Jazzkaar Festival: International Jazz in Estonia
“ ...the music we still call jazz has, by now, transcended its American origins, has become a truly global folk music, a music that assimilates and makes room for all other musical forms ”
22nd April - 30th April 2005
Take two nights in Tallinn, medieval capital of Baltic Estonia, at the 16th annual Jazzkaar festival, two nights pretty much chosen at random from the week of concerts, and you'll notice two interesting and important things that say a lot about the state of jazz in the 21st century. Firstly, as the name suggests, you will witness the full 'jazz arc', an impossibly wide selection of music that fits under this sometimes infuriatingly loaded label. Secondly, and perhaps not unconnected to this, you might not see one single American act the whole time you are there. Charles Lloyd has already played his headline set earlier in the week (rumoured to be his last ever festival date); Israeli-American bassist Avishai Cohen has done his thing the night before. By the time our whistle-stop survey begins it's time to see what the rest of the world can do.
Most of the concerts are based around the Sakala Centre, a grand, Soviet-era construction comprising a cavernous main hall that once played host to important Communist party functions and, upstairs, a smaller lecture hall with tiered seating behind sturdy wooden desks, built for note-taking or midnight diplomacy. Thursday night, though, there's a lesson in anarchy taking place here, led by veteran French multi-instrumentalist and improviser Jacques Di Donato, backed on this occasion by the Estonian Trio Kerikmae-Laasi-Soo, cranking out a completely improvised slab of cosmic-free-funk-space-jazz-rock.
For just four men, there are a lot of instruments on stage: Theremin, Casio VL Tone, synthesiser, Fender Rhodes piano, transistor radio, acoustic bass guitar, wooden flute, clarinet, drums, electric guitar and e-bow. Di Donato is a sprightly, bearded figure behind the drum kit, a frenzied ball of energy, driving the music on to repeated crescendos. Bassist Rivo Laasi and guitarist Mart Soo are stalwarts from Estonian free-improvisational super-group, Tunnetusuksus, and they display a fine-tuned sense of empathy, but it's the young Kerikmae on keyboards and assorted equipment who's the real revelation here, squirming in his seat with pleasure as he throws in Fender Rhodes stabs and jabs like Keith Jarrett backing an electric Miles Davis.
It's also enormous fun to watch the musicians surprising themselves as they navigate this uncharted territory - as when they land bemused in an unintentionally hilarious cowboy stroll. Above all, they're revelling in a sense of play and exploration that is completely childish, in the very best sense of the word - with the elder Di Donato an embodiment of gnomic wisdom come full-circle to reside once again in folly. Finally, at the end of the journey, it's a joy to witness the wonder and delight on the faces of the musicians as the improvisation comes to a natural and satisfying conclusion, with Di Donato's plaintive clarinet a soothing valediction.
Later that night, the action switches to the main hall for pianist Omar Sosa's lean trio featuring fellow Cuban Miguel "Angá Diaz on percussion and Childo Tomas from Mozambique on electric bass. It's a distinctly international 'world-jazz' sound with timeless Cuban and African elements mixed in with modern electronics and HipHop beats. On paper, then, so-far-so-ordinary, but in practice the result is lifted into another realm by a kind of spiritual sincerity, backed up by some truly virtuoso playing.
The band is simply as tight as can be, held together by Tomas's thick but agile basslines and Diaz's percussion, played not on the usual jazz kit but on a selection of congas, bongos, cymbals and gongs, with the authority and metronomic precision that made his contributions to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon so important. Sosa largely eschews piano pyrotechnics in favour of moods, atmospheres and textures, brought into being by minimalist and perfectly timed touches of colour. He's also an energetic and charismatic showman, jumping to his feet and spinning round like a dervish when the spirit moves him.
The set ends with Sosa encouraging the audience to join in singing a simple melody. As the voices lift joyfully up to the high ceiling, they somehow wordlessly express what the whole performance has been about: unity, brotherhood, global peace and love. And amen to that, brother Omar.
Friday's first big act takes the stage of the main hall in the early evening, as Sufi mysticism meets Mediterranean insouciance in the form of Tunisian oud player and vocalist Dhafer Youssef and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.