Artists Build Bridges at Jazzkaar Festival

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​Snarky Puppy virtually tore the roof off the downtown venue Viru Keskus during its crowd-thrilling Jazzkaar Festival performance in April.

(Photo: Courtesy Jazzkaar)

The name of Estonia’s eight-day spring jazz festival, Jazzkaar, is a pun on an old word for “village party” as well as a rich portmanteau meaning jazz “bridge,” “rainbow” or “arch.” The 35th edition of this delightful celebration in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, held April 21–29, offered a festive party for 10,000 fans, even as it created bridges between musicians and audiences; jazz and non-jazz genres; and Estonia and other countries. Though on the first weekend a freak storm blanketed the capital with six inches of snow, it quickly melted and arrays of dark-blue anemones popped up, welcoming the festival to spring. The bulk of the concerts took place in two adjacent venues in a repurposed warehouse district called the Telleskivi Creative City: JAIK, a 500-seat hall, and Fotografiska, a 200-capacity black box theater inside a photography museum of the same name.

Estonia is a nation of singers (check out the film The Singing Revolution), so it was no surprise that in addition to American instrumental stars such as Snarky Puppy and Christian McBride, some of the top shows were vocal. The highlight of the week was the hip, 15-year-old jazz vocal sextet Estonian Voices, which celebrated the release of its third album, Kallimale, at JAIK. Whether hovering over a pool of ever so slightly dissonant notes that seeped into consonance, swinging with finger-snapping rhythms, blending rich harmonies that evoked South African mbaqanga or whimsically considering the quirkiness of quotidian life, Estonian Voices formed a bright arc in the Jazzkaar rainbow.

Singer-composer Bianca Rantala, also local, kicked off the festival with a premiere of her dramatic orchestral suite Moral Paradox, which she composed for a 32-piece ensemble that showed the happy influence of one of her inspirations, Jim McNeely. The suite’s lyrics explored the challenge of forgiving those who have hurt you, personally or politically, a subject all too familiar to a population once under the thumb of the USSR.

Rantala and Estonian Voices mostly sang in English; some knowledge of Portuguese was helpful at two other concerts. The charming young Brazilian singer-guitarist Dora Morelenbaum, in a willowy alto inspired as much by MPB as bossa, delivered a light, intimate, sometimes whimsical duo show at Fotografiska with electric guitarist Guilherme Lirio. Back at JAIK, singer-songwriter MARO, who represented Portugal at the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest with her hit “Saudade Saudade,” knocked the crowd’s socks off with her seductive, cashmere whisper, fortified by two guitar virtuosos who veered more toward Spanish classics than Portuguese fado.

In a more avant-garde vein, Swiss improvisor Andreas Schaerer, master of tenor and falsetto, teamed up with Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima and Swedish bassist Björn Meyer for an original, Theo Bleckmann-meets-Bobby McFerrin exploration of new material called “Evolution.” The set ranged from an astonishing passage in which Schaerer simultaneously hummed and made popping sounds into the mic, to a gorgeous, traditional love song about watching one’s sleeping lover.

The most eccentric voice at Jazzkaar arose from Memphis vocalist and left-handed bass guitarist MonoNeon, who got the crowd bobbing at a Saturday night dance. Born Dwayne Thomas Jr., MonoNeon performed in an Afro-futuristic body suit that eerily hid not only his torso but his face and sang in a quirky nasal tone that sounded a bit like a crooning Steve Urkel. Yet his funk feel and catchy songs were irresistible.

Jazzkaar closed, as it opened, with a singer, in this case San Francisco Bay Area star Ledisi, who did a bang-up job with material from her Grammy-nominated Ledisi Sings Nina. From “My Baby Don’t Care For Me” to “I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free,” Ledisi captured not just the political but the personal spirit of Simone, reminding the audience that the great ’60s singer was “not just an activist, but a woman who wanted to be loved.” The courage to share that vulnerability was key to Ledisi’s successful show, and it might serve as a useful lesson for Estonian singers Reti Niiman and Kaisa Ling, who sang R&B and classic blues, respectively, but seemed more focused on theatrical style and appearance than emotional content.

As for Jazzkaar’s instrumental shows, Christian McBride delivered a joyous, swinging set showcasing a band of youngsters that included, among others, the crackling Oakland drummer Savannah Harris, who made every stroke count. Snarky Puppy, making its Tallinn debut in the 1,800-seat Alexela theater for a wildly excited crowd that had been waiting 14 years to hear its explosive take on R&B, tore the roof off. The rocking, five-horn-Estonian ensemble J.T. Conception, led by bassist Janno Trump, featured astonishingly virtuosic solos by chromatic harmonica player Matthias Heise. Mischievously named French duo No Sax No Clar offered deliciously mysterious weaves of Bb, F and bass clarinet with alto saxophone. Young Estonian electric guitarist/composer Karl Madis Pennar presented his quintet, Project Pennar, with flugelhorn player James Copus in a new orchestral jazz-rock suite that ranged from guitar-hero ecstasy to pining folk feels.

Other Estonian instrumentalists who stood out over the course of the week, as well. Free-jazz alto saxophonist Maria Faust blew up the room with precise Danish drummer Kresten Osgood. Pianist Kirke Karje, announced as the winner of two 2024 Estonian Jazz Awards, offered a brilliant studio concert featuring idiosyncratic methods of extracting notes from her instrument as well as a mathematically crisp development of melodic ideas. Flugelhorn soloist Jukka Eskola played smart, buttery lines with Bianca Rantala. And alto saxophonist Nikita Korzoun lit up the room with Reti Niiman and the jazz-rock outfit, M-Group. Another local horn player who popped up all over the place, Jason Hunter, turned out to be an African American transplant. It’s not hard to see why Hunter decided to stay. For such a little country, Estonia has a heck of a big festival, and a surprisingly deep jazz scene. DB



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