With a population of 1.3 million Estonia is one of Europe’s bantam states but it punches well above its weight culturally. Indeed, the Jazzkaar Festival in the capital Tallinn has a rich 27-year history and sufficient credentials to attract international headliners alongside seriously good local talent. In real terms that mean’s the 2016 edition features the likes of Al Di Meola, Chris Potter and José James as well as the well-established Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär. Although Sooäär does not appear at the opening weekend of the festival, the upcoming generation of local talent does, much of which has passed through his capable hands as a teacher.
As with most territories around the world where improvised music is practiced to a high standard, Estonian jazz is nothing if not stylistically varied, but what stands out is the very high technical level reached by many of its young players. Holger Marjamaa leads a piano trio whose vigour is offset by a poise that sees it negotiate demanding standards such as ‘Giant Steps’ alongside blistering originals that showcase the leader’s chops in no uncertain terms. This gig takes place in Tallinn’s Telliskivi area, a complex of derelict warehouses that has been transformed into a Boho-ish creative hub that loosely resembles Copenhagen’s Christiania or London’s Shoreditch, but with fewer hipster beards per square metre.
Although there are two well-appointed main concert halls, Vaba Lava and Punane Maja, the programmers have also turned anything from churches to restaurants to buses into performance spaces and it is a bike shop that is the scene for another notable gig of the weekend, a double bass duet from father and son Taavo and Heikko Remmel. Displaying great sensitivity and listening skills the pair excel on folk material as well as a variety of anthems from Onettte to Jobim. Another excellent Estonian duo is pianist-keyboardist Kirke Karja (pictured top) and drummer Ott Adamson who in a swish city centre apartment delight a handful of people with neatly twisted leftfield arrangements that are by turns dubbed-up and funked-out. Karja’s pithy, economic improvisations and smart, carefully dissonant electronics are refreshing but she really shows her artistic depth when fronting the nonet Pae Kollektiiv later in the day, revealing a substantial gift as a composer and arranger. With a six-piece brass section dominated by some beautifully played reeds – particularly Keio Vutt’s baritone – the ensemble has good chemistry and balance and broaches vaguely similar territory to Claudia Quintet and John Hollenbeck’s work with ONJ. In other words the orchestrations are layered without being top-heavy or ponderous.
Among the international headliners Charnett Moffett’s Nettwork draws a huge audience in line with the stellar reputation of the bassist-vocalist and bandmembers, guitarist Stanley Jordan and drummer Jonathan Barber. The concert has moments of brilliance, particularly Jordan’s still startling ‘tap’ technique, which makes a keyboard of his fretboard. However, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, as the trio gets bogged down with fusion-based tunes that are a bit too perfunctory for their own good, while Moffett’s attempted sing-along doesn’t stoke the necessary warmth to fully engage. Norwegian singer Bernhoft has no such problems but his whiny pop-soul lacks the emotional charge of young Estonian Marten Kuningas, who admirably rises to the challenge of paying tribute to David Bowie. An excellent band bolstered by bassist Peedu Kass and guitarist Raul Ojamaa does full justice to the expected – ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ – and the unexpected – ‘Stay’. The Thin White Duke might well have said ‘tanan’.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Kaisa Kezars
Guitarist Ant Law has made two very well received albums and toured with quintets, so it’s a new departure for him being out on the road with only drummer Asaf Sirkis and double bassist Conner Chaplin, the latter recently heard in Oxford as part of Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur. But rather than detracting from the complexity and catchiness which is becoming the trademark of Law’s compositions, the relative sparseness of the trio format seems to enhance his music by revealing the structures and rhythmic twists in a more intimate crystalline form.
The intimate vibe is augmented by the beautiful venue, the recently renamed chapel of the Warneford Hospital, where the audience almost sits in Chaplin’s hip pocket. Such closeness makes it easy to observe the fascinating dynamic between Law and Sirkis in particular. Not only is their playing responsive to each other, but their eye-contact, glances and smiles are too. It’s also noticeable that the volume of Law’s gorgeous guitar is less than that of Sirkis’s drums, even when the percussionist, who hit the skins hard, plays comparatively quietly. The result is a series of unusual tones and colours.
The set starts with a gently propulsive version of ‘Entanglement’, a number inspired by the orbital dance of Janus and Epimetheus, two moons of Saturn, which is punctuated by a fierier passage, before subsiding into a meditative mood. It finishes with ‘Trivophobia’ with its teasingly jokey riffs. Inbetween we get ambient, a dose of jazz rock and a couple of spectacularly fast solo’s from Sirkis, his sticks a blur.
In a fresh move for Law we also get some South Indian voice percussion – Konnakol – a mutant form of beat box heavily-influenced by the rhythms of that region. Sirkis starts it off, Law joins in and then the instruments take up the pulse. The second of these cuts, ’Kanda Jhati’, is the highlight of the set, with the impressive Chaplin also getting his fingers around some fiendishly difficult off-the-beat double bass lines.
While the trio’s music is complex – living up to the Art Of Rhythm title of the tour – each piece has an appealing hook that draws the listener in. This is an exciting venture from Ant Law, and should his Arts Council supported tour be in your vicinity don’t miss the opportunity to go hear it.
– Colin May
– Photo by Sylwia Bialas
With Motown The Musical at the Shaftesbury and Soul: The Untold Story Of Marvin Gaye at the Hackney Empire the capital’s theatres are vibrating to the sound of black music. This production can justifiably be called the mother of the aforementioned, a mesmerising work by August Wilson that celebrates the blues, the fertile precursor to the sophisticated sound of Detroit’s blessed assembly line hit makers and, more importantly, the form of expression that enables the wretched of the earth to grab their own metaphorical piece of land by way of song.
August Wilson’s groundbreaking 1984 text has lost none of its verve or indeed pertinence to the digital age, first and foremost because the issues of race and music industry exploitation reboot on a regular basis, whether it’s miserly Spotify revenue streams, Apple’s acidic control of artist catalogues, or scant recognition of people of colour at those glitzy ceremonies that are often conspicuously un-diverse.
Wilson centres his story on power dynamics in the incipient recording industry of the 1920s, the time of ‘black music, white business’, with the historic figure of Ma Rainey, mother of the blues, as the pivot. Majestically played by Sharon D. Clarke, who strikes exactly the right balance of sassy attitude, steely resolve and deeply impressive vocal chops, Rainey has agreed to a session in order to cut the iconic song ‘Black Bottom’. But she has not given her seal of approval on the arrangement, namely how much showboating jazz will be allowed into her blues, how many notes a horn can add to her own choruses.
The cynical agenda of producer Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) clashes with Ma’s, and the presence of arrogant hotshot trumpeter Levee (O.T Fagbenle), naïve enough to think that his youthful talent is respected by exploitative company kingmakers, pushes the temperature to an inevitably tragic boiling point. Frustration begets delusion. And murder.
Briskly paced with just the right blend of humour and pathos, the piece really excels through its characterization and existential depth. Wilson is able to put the meaning and feeling of the blues into the mouths of Rainey and bandmembers without their pronouncements ever sounding sententious or didactic. The dialogue is compellingly natural, buzzing with witticism and bustling with rhythm in keeping with the music at the core of the drama. The collective energy generated by the exchanges between the journeyman musicians – Cutler (Clint Dyer), Slow Drag (Giles Terera) and Toledo (an outstanding Lucian Msamati) – in the rehearsal room, where they essentially open wounds on what it means to be a “nigger both with and without a god”, is gripping.
'Black Bottom' is a dance as well as a song, but while the creativity of its just-out-of-slavery progenitors is never in doubt, so is the identity of them that call the tune and the cruelty with which the ‘boys’ are told how high they have to jump.
A piece that sets the bar very high indeed.
– Kevin Le Gendre
The concert’s title conceals its inner purpose – put quite simply, this was a repeat charity event, hosted and conceived by the ever-ebullient Pete Long as a fund-raiser for and thank-you to the local Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, held in Watersmeet, Rickmansworth. Yes, there was a personal link, for Long’s partner, vocalist-trumpeter Georgina Jackson (pictured top) had been treated by the unit, as had band trumpeter Annette Brown, this exemplary cause attracting a sell-out crowd who doubtless, helped to raise further substantial sums along the way.
The band [all of whom donated their services] came in as Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra or so it said on the music stands and played with all the panache, drive and sheer good-hearted energy that Long seems to engender with each of his groups. Mark Fletcher was on drums, bass-guitarist Laurence Cottle alongside, so swing was assured and with the likes of featured trumpeter Mark Armstrong whose explosive solo on a rousing Gordon Goodwin piece concentrated minds, here was an evening that could be best described as an old-style band show but in a present-day setting.
Georgina came on, sang with heartfelt warmth and played magnificent trumpet, her duet with Brown on ‘Stardust’ like a master class in instrumental daring, guest vocalist Claire Martin sang a quartet of numbers, taken she said from the Ella-Duke collaboration and how fine she sounded on things like ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’, with this great band soaring behind her, as she took risks and extended every phrase, and just to complete the vocal array, on came the slight figure of Sam Merrick, who has clearly bought into the Sinatra template but again, excelled, taking ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and sundry other favourites for an altogether pleasing ride. Along the way, Fletcher had a five-minute solo, Long soloed spikily on clarinet, tenorist Karen Sharp impressed, her sound ever more robust, trombonist Andy Flaxman nearly burst his braces reprising Milt Bernhart’s immortal solo on ‘Skin’ and every player, the trumpets particularly, gave it all their all.
Good to see jazz rise above the merely quotidian and endorse a cause as good as this. Many words were spoken, raffles prizes distributed, but in the end it all came down to the energy and generosity of those who staged, supported and performed on what turned out to be an absorbing and joyful evening.
– Peter Vacher
The double bass made a comparatively late arrival to solo status in jazz; due to its’ unwieldly nature and obstinately low range its use was often restricted to novelty effects and comedy turns a la Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals. Things have come a long way since then, but even a staunchest aficionado might baulk at the prospect of an hour and a half of unaccompanied duets, even from such established masters in their respective fields as Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer. At the very least, one might expect a certain amount of anecdotal raconteurism to leaven the evening’s entertainment, especially as the event was staged in a venue more usually hosting stand-up comedy.
Having none of it, McBride and Meyer confounded expectations by simply walking onstage at the Komedia and starting to play, unamplified. What’s more, Meyer, the known arco (bowing) specialist, played a walking bassline and McBride, the jazz supremo, wielded the bow, stating the bluesy melody of Meyer’s original composition before taking flight on a dazzling improvisation, after which they swapped roles without missing a beat. The contrast between their styles precluded any monotony –each conjured a distinctive tone from their instrument, and the contrast between their solo voices was fascinating.
The set relied chiefly on the Great American Songbook and standard jazz repertoire. ‘My Funny Valentine’ was given a delicate, emotionally resonant rendition; ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ was stately and restrained; an uptempo ‘Solar’ allowed both players to show off their fleet fingers and flexibility; ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ gained new life as a solo feature for the endlessly inventive McBride. His formidable speed and accuracy allowed him to peel off rapid 16th-note runs and double and triple stops, but the tough logic of every phrase meant that this never seemed like empty showboating, and whether playing fluent Parkerisms or basic four-to-the-bar his impeccable timekeeping pocket was evident throughout.
If McBride is a master of the bebop language, Meyer is equally outstanding on the bow; softer in volume but effortlessly fluid in articulation and with intonation a cellist might envy. His solo feature deployed harmonics to range over at least four octaves, and his playing on a Bill Monroe bluegrass was a joyously melodic dance. His idiosyncratically inventive approach to improvising over standard changes was a perfect foil for McBride’s thorough examination of the tradition.
What might still have been a rather dry display of technical virtuosity was turned around from the outset by two factors; the inherent musicality of everything that they played, and the obvious delight that each took in the other’s company. They supported each other’s every move, chucking phrases back and forth, and even laughed out loud as they urged each other to greater heights. McBride was a genially serious, impressively dapper presence; Meyer looked the All-American Boy in chinos and button down collar, running his hand over his crew-cut in a self-deprecating move eerily reminiscent of Stan Laurel. This reviewer counted at least fourteen bassists among the audience - but this event would have appealed to any lover of good music. Let’s hope there’s a return visit.
– Eddie Myer
– Photo by Tim Dickeson