Jazzkaar Festival Unites American, Estonian Artists


Chris Potter performs at the Jazzkaar Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 27.

(Photo: ©Kaisa Keizars)

The Jazzkaar festival has been an annual event in Tallinn, Estonia, since 1990, when the Soviet period was coming to an end. Its roots lie in the original 1966 and ’67 jazz festivals, before these were banned by Estonia’s Russian occupiers.

Artistic director Anne Erm was involved in those first two 1960s festivals, and has continued her influential role until the present day.

Tallinn is a scenic city nestled next to Russia, at the edge of the Baltic Sea. Its Old Town is a strong attraction for tourists, but the festival itself takes place in the cultural center of Telliskivi Creative City, a converted factory site, populated by arty bars and cafés.

This is only the second year that Jazzkaar has inhabited this complex. Most of the gigs during this year’s edition of the festival (April 22–May 1) took place there, alternating between the larger (Vaba Lava) and smaller (Punane Maja) stages, in adjacent buildings.

The majority of artists at the 2016 fest hailed from the United States and Estonia, but there were also individual representatives from the U.K., Norway, Russia, Cuba, Lebanon and Germany. A particular joy of Jazzkaar is the contrast between global stars and indigenous acts, who are unfamiliar to most outsiders. So far, Estonian jazz is nowhere near as well travelled as, say, the heavily exported artists of Norway.

The festival opened with New York bass man Charnett Moffett’s Nettwork, featuring guitarist Stanley Jordan and drummer Jonathan Barber. A slow, moody introduction found the leader contributing vocals: not exactly his strong suit, particularly given his penchant for vapid lines that sound like he’s making them up off-the-cuff.

The trio’s music was often engaging, especially when Jordan bolted off into his distinctive finger-touch soloing, then used a plectrum for some alternative sizzle. An Eastern/Arabic vibration arrived, complete with bass reverb-ether, as Jordan faded to the background while Moffett soloed.

The set was marred by an excessive amount of audience-bullying from the leader, as he cajoled them into participation. He just wouldn’t let go, but there was some recompense in a pair of completely solo spots from Jordan and Moffett himself, and the mood of relaxed contemplation provided a welcomed contrast.

Guitarist Al Di Meola appeared at the much bigger Nordea Kontserdimaja, virtually selling out this modern theater. Drummer Peter Kaszas was cordoned off behind the biggest Plexiglas screen this reviewer had ever seen, which was a shame, both visually and psychologically. Why doesn’t Di Meola just employ a quieter drummer?

Most of the set involved acoustic guitar dialogues with Peo Alfonsi, though depending on how hard Di Meola depressed his foot-pedal, the sound had the potential to reach an electrified frazzle on the occasions that he applied full pressure. Di Meola could also trigger keyboard washes, but these tended to inject blandness rather than constructively adding to the depth.

The set consisted of a few epic journeys, shuffled with very brief melodic vignettes. A mellow “Stephanie’s Theme” was followed by a guitars-only section, with a solo piece each from the two six-stringers. Then, the “Turquoise” suite climaxed with an erupting burst of electronics, finding Di Meola at his most exciting.

There were many festival highlights delivered by the local Estonian contingent, artists who should (and probably soon will be) more widely known in outside lands. Reed player Aleksander Paal led an agile trio, contorting with nimble precision on soprano saxophone and recalling the cerebral gutsiness of Steve Lacy, beautifully exposed within this stark setting. He was one of the few artists at the festival who actively engaged with hardcore jazz blowing, springing from the avant tradition, but journeying via his own compositions.

The singer and pianist Kadri Voorand appeared in several bands during Jazzkaar, but her own quartet facilitated the full uncompromising range of her talents. Her bridging of jazz vocal stylings and an unusual singer-songwriter bent, along with a free improviser’s skill with effects and real-time looping, led to a continual sense of surprise as she navigated these different zones with equal dexterity.

The entire band was at the service of Voorand’s voice, following her lines and gestures, her quirks and tempo, rather than the other way around, acting as an extension of her individuality. Voorand twinned voice and piano precisely, scampering in prog-folk fashion, then turned to her second microphone, which was plugged into her electronics gear. She released an uninhibited chaos, constructing her own chorus, the band floating beside her, then kicking in for the set’s climax.

The festival’s most impressive starry American set came from the Chris Potter Quartet, featuring his fresh, new team of Pablo Held (piano), Joe Martin (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums). The music was new, too, presumably destined for the saxophonist’s next album.

Potter opened with an exhaustive tenor solo, skipped back to a dappled theme, then entered into an abstract setting for a Held solo. Gilmore was notably active with a series of machine-gun spurts. Potter introduced subtle electronic backgrounds with his table-top effects box, no great revolution taking place, just a desire to shade the terrain with subtlety, finger-triggering mbira (thumb piano) sounds, and setting up a rhythmic backing to open the next piece.

Gilmore played alone for a spell, constructing a groove with scattered emphases, in a tune called “Dream #3.” Potter’s bass clarinet opened a very delicate ballad, edged with a faint drawl, then Martin soloed, solely accompanied by Held. Potter and Gilmore re-joined, and then the tenor took off once more. The permutations were numerous, with Potter alone on soprano, the crew jumping back in for a finishing storm to this extended set. The full-capacity audience was tightly locked into the ride.

On the festival’s penultimate day, there was another big local Estonian impact made by guitarist Jaak Sooäär co-leading a quartet with the Finnish axeman Raoul Björkenheim, a player who already has a distinct international profile. He’d ferried down from Helsinki, across the Baltic Sea.

They addressed the electrified output of Miles Davis, from his late-1960s and early 1970s albums, knitting fierce riff complexities around “Freedom Jazz Dance,” swirling with abstraction, as floating slider-strings heralded the deep grooves to come, commencing a heavier pulse, cutting to a talkative bass solo from Henno Kelp.

Then, “Black Satin” got howling and horny, and “What I Say” turned up as a ferocious tumble, its slippery bass line making liquid lunges. Sooäär reached a razor-sharp peak before returning for an encore, a grinding take on “Jack Johnson.” This roiling foursome no doubt provided the festival’s volume-peak triumph.

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