The first thing a visitor to Riga, Latvia notices is the architecture: old-school structures meet the march of modernity. It is a place with deep roots, as much for its role as the largest city in the Baltic States as its seaport location - trade, industry and culture collide sweetly.
Within this setting the Rigas Ritmi ("Riga's Rhythms") jazz festival takes place. It is a modest affair compared to the activities of Europe's notable big guns - Northsea, Umbria, Molde, London and Barcelona, among others - yet it makes its mark convincingly. Having achieved its independence from Soviet rule in 1991, Riga continues to forge an identity that celebrates freedom. Jazz is a music that serves the story line well, as does the festival's other mix of musics, all with a world bent, enacted by artists from surrounding cultures. The city's standing is such that in 2014 it will be named European Capital of Culture, reinforcing its role as a hub of artistic activities.
The festival's director is a drummer named Maris Briezkalns. He alone waves high jazz's banner, in part by developing and showcasing local talent deserving of wider recognition. For this year's fest he invited a panel of jazz authorities to assess and evaluate Riga's crop of emerging artists. The assembled gatekeepers were drawn from territories as diverse as Israel, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and the US. I was among them.
Of all the new artists I met, the one who captured my imagination most was Laima Jansone, a quietly charismatic woman who plays the kokle, a traditional Latvian instrument resembling a zither. She performed with acoustic bass and drums, strumming and improvising in a three-way exchange that resonated with mesmerizing grace. Her approach underscored an inevitable melding of world elements - the hybridization and hyphenation of jazz.
Coupled with the more established performers I heard - Buika, diva vocalist from Spain; Astillero, tango modernists from Argentina; and Victor Bailey, electric bass monster from the States - the festival's aim was true. It organized a global view of jazz that expands the definition of the term.
Jeff Levenson, Jazz.fm