Bruce Lindsay, All about Jazz
As city-based jazz festivals go these days Rigas Ritmi (it means Riga Rhythms) is a pretty small affair. But small is beautiful, as they say, and a combination of inventive programming and the lovely city of Riga, the capital of Latvia, made for a very pleasurable few days. The festival was established in 2001 and takes place each year in early July-which, in 2012, turned out to be an exceptionally warm and humid few days. It attracts internationally known artists as both performers and educators, and it also promotes Latvian musicians through its series of Showcase events.
Latvia is a relatively small nation with a population of around 2.2 million people. Riga, the largest city (as well as the capital), is home to around 650,000 people and has an intimate, friendly, feel. The center of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old city dates from around 1200 while, just outside the center, the influence of Jungendstil (Art Nouveau) is also strong; UNESCO recognizes Riga's buildings of the period as the finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. Harsh winters can make daily activity difficult, but during the summer much of Riga's social life takes place at the open air bars, cafés and restaurants that surround its ancient squares. The Festival's Artistic Director, Maris Briezkalns (pictured left), is one of Latvia's top drummers and a passionate supporter of his fellow musicians. I attended the 2012 festival as a guest of the festival organizers, with colleagues from the jazz communities of North America and Europe. We were there not only to hear some of Latvia's best young musicians but also to participate in a panel discussion on jazz which was recorded by Latvian National Radio.
The festival concerts took place at a range of venues, including the small and intimate Club Artelis, the Open Air Leisure Park EGLE and the 1200-seat Riga Congress Center. Rigas Ritmi also organizes concerts at other times of the year-singers Kurt Elling and Youn Sun Nah will play the Congress Center later in 2012-but the July festival is the year's focal point.
With two or three events taking place each evening, as is usual with multi-venue programs, it was impossible for one person to see all of the acts on offer and so concerts by visiting artists such as pianists Antonio Ciacca (the Jazz At Lincoln Center Director of Programming, who also led one of the workshop series) and Hiromi were missed, as well as some of the performances by Latvian musicians, including the Future Folk Orchestra and vocalist Intars Busulis.
The events seen mixed international and Latvian artists in a range of programs that varied in style and content. The international acts have already established their reputations across the world, but for the most part the Latvian musicians have yet to break through beyond their own country. It will hopefully only be a matter of time. The Latvian performers impressed on many levels. They were technically skilful and demonstrated an affinity with different jazz styles. It was also obvious that some of these musicians were showing an imaginative approach to the intermingling of jazz with their own musical culture. This is clearly an exciting time for jazz in Latvia.
July 5: At The Club Artelis
Thursday night at this beautiful and welcoming venue was devoted to sets by two young ensembles based in Latvia. North By Northeast, a quartet of young Latvian musicians, demonstrated strong technique on a series of original tunes. The band formed in 2011 and won the 2012 Keep An Eye Jazz Award. The set was tight, professional and melodic, with guitarist Matiss Čudars often adding a rockier edge to the remaining members' more obviously jazz stylings. The band takes inspiration from classical and folk musics, as well as from jazz, although this wasn't obvious in its set, which seemed to draw directly from North American contemporary jazz. North By Northeast is full of potential; once it finds its own distinctive sound then it will be a force with which to be reckoned.
The Laima Jansone Trio was the find of the Festival, with great visual appeal and an original and exciting sound. Jansone plays the kokle, a traditional Latvian instrument, and performs in classical, rock and folk ensembles as well as solo. The kokle she played at this concert was a custom-built instrument which she has designed to be amplified and used with electronic effects. The well-established Latvian rhythm section of acoustic bassist Andris Grunte and percussionist Artis Orubs completed the Trio. Orubs was in the process of experimenting with his percussion setup, upending his bass drum so that he could play it with his right hand and using a variety of kitchen implements, including egg whisks, to create a constantly changing mélange of sounds.
Grunte kept out of the spotlight, off to the left side of the stage, creating inventive rhythmic patterns around which Jansone and Orubs built some fascinating and spectacularly groovy tunes. The trio had formed only a few weeks before the concert, although the rhythm section players have performed together regularly in other settings, but this lack of experience as a band was rarely if ever in evidence. Jansone writes her own tunes, as well as having a deep understanding of her musical roots. The band performed numbers such as the lovely, traditional, "Puke, Puke, Roze, Roze" and Jansone's own, tougher, "Industrialais Vilcins" with equal verve and intensity. Towards the end of the set, when Jansone stood up to play and Grunte shifted to an electric upright bass to deliver a low down growling bass line, the trio created a powerful wall of sound that harked back to the rock power trios of old.
July 6: At The Open Air Leisure Park EGLE
The open air stage, in one of the old city's beautiful squares, was the setting for performances that grew out of two of the Festival's workshops. The Nils Wogram Trombone Show, an octet featuring five trombonists including Wogram, produced a set of funky, bluesy numbers that gave each player a chance to solo. Wogram, who also performed with his Nostalgia Trio earlier in the week, was a terrific player and composer who's enthusiasm seemed boundless. His fellow trombonists were equally enthusiastic and with the support of a rhythm section that once again included Orubs (this time playing a standard drum kit and sporting a Ginger Baker t-shirt), the group played an enjoyable set.
Dominique Eade led a workshop for vocalists which resulted in the second Friday evening concert at the Leisure Park: Riga Jazz Voices. The singers opened with a group performance of John Coltrane's "Village Blues," arranged and conducted by Eade, after which each of the singers gave solo performances of standards including "Autumn Leaves" and "Cry Me A River." It was especially pleasing to see that the singers gave performances, rather than simply singing the songs. They engaged the audience, projected their personalities and went to the heart of each song-a credit to Eade's skills as an educator, as well as to their own talents.
July 7: The Riga Congress Center
The Congress Center was an impressive, if rather stark, concert hall, and the venue for Rigas Ritmi's big name concerts. The Saturday night concert offered an intriguing contrast between a full-on big band sound and the emotionally intense performance of singer Buika and her trio. Victor Bailey, who took on the bassist's role in Weather Report after Jaco Pastorius left the group, joined Riga's City Jazz Big Band in a tribute to Pastorius and keyboardist/WR co-founder Joe Zawinul. The City Jazz Big Band, directed by Karlis Vanags, was a straight-ahead jazz ensemble with that great big band ability to raise the roof one minute and play in a whisper the next-evidenced by its delivery of Pastorius' "Three Views Of A Secret," saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "Elegant People" and Zawinul's "Birdland."
The set by Spanish flamenco vocalist Concha Buika, a favorite of film director Pedro Almodovar, was an intense, emotional experience. She's a striking and commanding onstage presence, with a unique and passionate approach to the interpretation of songs. Her backing musicians were also excellent, with Dany Noel's fretless bass guitar work sounding particularly fine. Her most engaging performance of the night was her rendition of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas," with Buika singing Brel's original French lyrics accompanied by pianist Ivan Gonzalez Lewis.
Looking To The Future
The 2012 Rigas Ritmi Festival attracted over 10,000 audience members to the ticketed concerts and many others to the free open air gigs. Artistically, the audience responses emphatically declared its success. The Festival also looks to the future, providing a platform for younger musicians as a means to enhance their reputations and, hopefully, to help in expanding their careers. On that score, too, Rigas Ritmi should be declared a success. Personally, the find of the festival was the Laima Jansone Trio-a band that brought a unique combination of the traditional kokle and contemporary jazz to the party and created some wonderful music-but that's just one example of a strong young Latvian jazz scene.