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Festival Review: Jazzkaar in Tallinn, Estonia

An out-of-the-way jazz festival turns 25 with style

Marshall Gilkes, Rodrigo Villalon, Edmar Castaneda. Marina Pavilion, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Edmar Castaneda. Marina Pavilion, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Oscar Grönberg, Trygve Waldemar Fiske, Hanna Paulsberg, Hans Hulbækmo. NO99 Jazz Club, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Kadri Voorand. NO99 Jazz Club, Jazzkaar, Estonia April 2014
Ivo Neame, Marius Neset. Marina Pavilion, Jazzkaar, Estonia April 2014
Avishai Cohen, Marina Pavilion, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Nils Landgren
Nils Landgren, Marina Pavilion, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Antonio Sánchez, Ben Williams. Nokia Concert Hall, jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014
Michael Arbenz, Christian Wendt, Greg Osby, Florian Arbenz. NO99 Jazz Club, Jazzkaar, Estonia, April 2014

When Cassandra Wilson came out on the stage of the Nokia Concert Hall at the Jazzkaar festival, she said, “Wow. So this is Estonia. I never knew. Nobody told me about you.”

She is not alone. Estonia is an esoteric destination. The total population is 1.3 million, less than San Antonio, Tex. Many people can name two of the three Baltic states (Lithuania and Latvia) but not the third. Tallinn is Estonia’s capital. It is 50 miles south of Helsinki, across the Gulf of Finland, and 200 miles west of St. Petersburg. Tallinn deserves to be more famous. It is the best preserved of all Nordic medieval cities. The cobbled streets of the Old Town twist between 15th and 16th century buildings up to Toompea, the upper town, historically a separate municipality. A Russian Orthodox cathedral, with its four onion domes, towers over Toompea, and there is a palace in shocking pink that now houses Estonia’s parliament. The old city wall is mostly intact. Twenty-six of the original 46 watchtowers, with their pointed red roofs, are still in place.

Estonia became independent in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. It is a member of the EU and NATO, was the third post-communist country to adopt the Euro, and has the highest GDP growth rate in Europe. Its streets contain so many designer shops and Audis that you sometimes forget you are not in Germany. Estonia, like every eastern European country, has a tragic history. For most Estonians, that dark history still lives. A phrase you hear constantly is “back in Soviet times,” referring to the period from 1944 to 1991, when Estonia was a Soviet republic. It was an era of executions, mass deportations (mostly to Siberia), “Russification,” ruthless repression and enforced collectivization.

During “Soviet times,” Moscow carried out an enormous population transfer. Hundreds of thousands of Russians were moved into Estonia. It was a strategy for bringing the country into the communist fold. The legacy of this strategy is a large Russian-speaking minority in present-day Estonia. Not far from Tallinn’s idyllic Old Town is Lasnamäe, a stark conglomeration of high-rise apartments in the brutalist Soviet architectural style. Approximately one-third of Tallinn’s 400,000 people live in Lasnamäe, most of them Russian. The challenges of forging a single unified society in Estonia are daunting. In 2007, an incident in Tallinn made headlines in the international news media. A “Liberation Monument,” important to Russian citizens because it memorialized Russia’s sacrifices in World War II, was moved from the city center to a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Violent protests erupted in Tallinn and Moscow. Cyber attacks were launched against Estonia’s governmental and commercial websites.

Of course, the jazz world was not unaffected by the totalitarianism of “Soviet times.” The Soviet Union was mostly hostile to jazz, and for many years the saxophone was outlawed. (That the saxophone was regarded as an especially dangerous purveyor of “Western decadence” is a factoid that should delight all living jazz saxophone players.)

Yet as far back as 1949, jazz lovers in Estonia were able to organize some concerts that they called a festival. It continued on and off until 1966, when they started calling it the Tallinn International Jazz Festival. Then in 1967 a famous incident occurred. It made the New York Times, and, from the point of view of the American jazz community, was Tallinn’s first and only 15 minutes of fame. Charles Lloyd appeared with his popular quartet (Keith Jarrett, Ron McClure, Jack DeJohnette). The band exceeded the time allotted in the government-approved program. A large crowd was driven wild by the strange experience of freedom that Lloyd’s music aroused. They shouted and carried on. The communist apparatchiks present as official observers were so uncomfortable with this public display of chaotic, unauthorized emotion that they pulled the plug on the concert. Then the crowd, screaming “Lloyd jazz! Lloyd jazz!” threatened to riot for real. The government overseers reluctantly plugged Lloyd back in and let him finish the show, but the fate of the Tallinn International Jazz Festival was sealed. It went dark for 23 years.

Then, in 1990, a small festival was held in Tallinn. It now called itself “Jazzkaar,” which is a play on Estonian words. A “jaskar” is a village party, and a “vikerkaar” is a rainbow. A “Jazzkaar” is therefore both a party and a music rainbow. Like so many jazz festivals, Jazzkaar is the brainchild and life’s work of a single individual. When Anne Erm started it from scratch in 1990, it was still “Soviet times,” although Soviet control had already started to unravel. By the second year, in 1991, Estonia was emerging from its 47 years of communist twilight. Erm’s day gig was at a radio station in Tallinn. (She still hosts a jazz program.) She possessed zero experience in the business side of the music business. But she was apparently persuasive. Legend has it that in the early days she carried a plastic bag to meetings with potential sponsors, public and private. The bag contained her meager portfolio of festival advertisements and photos. In the deprivation of “Soviet times,” she did not own a briefcase.

Against all odds, Erm got Jazzkaar off the ground. By 2014, she was the artistic director of a 10-day festival celebrating its 25th anniversary, with 26 concerts in three venues, plus an “Off Festival” with music in the cafés, trams and streets of Old Town. The primary site was Marina Pavilion (“Merepaviljon”), near the sea at Tallinn Harbor. It is a temporary building with an arched tarp roof, only set up for special events. Once inside, you were not conscious that it is a pre-fab structure. The sound system and acoustics were fine. The Pavilion had 1000 seats that were always full or nearly full. (On its 25th anniversary, Jazzkaar set a record for attendance.) The two headliners, Cassandra Wilson and Pat Metheny Unity Group, played in the Nokia Concert Hall (“Nokia Kontserdimaja”), an immaculate new 1829-seat auditorium with excellent natural acoustics, just outside the Old Town in the Solaris shopping mall. The late-night concerts (not that late: 10 p.m.) were held in the NO99 Jazz Club (“Teater NO99 Jazziklubi”), a couple of blocks from Solaris. The festival needs to find an alternative to this space. It was a nice intimate setting in which to hear music for a few fortunate early arrivers, and a standing-room-only and/or blocked view situation for everyone else.

There are only a few sounds in jazz that immediately stop you cold simply as sensory stimuli, as pure aural events, even before they have differentiated themselves into notes or words. Jazzkaar 2014 contained three of them: the shimmering, celestial sonorities that Edmar Castaneda derives from his unique instrument, the Colombian harp; Cassandra Wilson’s voice, which reaches directly deep inside you, bypassing your brain; the heart-rending strains of a harmonica in the hands of Gregoire Maret, who now serves as Wilson’s musical director.

Castaneda played Marina Pavilion with his trio (Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Rodrigo Villalon, drums). For jazz fans who have spent their lives with traditional ensemble formats, Castaneda is an unfamiliar, exciting experience. He is a virtuoso. Sometimes he makes his harp sound like a guitar (no, eight guitars), sometimes like a sitar, sometimes like a host of strumming angels.

But this improbable trio is no novelty act. Its intricate music is all about ecstasy. Gilkes is one of the most creative trombonists in jazz, and Villalon is a dialed-in drummer whose swing is subtle and insidious. Castaneda’s piercing plucked single notes and his ringing sweeps are tonally so different from Gilkes’ blasting, blustering brass. The contrast works. “Entre Cuerdas” (“Between the Strings”) was a successful attempt to combine traditional joropo music from the plains of Colombia with jazz improvisation. Castaneda can drown you in his vast washes, but within the sublime din, he invents vivid melodic lines. Gilkes is free to launch diverse bold excursions.

Gilkes contributed one tune, “Looking Forward,” a graceful, pensive jazz melody. The composer took a solo with many turns and digressions while Castaneda surrounded him with complementary clouds of sound. Castaneda was alone for “Jesus de Nazareth,” a complete world of harmony and rhythm and passion that often rang out but sometimes grew very quiet. After he announced that he sometimes likes to combine sambas from Brazil with rhythms from his native Colombia, it was startling when the song became “Autumn Leaves,” alive with new sensual samba energy. Castaneda’s set was one of the highlights of the festival.

In the Nokia Concert Hall, Cassandra Wilson announced that her band was celebrating the 20th anniversary of her Blue Note recording Blue Light ‘Til Dawn. She sang six songs from the album. Wilson sometimes seemed muddled. There was frequent consultation among band members about what to play next. It is not obvious why a band on tour, that has just had time together backstage, is not certain what the second song should be. At one point Wilson picked up a guitar, tried to play it without plugging it in, and looked confused when it made no noise. She is a diva who frequently walks off stage so that she can make more entrances. But the distractions of her stage mannerisms disappeared when she started to sing, because she completely gives herself to each song. Her voice is so expressive that she can sing the same line over and over and change its meaning each time. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was bereft. From the depths of its existential finality, it became unnecessary for Wilson to stop on every word. Some words were dropped, blotted out by emotion: “Until…each dawn…sleepless eyes/You don’t know what love is.”

As for Maret, jazz contains no lonelier sound than his harmonica. He dipped and swayed over a long, brooding soliloquy that became “Last Train to Clarksville” when the whole band jumped to life and dug in. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer John Davis were in charge of the down-and-dirty groove. “Death Letter” was another tune that cast a spell. Guitarist Brandon Ross has been a crucial component of Wilson’s sound for many years. On song after song, he haunted the night with his resonant, lingering prophesies.

There is something about Norway that breeds tenor saxophone players. The cold, clean wind over the fjords seems to get into their sound. Jazzkaar had two Norwegian tenors who were impressive in very different ways. Marius Neset played the Marina Pavilion. Hanna Paulsberg played the NO99 club. Neset is an acrobat who sticks his landings. Paulsberg is a ballet dancer.

Neset appeared with two-thirds of the British trio Phronesis (pianist Ivo Neame, drummer Anton Eger). The bassist was Petter Eldh. Neame is a confrontational, clanging accompanist and a wild soloist. Yet in Neset’s band he sounds reassuring, because his effusions are approximately linear. Neset’s are not. He does not do songs. He sets out frames, like “Birds,” to hold his ferocious, complex, impossibly rapid content. His assaults usually sustain musicality. On both tenor and soprano saxophones, his tone is classically Norwegian in its clarion purity. He played a new tune whose title could stand for most of his music: “Pinball.” Neset’s ricochets are relentless. The stunning separate elements of his outbursts do not always aggregate to satisfying aesthetic wholes, but he is a player to watch. His chops are lethal.

At 26, Paulsberg is already concise, selective and poetic. She writes spare, suggestive melodies like “A Coat of Many Colors,” sets them into motion, and lets them float. Paulsberg’s rhythm section was also young and talented: Oscar Grönberg (piano), Trygve Waldemar Fiske (bass) and Hans Hulbækmo (drums). They all understood space. They filled in just enough of it to postulate an atmosphere. It was gentle, intense music. “A Short Story” was just that, a wafting line, open-ended and ambivalent. They have a new album on the ØRA label, Song for Josia. It is so pretty that, on its first layer, it could be used as mood music. On the layers below it is quietly challenging.

Two interesting artists from Estonia were pianist Tõnu Naissoo and singer Kadri Voorand. Naissoo is a player who has slipped through the cracks. He was a prodigy who played the Tallinn International Jazz Festival in 1967, when he was 16. There are critics and musicians in Estonia who believe that if the country’s borders had not been closed, Naissoo could have had a major career in Europe and perhaps beyond. It never happened. Most of his recordings have been for small Japanese labels. In recent years he has made his living playing on ferryboats on the route between Helsinki and Stockholm. His set at Jazzkaar was a rare appearance in Tallinn. He played with two promising young Finns, bassist Teemu ?…kerblom and drummer Aleksi Heinola.

The premise of his concert was unusual. He performed mostly music from a recording he made in 1967-68, Tõno Naissoo Trio. It was the first jazz album released in Soviet Estonia, and has recently been reissued on the Jazzaggression label. What he played in NO99 proved that, when he was a teenager, he was a sophisticated composer. “Shall I See You Again” sounded like a standard that you had forgotten you loved. As an improviser, Naissoo’s ballad concept is elegiac but firm. Every time he cycled back to the melody of “Come Ever Up To My Joys,” he found a new way to chime it. He plays fluent mainstream jazz piano with his own accent, his own notion of lyricism, which includes stabbing left hand thrusts and right hand lushness. He is way too good to play only on ferryboats.

Kadri Voorand has a loyal following in Estonia. She packed the chairs, tables, bar stools and stairway of NO99. Her quartet was Jusse Kannaste (tenor saxophone), Joel Remmel (piano), Mihkel Mälgand (bass) and Ville Pynssi (drums). Voorand is a petite, pretty 27-year-old blond with a large stage presence. She sang poems in Estonian that she had set to music. She also sang her own compositions in English, like “You Took a Girl, You Got a Woman.” (She has said that she often finds herself more willing to tell intimate personal stories in her second language.)

What is distinctive about a Voorand performance is its dual commitment to the written word and to wordless improvisation. Voorand’s relationship to words is that of a skilled actress in dramatic recitation, but she frequently abandoned words and turned her airy soprano voice into a wailing, scatting instrument. Often she expanded her voice into a choir through live electronics, and/or commingled it with another instrument in a similar range, Kannaste’s tenor. Sometimes she wheeled in circles and punched the air, letting her demons loose. She is an artist who leaves everything on the stage, then, smiling bashfully, darts off down the hall and disappears. The audience ate it up.

Here are some other notable moments from the festival: Avishai Cohen appeared with an Estonian trio playing mostly traditional Turkish songs. The music had unique heady colors and piquant energy, but the trio had met Cohen for the first time the day before, and the set was a little rough. Cohen’s trumpet solos were the best part. It is unfortunate that he was not able to play Jazzkaar with one of his own projects, especially since this was his first visit to Estonia. Trombonist Nils Landgren gave a fun concert in the Marina Pavilion with the JazzBaltica Ensemble. It was feel-good music for thinking people, in lightly swinging, suave arrangements. An exception was Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason Could I Give,” a trumpet feature for Verneri Pohjola of Finland. It was not light. It had long, irregularly spaced pregnant pauses and startling ascents. Landgren sings softly in a near monotone, with quiet, matter-of-fact, disarming sincerity. His vocals have a quality more rare than chops: charm. Greg Osby did a typically fiery, intelligent Greg Osby set at NO99 with a Swiss piano trio called Vein. Avishai Cohen sat in for the encore, Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave?” Cohen smoked it. Osby overwhelmed it, melodiously.

The last day of the festival, April 27, contained only one event: Pat Metheny Unity Group in the Nokia Concert Hall. It was a finale in every way grand. A Metheny concert is a scripted occasion, generous in duration, micromanaged for pacing and variety. With only five players (and one of them, Giulio Carmassi, present only part of the time), the sheer quantity of stuff in a Metheny concert is remarkable. The leader plays many guitars with many different sounds, including guitar synths and the bizarre Pikasso, with four necks and 42 strings. He supplements the evening with the strangest contraption to ever inhabit a jazz stage, the Orchestrion. Chris Potter plays four reed instruments plus guitar. Carmassi, almost hidden behind the band, operates an arsenal of keyboards and also plays trumpet and sings. Metheny plays duos with each member of the band. (The one with Potter on “All the Things You Are” was ridiculously fast, like two in-synch machine guns.) Instrumental configurations, tempos, textures and structures constantly change.

On this night in Tallinn, the individual elements were state-of-the-art. The guitar outpourings (voluminous in a two-and-a-half hour concert) were keening soaring electric celebrations or rapt solo acoustic medleys. All displayed the accessible story-telling clarity that has made Metheny a star. Potter torched everything he touched. Antonio Sánchez did not play lines. He played waves. Tumultuous, continuous waves. He is an orchestral drummer. Bassist Ben Williams was at the center of everything, twitching the groove.

But the individual voices, even Metheny’s, served an ensemble concept. The first six or seven tunes came mostly from the band’s eponymous 2012 album. If that is all they had played, it would have been a nice concert. But then Carmassi joined and they performed music from their new album, Kin, and took the evening to another level. In its scale, the music was somewhat reminiscent of The Way Up, Metheny’s ambitious foray into long forms. Carmassi’s electronics gave the ensemble new depths and auras. The overall arc was sweeping. The whole was organic. The music surged and receded and surged again, peaking with Metheny shrieking, Potter braying, Sánchez thundering.

Metheny could make an excellent living touring the world playing his hits. Fortunately he is too restless and curious for that. He keeps pushing his own envelopes. His fans all over the globe love him for it. In the Nokia Concert Hall they were unbridled in their enthusiasm, whooping and applauding rhythmically. It was a party, a village party, a jaskar. And there were no communist apparatchiks there to pull the plug. Estonia is free.

Originally Published