Bärtsch Electrifies Festival Jazzkaar

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Pianist Nik Bärtsch performs at Festival Jazzkaar.

(Photo: Courtesy Festival Jazzkaar)

The last time that Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch appeared at Festival Jazzkaar in 2018, half of his four-piece band called Mobile suffered an unlucky flight delay, and the band appeared in mere duo form. This year, Bärtsch played it safer, to suit our recent times, highlighting his ECM Records repertoire for solo piano on Entendre. As with the 2018 set, this was a revelation. Bärtsch has clearly been refining this solo work since his impressive showing at last October’s Enjoy Jazz festival in Germany.

Bärtsch gave one of the outstanding performances at this 32nd Jazzkaar, in Tallinn, the Estonian capital during late August. He created a fragile interlacing of rainfall, occasionally broken by thunder or sleet, these effects magnified by a microphone placed under his piano body. He pranced across pools with clockwork toes, as his refined minimalism revealed hints of cerebral boogie woogie. He’s expert at coaxing multiple simultaneous sounds in different ranges. Bärtsch existed inside and outside the piano body, at one with his instrument, using the sides of his hands to prepare the body-dampened strings instantaneously, always on the move. He scraped, trinkled and enunciated at a bewildering rate.

Another pianist, Kristjan Randalu, is one of Estonia’s highest profile jazz exports, due to his own recent ECM signing. The unveiling of ambitious works for the New Wind Orchestra was another Jazzkaar highlight. Strangely, Randalu wasn’t the focus of attention, acting more as prompter for the bold horn ranks, who issued complex, spirited and earthy combinations with arrangements of lively imagination. Wolf Kerschek, he of the NDR and WDR German big bands, conducted with a spectacular precision, shaping the powerful expression of the horn ranks. The trombones enjoyed a particularly inflated proudness on “Partly Clouded,” bolstered by a low-blast baritone saxophone. High trumpet embellishments appeared, leading to a domino cascade of tones, an unusual turbulence, with lusty outbursts of staccato phrases.

The London-Tallinn Cosmic Bridge brought together Jaak Sooäär, one of Estonia’s most inventive guitarists, with the London-based Ukrainian harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, who is becoming a significant presence across the entire European scene. The pair met in London, 2019, vowing to form a collaborative combo. They each provided compositions, with Bzhezhinska sometimes reconfiguring Alice Coltrane to the point of claiming her own composition credits. Sooäär inched up his soft-psychedelia dial, and mystic journeying began, Bzhezhinska making elaborate flourishes, using the flat of her hand to make sharp punctuations. She fully inhabits the full string-spread. A funk-snap groove evolved, with fluid guitar micro-licks, for Sooäär’s “Zula,” and then “Following A Lovely Skyboat,” featuring an angular axe solo. Bzhezhinska responded with “To The Other Side,” slow and restfully alighting for the close.

The Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and the French guitarist/singer/percussionist Mino Cinélu showed their work-in-progress collaboration. Rather than sounding confidently improvised, their set had a looser feel of uncertainty, dropping in atmospheric soundscapes, or having Cinélu include a few incongruous songs, playing guitar. Nevertheless, this intimate, informal fireside approach was rewarding. Cinélu matched small trinkets with an electro-pad, making a very low gong sound, singing faintly, fragile but then with a growing effects coating. He stroked his low-boom cajon, then triggered a tabla sound on his pad. For the second piece, Cinélu left the stage and Molvær played a duet with his laptop. Then he departed and Cinélu sang a song. It seemed way too early in the set to interrupt the flow in this way. “Summertime” was followed by “Take The A♯ Train,” with a swift sequencer line, bass heavily processed, and a battering drum motion. Significantly, their hour-long set passed by swiftly, despite any doubts about its contents.

The French flutist Naïssam Jalal explored an even more tranquil terrain, painting an evocative late-evening mood, dimly lit and compulsively meditational. She was joined by pianist Leonardo Montana and bassist Claude Tchamitchian, who brought their Brazilian and Armenian backgrounds towards the Syrian heritage displayed via Jalal’s metal flute and wooden ney. She provided the best quote of the festival: “We are spiritual beings, we are not QR codes.”

On the second night of this week-long festival, a pair of improvising duos played back-to-back, beginning with the American Scott DuBois (guitar) and German Gebhard Ullmann (reeds). Both of them made liberal use of effects pedals, including wah-wahs. DuBois held his axe upright like a cello. Ullman made his tenor saxophone sound like extractions from a lonesome gullet, with a nuanced, personalized tonal expression. His voice speaks directly through his reed. Ullman’s bass clarinet was even more evocative, although gentler, sliding through numbers mostly penned by DuBois. Seas and rivers were the dominant subject matter. Around 45 minutes into the set, the guitar bolted towards atonality, harsher and more aggressive, as Ullmann hovered around, levitating with sudden bursts of toughness. The pair entered a melancholy portal, the bass clarinet making swarming repeats, with high overtone blurts, ending up with soberly shaped tonalities.

The duo of Estonian Mart Soo (guitar) and German Florian Walter (hechtyphon) operated even further out, with few discernible themes, and a highly resourceful improvisational edge. The hechtyphon is a self-created hybrid of saxophone and trumpet elements, although the latter horn was visibly dominant, with its broccoli-sprouting of bells. The pair’s cinematic approach, swamped with electronics, visually captivating and blessed with unfamiliar sonics, was exceptional when standing alone, but even better when judged as a complement to the preceding set.

The Raimond Mägi Trio was led by a bassist, but featured one of Estonia’s increasingly prominent players, the pianist Kirke Karja. Dark and demure, a shaded groove developed, following a dramatic lurch. A deep olive light emphasized the mood, as a microcosmic softness was dotted by star-system scurf. Then, the sharp funk returned, Karja strumming under her lid, initiating extreme quiet. She turned to the Valente keyboard, a new Rhodes equivalent, in retro-design, “Anxiety” making its stumpy, halting march, funky yet free. “Sparrow” will be on their next album, a complex clutter of stutter with an ungainly gait, powered up by violent hammerings from the piano, followed by an explosive drum solo from Karl-Juhan Laanesaar. It bodes well.

It was shocking to hear some actual mainstream post-bop jazz at this festival. The Nikita Korzoun Trio featured the leader’s alto saxophone, with bass and drums, propellant as they mixed originals with the odd Hank Mobley number “If I Should Lose You.” They cooked up a frenzied stream of steam, Korzoun making high honks, Andres Alaru contributing his woolly bass fortitude, and then Mihhail Nikitin offering a decelerated drum solo. They finished with another original, “Triton Blues,” covered by red mood-lighting, slinkily walking into a tar-pool. This was music for a hyperactive tassel-spinning cabaret show. DB



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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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