Rīgas Ritmi Festival Reviewed. Performances included Dianne Reeves, James Morrison and the Latvian Radio Big Band and more.
This year, the Rīgas Ritmi Festival continued its mission to reinvigorate the jazz scene in Latvia, the Baltic nation that was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991, save for three years, 1941-44, when it was occupied by the Nazis. Under the artistic direction of drummer Māris Briežkalns, the festival began in 2001, and as evidenced by its 16th edition, which took place June 30-July 2, it’s accomplishing its goals admirably.
Hosted in Latvia’s picturesque capital, Riga, the festival took cues from many other major jazz festivals by utilizing multiple venues, including Trompete, the city’s main jazz club and restaurant. Rīgas Ritmi used the term “jazz” as an overreaching catchall less than other festivals do; rather, jazz was one of three accurate descriptive subheads, the others being “impro” and “world.” Nevertheless, jazz, in one of its most classic formats, the big band, provided the best vehicle for Latvians to assert some of their own musical identity.
Jazz and Latvian culture meshed together superbly during Rīgas Ritmi’s final night, when Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison fronted the Latvian Radio Big Band at the stately Riga Congress Centre. Several years ago, Briežkalns commissioned Morrison to pen arrangements to Latvia’s traditional folk songs for jazz big band. It resulted in a well-received 2014 concert and the 2016 disc, Mare Balticum. At this year’s festival, Morrison demonstrated his incredible proficiency on the trumpet, flugelhorn, alto saxophone and trombone while regaling the audience with humorous asides about the narratives behind various folk songs.
Morrison joked about finding connecting threads among the folk songs’ plots, which included a sullen girl hiding in a rose garden to escape an arranged marriage, a bee-infested log going down a river and a stray horse getting lost in the night. He commented that most of the Latvian folk songs’ themes are somber; the challenge, he explained, was to reimagine these songs with upbeat arrangements without totally disregarding their original intent. Morrison and the Latvian Radio Big Band delighted out of the gates with the set’s opener, a dazzling jazz rendition of “Kas dārzā,” which pirouetted to a waltz swing rhythm and a brassy, nursery-rhyme-like melody, capped off by a sizzling trumpet solo from Morrison that would have made Dizzy Gillespie proud.
To be sure, familiarity with the original folk songs enabled more nuanced pleasure of Morrison’s potentially blasphemous arrangements. But to novice ears, the interpretations held their sway without demanding too much knowledge of the songs’ histories. Such was the case for the R&B-laden makeover of “Auga, auga rūžeņa,” the spry calypso arrangement of “Kusti, kusti, ūdenszāsle” and the sensuous take on “Pūt vējiņi.”
While Morrison’s uncanny multi-instrumental virtuosity took the spotlight throughout, the material allowed room for various members of the big band to showcase their considerable bebop- and swing-informed chops. One of the set’s most striking pieces, however, was “Marc Balticum,” a Morrison original specifically written for the Latvian Radio Big Band. Dedicated to the Baltic Sea, the two-part piece began as a languid ballad brimming with haunting harmonies that gave way to rapid zigzagging rhythms and swirling horn improvisations.
Under the musical direction of 32-year-old saxophonist and flutist Kārlis Vanags, the Latvian Radio Big Band exhibited the potential to become on par with other established jazz orchestras such as Finland’s UMO and Germany’s WDR Big Band Köln. The Latvian Radio Big Band began in 1966, when it was called the Latvian SSR TV and Radio Pop Band. Jazz became an official focus for the big band in 1992, the year after Latvia gained independence. Unfortunately it disbanded in 1996, remaining dormant for 16 years until Vanags, Briežkalns and noted Latvian pianist Raimonds Pauls reconvened it. In December 2012, the band hosted its first concert under its current name, with Kurt Elling as special guest. Since then, it has featured other internationally renowned jazz acts, including singer Roberta Gambarini, drummer Jojo Mayer, saxophonist Marius Neset and vocal ensemble New York Voices. Vanags argued that while other European jazz big bands are struggling to survive, in part because of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Latvian band is thriving. “After the big financial crisis, when people really started losing jobs, the music somehow became medicine for people here in Latvia,” Vanags said. “So instead of people not going to the concerts because of financial concerns, they actually started going to more and more of them just to get away from daily problems.”
The large audiences at the festival’s other offerings, including concerts by Dianne Reeves and Justin Kauflin, showed great enthusiasm. Reeves, who performed at the festival 10 years ago, delivered a magnificent set of material, much of which was from her 2014 disc, Beautiful Life. Fronting her longstanding ensemble consisting of pianist and music director Peter Martin, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Terreon Gully and guitarist Romero Lubambo, Reeves powered her regal alto on a refreshing soul-jazz rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” the bittersweet original “Cold” and her wordless Spanish-tinged showcase “Tango.” Perhaps inspired by her duo performance with Pat Metheny at the White House’s International Jazz Day Global Concert in April, Reeves offered a rousing rendition of the guitar icon’s Brazilian-jazz gem “Minuano.” She peppered her set with other delights, including a sterling take on Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” and a guitar-vocal duet of the Gershwin standard “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” After mentioning the June 28 terrorist attacks at Istanbul Atatürk Airport—just two days prior to her set—and assuring the audience that there were more kindhearted people around the world than evil ones, she sang a hopeful original, “Show Your Light,” during which she encouraged the audience to flash their mobile phone flashlights in the air and sway to the sanguine melody. For an encore, Reeves delivered a touching piano-vocal duo version of the McCoy Tyner/Sammy Cahn tune “You Taught My Heart to Sing.”
Kauflin, who opened for Morrison and the Latvian Radio Big Band and guested on a few compositions, gave a heartfelt solo set, demonstrating increasing maturity as a straight-ahead jazz pianist. In addition to playing agreeable renditions of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and an inventive mashup of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Blackbird,” he exhibited cogent improvisational wit, control and self-editing when rendering material from his latest disc, Dedication, including the particularly elegiac “For Clark” (dedicated to his late mentor Clark Terry) and the gospel-soaked “Thank You, Lord.”
While Reeves and Kauflin were the two main headliners from the U.S., and Chicago-based saxophonist Derek Brown and Chilean-born, New York-based guitarist-singer Camila Meza also performed, some of the other fantastic discoveries at Rīgas Ritmi—at least from a U.S. perspective—hailed from Paris, Brazil and Cuba.
The Paris-based duo of soprano saxophonist Émile Parisien and accordionist Vincent Peirani demonstrated vivacious virtuosity, amazing rapport and bracing whimsy as they concentrated mostly on material from their 2014 disc, Belle Époque. Opening for Reeves at the Riga Congress Centre, the duo began with a bewitching reading of Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” then continued through an exhilarating set that included Peirani’s cinematic “Le Cirque des Mirages” and a frisky romp through Bechet’s “Song of Medina (Casbah).” As their encore, the duo treated the audience to a rosy interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Dancers in Love.”
Brazilian guitarist Cainā Cavalcante and electric bassist Michael Pipoquinha proved to be another formidable duo onstage at the Riga Congress Centre. Both flaunted a powerful mastery of their respective instruments, and at times exhibited a ’70s-era fusion zeal that alluded to a virtuosic showdown between Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola. Intricate rhythms and blistering melodic improvisations burst forth effortlessly, sometimes at the risk of burying the songs’ melodic hooks. Nevertheless, exploratory pieces like the buoyant “Baião para Elizeu” and the sauntering “Abri a Porta” illustrated the pair’s sense of capricious finesse. The duo was even more persuasive when they opted for solo performances, such as Pipoquinha’s tender reading of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Melodia Sentimental” and Cavalcante’s invigorating rendering of Marcos Valles’ “Vento Sul.”
Cavalcante and Pipoquinha opened for another radiant Latin American-born musician, Cuban violinist and singer Yilian Cañizares. Now based in Switzerland, she led a multicultural quintet that concocted a splendid, often intriguing Euro-Afro-Cubano blend. Cuban percussionist Inor Sotolongo, Swiss drummer Cyril Regamey and Venezuelan bassist David Briton powered the ensemble with mighty propulsion while German pianist Daniel Stawinski hinted at Cuban montuno patterns without being completely beholden to them; Stawinski accentuated his improvisations with lines and phrases that betrayed his debt to the modern European jazz scene. As for Cañizares, she fashioned a musicality akin to Esperanza Spalding’s, in how she sang in unison with her violin playing.
Often singing in Yoruban, Cañizares possessed a rangy alto. Sometimes she evoked Southeast Asian textures, as on the majestic “Invocación,” the title track from her 2015 album. She also exhibited remarkable improvisational acumen on that composition, beginning her solo with plaintive melodic lines before expanding them into impassioned, blues-informed statements marked by suspenseful rhythms and dissonant chords. Her virtuosity, though, was in full service of material that was emotionally and intellectually compelling, often touching upon her family heritage and other extramusical influences. For instance, the evocative “Mapucha”—dedicated to one of her Afro-Cuban ancestors who was born a slave but died a free woman—came to life thanks to a lamenting arrangement that slowly crested into a festive polyrhythmic finale. Other standouts were the impassioned danzón “Dondé hay Amor,” a tribute to her grandfather Tata, and the enchanting “Iya Mi,” dedicated to all the mothers of the world.
If Rīgas Ritmi continues programming such cosmopolitan acts as Cañizares, Reeves and Parisien and Peirani, while also providing homegrown jazz talent with skill-honing incubators like the Latvian Radio Big Band, its reputation as a world-class music festival will only grow. And that will surely help designate Riga as a first-rate summertime European destination for jazz lovers.