Estonia’s Jazzkaar Fest Spotlights Adventurous Artists

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Han Bennink performs at Jazzkaar, a 10-day jazz festival in Tallinn, Estonia, that began April 21.

(Photo: Matti Komulainen)

Jazzkaar, a 10-day extravaganza in Tallinn, Estonia, is mostly set within the Telliskivi Creative City, a hub for the city’s artistic community. This is a converted industrial area, now mostly colonized by venues, galleries, bars and cafés, although a scattering of the old-school businesses still exists.

It’s a modernized iron-girder and concrete alternative to the Estonian capital’s marvelously preserved Old Town. This 28th edition of Jazzkaar continued a strategy of combining starry mainline acts and some more adventurous and unfamiliar artists, with many Estonian bands present, a significant U.S. contingent, plus stray imports from the U.K., Poland, Germany, France, Denmark and Armenia.

On opening night (April 21), on the smaller Punane Maja stage, the veteran Dutch drummer Han Bennink led a quartet, surrounding himself with some of Estonia’s key players. Four days before this gig, Bennink had celebrated his 75th birthday, and there are few beings on the planet at such an advanced age who retain such reservoirs of energy as were released during this performance. Bennink revealed his accustomed love of barely controlled chaos, but this was a set that held more than his usual amount of affection for the tradition of jazz.

The set began with Bennink and Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär setting up an explosive rapport, under a suitably swirling light show, soon calming down into a mellower glide. At times, the pair seemed to wander, not quite latching onto the required momentum, but when singer Laura Põldvere strutted onstage, she forced a complete change of mood.

Dressed in early-1970s Roxy Music alien disco garb, her vocal approach was pleasantly unsettling. Her abstract Dada-esque improvisation flooded tricky syllables forth, adding incongruity courtesy of her glitter-spangled pink catsuit-with-shorts, topped by furry shoulder fluffs. Not the usual gear for an extreme improvising vocalist! When shaping conventional melodic lines, Põldvere inhabits the curious zone between Buenos Aires tango and the off-color blues-gospel croak of Diamanda Galás.

Bennink maintained a swinging clatter for much of the set, employing his trademark boots-on-the-snare technique, rubbing his heel on the drum skin to alter the pitch. His dynamic sense is as strong as ever, alternating brisk scampers with sudden dramatic punctuations, then savoring a brief silence. Põldvere pushed her partners further, sending them in unlikely directions, with all routes eventually converging on “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” courtesy of Duke Ellington.

Põldvere departed, replaced by singer and pianist Kadri Voorand, another major presence on the Estonian scene. “You’re married to your bank account,” she intoned, offering a sharp alteration of mood, moving from piano to effects pedals, warping her voice into a bluesy rock ’n’ rolling toughness, as Sooäär infiltrated frequent Thelonious Monk licks. His endless twang suggested an Ennio Morricone interpretation.

Bennink scuttled rapidly as Voorand triggered a bass effect, growling as a virtual electronicized male persona. Põldvere returned to sing a complementary high part, then Sooäär also increased the density of his effects, wildly stretching his pitches. The three Estonians might have nudged Bennink in a different direction, but it’s hard to be sure, given the extremely broad areas of interest that this Dutch master customarily displays.

On the following night (April 22), at the larger Vaba Lava venue, the Polish alto saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tallinn-67, a one-off jazz festival that was promptly quashed by the Soviets, effectively suspending the concept until Jazzkaar began in 1990, just before Estonian independence.

This year’s revival gig was a double bill with Namyslowski and pianist Tõnu Naissoo, who was only 16 when he played at the ’67 festival.

The 77-year-old Namyslowski surrounded himself with a mostly much younger band, having a notably close communion with his trombonist son Jacek. Their nimble unison lines danced across a sprightly funk beat, both musicians keeping their solos short and tight, with the tunes being similarly contained.

Namyslowski’s compositions had a bright, optimistic nature, with a waltzing circus character, or light hints of reggae and New Orleans parading. For “The Western Ballad”, Namyslowski switched to soprano, as Jacek provided a boldly enunciated trombone solo, moving into a Latin shuffle. Despite any flirtation with genre elements (the encore had an accelerating country trot, alternating with a funky swing), Namyslowski maintained his own composing personality, like a gentle John Zorn.

The Estonian keyboardist Naissoo was surrounded by piano, Moog, Fender Rhodes and another, smaller synth-keyboard, with Namyslowski guesting on the second set’s first number, in duo formation for “All The Things You Are.”

Naissoo’s Unity band featured trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums, the horns marking their territory with a tough exchange of solos, the rhythm team moving through multiple stages, their leader swapping swiftly between his keys. An urgent tenor solo launched a slow slog, with a switch to soprano, and then a Moog solo, partnered by just the bass and drums. Naissoo is a committed fusion artist, but eschews retro-ism for a sound that’s mostly up to the moment.

Straight afterwards, back next door at Punane Maja, the German trumpeter and pianist Sebastian Studnitzky was leading a quartet. Although his core emanates from acoustic or semi-acoustic instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums), the feel of Studnitzky’s music is electronic, a perfectly shaped shuffle, sensitive in its spaced-out groove. The leader initiated atmospheres at the piano, trilling or rumbling to establish a mood, heading off on an easy, Miles-ian funk, his trumpet rounded with a flugel-like dustiness. The quartet relaxed as they implied the beats, with “Organic,” the title track of the soon-coming album followed by “Lacuna”, the first piece that Studnitzky composed for this outfit.

The material was danceable by stealth, prompting imaginary body movements, and even sliding in a Scarlatti metamorphosis at one point. It opened with a bass pulse, scraped cymbals and a pliable, lightly stomping motion, but soon accumulated momentum. A darkened pulse with tight hi-hat sizzle recalled the acoustic dancefloor reconfigurations of Hauschka.

Such alterations from the jazz norm are common at Jazzkaar, rarely experimentally extreme, but always questioning in an accessible fashion. DB



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