its name, with founder and artistic director Ann Erme scheduling acts across a wide swath of the jazz spectrum. Thursday's program was appropriately illustrative: The evening started with the young Estonian vocalist Liisi Koikson leading an electrified band through slavishly literal interpretations of Joni Mitchell tunes on the stage on the Vene Kultuurikeskus or Russian Cultural Center, a gorgeous, artfully decaying, balconied theatre with a ceiling fresco celebrating the Russian navy and hammer-and-sickle reliefs encircling the proscenium. Koikson's set was an unremarkable, if slightly surreal, introduction to the festival, but things improved dramatically when the exceptional American pianist-singer Andy Bey took the same stage later that evening. Playing his first gig in Estonia - and only his second with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith completing his trio - Bey wowed the decked-out Eastern European crowd with his spare, knotty arrangements of standards like "Speak Low and "Caravan . Though brand new, the group settled in quickly and Bey's dynamics-driven piano solos and silky, astonishingly preserved bass-baritone filled the huge hall to its rafters. The 67-year-old Bey was particularly impressive on the set's closer, "Get it Straight (a vocal version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser ), leaving the piano to scat directly off the bass and drums; the hushed, well-heeled crowd erupted into applause and stomped for more and a genuinely touched Bey responded with two encores, including a gloriously tender "Someone to Watch Over Me . Festivities then moved to the Rock Club, a cavernous space carved out of a defunct paper mill, for a raucous, sold-out show by Barcelona's Ojos de Bruho. Combining a bit of jazz improv with a thick brew of funk, hiphop and flamenco, the music was energetic, but deafening; though the crowd loved it, a little of this band goes a long way.
Against the backdrop of rising unrest in the city, Friday's shows continued in the same eclectic vein. Leading things off was a set by the expert Estonian reedist Raivo Tafenau's quintet, featuring the Polish vibraphonist Dominik Bukowski and fine San Francisco drummer Brian Melvin. (Married to an Estonian, Melvin splits his time between countries and has helped to energize the burgeoning Tallinn jazz scene.) The venue, a plain, low-ceilinged banquet hall in the Soviet-era Hotel Viru, was less than inspiring, but the acoustics were surprisingly good and the group played well, slipping through lyrical post-bop originals with fluid ease before finishing with an energetic reading of the Joe Henderson classic "Recorda Me . Then it was back to the Russian Cultural Center, where the festival's "Jazz Ambassador , the legendary '60s avant-garde tenor firebrand Archie Shepp, brought the house down with a full-throttle program that encompassed everything from swing to spoken word to barroom blues to bop to free and back. On the cusp of 70, Shepp performed throughout his long set with convincing power, employing the full range of the horn and punctuating his vocal numbers with James Brown-like shrieks and growls. Joining him was the young French singer Mina Agossi, who handled a number of Monk tunes with arresting warmth. Afterwards, the British soul-acid jazz group Incognito followed in the footsteps of Ojo de Brujos, presiding over another sold-out late night show across town in the Rock Café.
On Saturday, JazzKaar's final day, with the civil unrest appearing to subside, the bigger names moved to the pristine acoustics of the 1913 neo-classical Estonia Concert Hall. There, in the afternoon, Brazilian songwriting giant Marcos Valle received perhaps the most wildly enthusiastic response of the festival. Though his soft sambas only lightly touched upon jazz, the end of his set brought the crowd to its feet, demanding encore after encore from the obligingly good-natured pop icon. Then, in the evening, the remarkable Japanese-born, Berlin-based pianist Aki Takase closed out the headliner's portion of the festival with a quartet tribute to Fats Waller, pounding out a blizzard of notes with her fingers, palms and forearms, moving with blinding speed from serious avant-garde dissonance to playful pumping stride. Both exhilarating and exhausting, it seemed to bring the festival to a fitting close. For those with the energy, however, there was still more music to be had: In Tallinn's sole jazz club, the small Theatre No. 99, the young Estonian trio Aimla-Akulin-Vaigla painted miniature soundscapes with a delicate mix of reeds, brass and electric bass, while in the Pirita Flower Pavillion the Finnish neo-Brazillian groove band Dalindeo and France's four-DJ Birdy Nam Nam were scheduled to take listeners late into the night.