Jazzkaar Festival Celebrates Estonia’s Music Culture

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The Avarus Trio, comprising Mari-Liis Vihermäe (left), Heigo Rosin and Mingo Rajandi, performs at the Jazzkaar Festival’s Estonian showcase in Tallinn, Estonia.

(Photo: Michelle Mercer)

It can take a few days for a festival’s character to emerge, with settings and shows only gradually collecting into a distinct impression. Not so with the Jazzkaar Festival’s 29th edition, held April 20-29 in Tallinn. The opening night of the Baltics’ largest jazz fest offered a swift initiation into Estonian culture and suggested the shape of jazz to come over the event’s next 10 days.

In celebration of the nation’s centennial of independence, a special “The Story of One Hundred” performance gathered festivalgoers in shipyard hangars to watch a black-and-white film. Onscreen, 100 ordinary citizens gazed unwaveringly at the camera, or moved meditatively through beloved natural environments of bogs and beaches, as if roaming into ECM album covers.

The film’s live soundtrack involved a large ensemble of rhythm section, vocals, electronics, strings, woodwinds and brass, performing a pastoral score by Estonian guitarist Erki Pärnoja. The music combined jazz, folk, and minimalist strains in a Scandinavian style; I thought of both Sweden’s Esbjörn Svensson Trio and Norway’s Matthias Eick. “Jazz” here meant pleasant stylistic integration and energetic soul-searching, facilitated by precise technique—and happily, that’s more or less what we heard from Estonians throughout the fest.

“Story of One Hundred” concluded with the hangar doors opening to reveal the film’s 100 subjects standing together in person, as if manifested from the Baltic Sea behind them, united in a love of introspection and nature, as the music condensed into a beautifully simple chorale. This Jazzkaar launch balanced confidence in Estonia’s traditional character with aspiration toward a Nordic ideal (the Baltic country’s current love of all things Scando informs its contemporary cuisine and design, as well its social welfare goals). But the night’s edgy shipyard setting also hinted at the transgression that’s charged Estonian jazz since its Soviet occupation: “Today you play jazz, tomorrow you betray the homeland,” Stalin once said, inspiring a generation of Estonian musicians to take up jazz as if taking up arms.

That blend of aspirational culture and resonant radicalism continued in Jazzkaar’s main venues within Telliskivi Creative City, where factory buildings have been repurposed into a street-art anointed wonderland of shops, bars, restaurants and music clubs. Twenty- and thirtysomethings drink dirty pickle martinis among upcycled décor, before heading in for festival shows. Those shows brought in American artists like Cory Henry, The Bad Plus and Ambrose Akinmusire, along with Euro acts like Ellen Andrea Wang, Nik Bärtsch and Sons of Kemet. But Estonian jazz was stronger than ever this year.

On the smaller Punane Maja stage, an Estonian showcase night started with the Avarus Trio, an enchanting chamber trio of flute, bass and vibes. Doubling flute and bass framed the vibes’ colorful harmonies, all with a pulsing momentum. Maarja Aarma Ma sang competent soul jazz, but her rhythm section never quite settled into the elastic groove so vital to the style. And fresh from a career-boosting jazzahead! showcase the night before, the Kirke Karja Quartet delivered drama within vast, classically inspired structures—the vigorous introspection of Karja’s piano style seemed profoundly relatable to the Estonian crowd. Over in the larger Vaba Lava black box theater, one of the most anticipated acts was hometown hero and pianist Kristjan Randalu, who’s promoting his first ECM release, Absence. With American guitarist Ben Monder and Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari, Randalu showed a command of broad musical languages that begs comparison to Keith Jarrett’s. Demanding and lyrical, he plays as if stretching inspiration between the world’s cultural capitals and Estonia’s storybook forests.

The human voice is arguably Estonia’s most outstanding musical instrument. Singing is to Estonia as baseball is to America, a national pastime so popular that even government offices have choirs. And as baseball did with racial integration, Estonian singing has facilitated social change, particularly during the late 1980s when its song festivals drew around 10 percent of the population and electrified the independence movement.

With so much competent amateur singing in the culture, professionals can sing to part the heavens, and are equipped for variable conditions: Tenor Mikk Dede, for example, was as impressive performing contemporary sacred songs with Vox Clamantis during Estonian Music Days as he was the following week in Jazzkaar’s Estonian Voices show. Estonian Voices, a showy sextet cut from the cloth of Take Six and Manhattan Transfer, premiered jazz-arranged Baltic folk songs, making child’s play of tight harmonies and interlocking rhythms.

Estonian Voices’ vocal superstar Kadri Voorand turned up again a couple nights later in the festival’s most ambitious performance. The two guitars-two vocals Tormis jazz quartet and the virtuoso Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir drew harmonic connections between native folk and jazz, with the quartet’s arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’ song-cycles having the range of a trip from the bog to the moon. The show’s most meaningful jazz/classical combo came in four rich lullabies, where the choir’s lilting 6/8 time inspired the two jazz singers to improvise deep into a cross-genre dream. A full house responded most dramatically to especially challenging pieces—as much as Estonians value virtuosity, they still seem to want their creative music a little dangerous.

Of Jazzkaar’s 26,000 attendees this year, only about half bought tickets. Free and ticketed concerts are held throughout the country, with an Urban Space Project taking emerging musicians into streets, trams, schools and airports. More exclusive house concerts included a show in a snug Old Town apartment with the four brothers of the Mälgand family band. Ylo Mälgand, one of the country’s top arrangers, played well-structured keyboard solos; bassist Mihkel Mälgand provided the musical agility and warmth that also won him Estonia’s major Danske Jazz Award this year.

Jazzkaar’s eclectic programming always has relied on the unique and highly cultivated tastes of director Anne Erm, who in her 70s still travels widely to attend 200 scouting concerts each year. Erm mentioned to me that she might retire after next year’s 30th anniversary festival, which raises questions about its future artistic direction. But I expect it will be just fine.

Catching five of its 10 days, I found Estonian jazz flourishing, evolving both erudite and popular styles—all with an alluring undercurrent of risk, the inadvertent gift of its Soviet occupation days. DB


On Sale Now
June 2018
Mary Halvorson
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