Every music festival has its logistical problems – from gremlins in the backline equipment to stormy weather for open-air gigs – but the most common obstacle that producers have to clear is that of transport.
Flight delays are almost a given. So it proves this time round for Jazzkaar when an electrical fault at Amsterdam airport grounds half of Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Only the pianist-leader and drummer Nicholas Stocker, who had travelled to the Estonian capital Tallinn, on other flights, made the gig. They present what could be called R.M.E – Reduced Mobile Experience.
Bärtsch makes light of the situation by welcoming the audience to the ‘premiere’ of a new band, and that raises the stakes. Is the duo going to be the quartet by half or two musicians creating as much interest as four? It is definitely the latter, and then some. Bärtsch’s core principles are still identifiable – serial structures; eerie, icy motifs, particularly from his finely-weighted right hand; start of a new cycle marked by his trademark cry of “Oh!”; slow-burn narratives that release tension at crucial moments. However, this intricate groove aesthetic, touched by minimalism and non-western music, is really enhanced by Stocker’s outstanding work on drums. The sensitivity and economy of his touch brings out a considerable amount of detail in the music that makes the absence of bass clarinet and additional percussion anything but problematic. Stocker’s discreet, almost spectral drifts into melody, by way of a glockenspiel and kalimba thumb piano, enhance the uncluttered grace of the duo.
This and other headline concerts at the 10-day event – that included, prior to my arrival, The Bad Plus, Ambrose Akinmusire, Cory Henry and Sons of Kemet, to name but some – take place at two venues at the Telliskivi centre, a hipsterish cultural hub that encourages people to see as much music as possible. If Bärstch went down well at the large concert hall of Vaba Lava, then Delbecq 3 is an equal success in the smaller adjacent space of Punane Maja. French pianist Benoit Delbecq has been one of the most consistently creative figures in improvised music in the past decade, counting the likes of Mal Waldron and Muhal Richard Abrams as sources of inspiration, while being able to fashion his own language in many different contexts. This trio, featuring Canadian double-bassist Miles Perkin and Congolese drummer Émile Blayenda, has a fascinating blend of metric ingenuity and soundscaping, but the advanced numbers games and otherworldly sounds yielded by Delbecq’s careful use of prepared piano do not obstruct the clarity and focus of the music. Blayenda, who is also of the acclaimed Les Tambours De Brazzaville, is something of a marvel, and the range of timbres he draws from several calabashes combined with his sparing depolyment of cymbals takes him far away from kit-drum conventions, without compromising the nuanced dynamics of the ensemble.
Less engaging are the singers who come thick and fast on the closing weekend – Britain’s Myles Sankho, as well as Estonia’s Ashilevi and Anna Poldvee all have decent voices, but their material, broaching soul, electronica and rock to varying degrees, is unfortunately pedestrian. In contrast, the ‘home concerts’, which as the name suggests, are gigs in front rooms, are a real pleasure. Taking place in relaxed atmospheres where the hosts provide hospitality, the performance is more like a gathering among friends than a concert per se and certainly provides the opportunity to hear an artist up close and personal. Pianist Kirke Karja (above), one of the figureheads of a new generation of very gifted Estonian musicians, plays an engrossing set in a spacious lounge, with sunlight streaming in on a Steinway, which she uses to display the full range of compositional ideas that catch the ear for a lyricism that frequently soars over stark, sometimes austere harmonies. Her time is sufficiently fluid to make her switch between counts of four, seven and nine, with the alterations being seamless rather than telegraphic. And her ability to draw inspiration from Stravinsky or Debussy, all the while avoiding any ‘classical jazz’ typecasting, is excellent. Her compatriot, bassist Peedu Kass (below) also acquits himself well, giving a consummate display of rhythmic verve, sweet balladry and technological ingenuity on acoustic and electric versions of the instrument. He starts with Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ and climaxes with Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’, but between there is a bracing African-oriented number reflecting the influence of Rich Brown.
Plugged-in sounds of a different kind prove to be a fitting climax to the festival. Bill Evans’ Petite Blonde is the group that might convert fusionphobes before they blow the amp of their own prejudice. With the powerhouse rhythm section of Dennis Chambers and Gary Grainger as its axis this is a solidly funky quartet that makes much of a hard steady downbeat and slinky themes and unison lines from their leader’s saxophone, still sporting the bandana from his distant Milesian days, and Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. Wakenius is a dazzling soloist whose gritty, occasionally grinding tone and expanded lines, bubbling over with energy and agitation, are a potent compliment to Evans, harmonically. In any case, the keyboard-less group sound has an edge that is appreciated by a wildly responsive audience. Then again, in their centenary year of independence, Estonians have no problem lifting their voices.
– Kevin Le Gendre; http://jazzwisemagazine.com