Latvia's Rigas Ritmi 2013 was the 13th edition of this compact but always intriguing celebration of music—or, more precisely as the title indicates, a celebration of rhythms. The distinction is important for although jazz is at the heart of the festival it shares the spotlight with other styles. The 2013 program starred performers inspired by the Great American Songbook, musicians who worked across jazz and hip-hop and, in the person of Laima Jansone, someone who is just beginning to explore the potential of new cross-boundary collaborations.
As in previous years, Rigas Ritmi offered big name concerts in the 1200-seat Riga Congress Hall and some popular free gigs on a series of outdoor stages. The Misisipi (sic) riverboat played host to three midnight jazz cruises, taking audiences down the River Daugava as they listened to acts including the Andreas Varady Trio and guitarist Ori Dakari. Each morning started with a master class at the studios of Latvian Radio, giving eager students the chance to get up close and personal with talents such as Robert Glasper and John Medeski..
Vocalists featured strongly in the 2013 festival. In fact, only one of the acts appearing at the Riga Congress Hall—Medeski Martin & Wood—failed to include at least one vocal number. Four young singers performed in the smaller venues across the four days of the festival. Daniel Cacija, Laura Budreckyte, Elina Viluma and Evelina Protektore all work within what might broadly be termed the mainstream, performing standards, blues or contemporary songs. Each of them was still developing as an artist but displayed plenty of promise, with Cacija and Budreckyte shining most brightly.
It was a pleasure to be a guest of the festival organizers for the second time, arriving in Riga late on the Wednesday evening and so missing the first day's events, but the following three days offered plenty of opportunities to experience the festival and soak up some of the culture of Latvia's capital city.
Thursday, July 4
Exactly what constitutes a "master class" can be open to interpretation. The Rigas Ritmi master classes varied in style and content from day to day, but they all provided some fascinating insights—sometimes into the skills of performance, at other times into the ideas and opinions of the presenters.
For the most part, Robert Glasper's Thursday morning maste rclass took the form of a question and answer session, with Glasper responding to questions about a range of topics including his production work, his relationship with singers and rappers and his own development as a musician. Glasper was funny and charismatic, answering questions with insight and honesty.
In response to a question about audience attention spans, Glasper said that they seemed to be shortening and that as a result the music scene was filled with "a bunch of bad artists singing the same song." However, Glasper made it clear that his criticism wasn't leveled at every singer: he spoke highly of Justin Timberlake, stating that ..."he loves music." Asked which singers he would like to work with, Glasper responded with an intriguing list—Bjôrk, Thom Yorke, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel all got his seal of approval.
Glasper also featured prominently in the main event of the day, the Congress Hall double bill of the Robert Glasper Experiment and Somi, an Illinois-born child of Rwandan and Ugandan parents who is blessed with a beautiful voice.
Experiment performed first. The quartet proved to be a stimulating experience, both aurally and visually. Bassist Burniss Travis, an undemonstrative yet imposing presence, provided the music's foundation with throbbing, low-end bass patterns. Glasper surrounded himself with a bank of electronic keyboards, the Fender Rhodes proving to be his keyboard of choice for most of the set. Drummer Mark Colenburg, seated stage right, was in terrific form, working with Travis to provide the grooves but also producing some hard-hitting solos.
But Casey Benjamin was Experiment's visual centre. The vocalist, keytarist and saxophonist had real stage presence and his energy and enjoyment was obvious. Benjamin made use of the vocoder on every song and though it sounded less intense than when seeing band in 2012, it still made most of the lyrics indecipherable—a pity, as many of the lyrics are worth listening to and Benjamin's unaltered voice may just be a hidden gem. As an instrumentalist he impressed particularly on alto saxophone, playing with a fiery passion.
The set contained numbers from Experiment's hit album Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012), obviously familiar to many audience members. A brief, laidback, take on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a lovely performance of Sade's "Cherish The Day" were highlights. After a standing ovation from much of the near-capacity crowd the band returned to encore with another beautiful tune, "Gonna Be OK."
The evening closed with the first midnight jazz cruise on the Misisipi. The boatload of late-night revelers cruised up and down the River Daugava in the company of the Andreas Varady Trio and Riga Jazz Quartet. Andreas Varady, a 15-year-old guitarist recently signed to Verve Records, was accompanied by his father Bandi on bass guitar and his 11-year-old brother Adrian on drums. The trio played a set of upbeat original tunes that stayed close to the tradition of players like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell without simply mimicking any one guitarist. The Riga Jazz Quartet—pianist Viktors Ritovs, drummer Artis Orubs, saxophonist Toms Rudzinskis and bassist Edvīns Ozols—played with three of the young vocalists, staying with the American Songbook for the most part although Daniel Cacija's version of "Stormy Monday" took a bluesier direction.
Friday, July 5
Friday began with two workshops. Keyboardist John Medeski ,of Medeski, Martin & Wood, gave the first. The highlight was his opening piano improvisation, a performance of some energy and power that drew on George Gershwin's "Summertime." Medeski's stated aim was to discuss the importance of slowing down and learning by ear, both useful pieces of advice. He also entered into a discussion of life as a working jazz musician. It was an intriguing insight into that life, but his tale of the band's difficult early years and his declaration that things ..."have never been as bad as they are now" made for somewhat grim listening. He then revealed that the band's income had fallen in recent years and was now only about half of what it had been at its peak. Probably not what the audience, mostly aspiring jazz players, wanted to hear.
By contrast, Andreas Varady gave a workshop filled with the optimism and enthusiasm of youth. Varady delivered his talk with an engaging mix of confidence and self-consciousness, giving insight into his playing, his practice regime and his life as a touring musician. He also played extensively, often in partnership with brother Adrian who joined in with a set of congas that the brothers found in the studio that morning. An impressively fast yet precise "Donna Lee" was a clear demonstration of Varady's talent.
Medeski, Martin & Wood opened Friday night at the Congress Hall. The trio played its set as a single piece, with no interactions with the audience and little variation dynamically. The mix of jam band, prog rock, Acid jazz and Gregg Allman-style boogie seemed technically skilled but lacked excitement. The audience response was more than favorable, however, and the trio returned for an encore. It turned out to be the best number of the performance: all three men moved to front and center, playing acoustically—Medeski on melodica, Chris Wood on double bass and Billy Martin on tambourine—belatedly facing the audience rather than each other and creating one or two humorous musical moments.
Anyone in search of audience interaction, genuine emotional connection, dynamics and sheer delight needed to arrive at the Congress Hall in time for the evening's headliner. Butterscotch, a young beatboxer, singer and instrumentalist from California, was a joy. Looking sharp in a dark suit, white shirt and tie and carrying a beautiful, pale wood, acoustic guitar she walked on stage alone and gave a low-key, almost fragile, rendition of "The Very Thought Of You." Her singing voice may have lacked power, but it was full of emotion.
Joined onstage by the superb rhythm section of bassist Claus Fischer and drummer Rhani Krija, Butterscotch continued the performance with a mix of classics and original tunes. "My Funny Valentine" and Sade's "Smooth Operator" bookended Butterscotch's own "Perfect Harmony," on which she vocalized a trumpet part. By the time a beatbox version of "Misty" was followed by another original, "Silver Lining," some serious dancing had broken out in the front row. Butterscotch invited the group on stage to dance and join in on the chorus.
Butterscotch closed the show with "Obsession," which she wrote with Marcus Miller, then encored with a solo beatbox performance. This young artist has still to release her first album but she's already an outstanding talent. Where she'll eventually choose to go with that talent is still open for discussion, but as festival organizer Maris Brietzkalns said, she is definitely "a new star."
Saturday, July 6
Butterscotch got Saturday off to a great start with the most informative, entertaining and interactive of the master classes. Beatbox 101, as she termed it, took a dozen workshop participants through the rudiments of the beatboxer's art and also gave insights into the more complex aspects of the style. With a combination of gentle persuasion and friendly cajoling Butterscotch persuaded almost all of the participants to try out their newfound skills on the mike. Two of them revealed a particular ability and were rewarded with the chance to duet with Butterscotch—an experience which she seemed to enjoy just as much as the students.
The Congress Hall's closing concert offered the intriguing prospect of sets from the Riga-born kokle player Laima Jansone and American vocal star Diane Schuur. It was an idiosyncratic pairing: Jansone's experimentation and Schuur's pop-influenced take on standards. Schuur was a real entertainer, adept at engaging with an audience and getting them onside. But on the night it was the young kokle player who impressed the most.
In 2012, Jansone had impressed during a Rigas Ritmi gig at the Club Artelis alongside percussionist Orubs and bassist Andris Grunte. The trio had at that point played together only once or twice but it was already developing its own mix of tradition and modernity. A year later, things had moved on and the additional experience the musicians had gained as a unit showed in the imaginative sounds they created.
Seated between these two imposing musicians the slight, traditionally-dressed, Jansone clasped her kokle—an instrument that has changed little in 300 years—and prepared to play. It was Jansone's birthday, but a difficult flight home from Helsinki that afternoon had left her little time to relax and she looked a bit self-conscious at times. There was little obvious impact on her performance however. In the early part of the set, Jansone brought out the kokle's light, almost mystical, side—wistful, romantic, melodies that seemed to float across the auditorium. There was a Fender amplifier on stage and, out of sight of most of the room, a selection of foot pedals. When Jansone changed instruments and brought the effects into play she moved into altogether different sonic territory, creating wave after wave of sounds that were challenging, aggressive and spectral.
Just as Butterscotch brought a fresh, hip-hop sensibility to songbook classics, Jansone brought contemporary musical awareness to an ancient instrumental tradition. At one point her kokle sounded like nothing else than Neil Young's guitar circa "Like A Hurricane"; that may be taking things a little too far, but Jansone and her trio were still experimenting, still taking risks. The young Latvian and her kokle are full of potential, an exciting and fascinating mix of ancient and modern.
Schuur's performance was enthusiastic, but her quartet took some time to gel. Schuur seemed a little uncomfortable at times and momentarily forgot the words to "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "For Once In My Life." However, saxophonist Julian Siegel crafted swinging tenor solos on "Change Partners" and "Here's That Rainy Day." It all came together in fine style on "Louisiana Sunday Afternoon." The song was a highlight of the festival, a terrific combination of instrumental and vocal prowess that connected immediately with the audience; all four players seemed to raise their energy levels and Schuur and Siegel, on soprano sax, interacted perfectly.
Walking from the Congress Hall to the Misisipi riverboat for the final midnight cruise only took about ten minutes, but it was a ten-minute trip through a surprising variety of musical genres as the open air bars in Riga Old Town were kicking into gear for Saturday night. That short walk across the capital's medieval center took in dance, techno, hard rock and rockabilly. Then as another Rigas Ritmi venue came within earshot, the Open Air EGLE stage, the sound of a sitar cut through the air, gradually followed by vocals, guitars, tenor saxophone and percussion. This was the Frank/Pashkevich Experience stretching out on "Afro Blue."
Sadly, arriving rather late at the EGLE stage—and missing a second chance to hear the young Lithuanian singer Laura Budreckyte, who had impressed many people with her performances earlier in the week—the midnight cruise did provide a last chance to hear Cacija, Viluma and Protektore, backed once again by the Riga Jazz Quartet, including the excellent Orubs, now back behind a more standard drum set than the one he'd played with Jansone just a few minutes earlier.
This year's Rigas Ritmi took place at the same time as a major celebration of the folk music and traditions of Latvia: the Latvian Song And Dance Celebration, which featured around 40,000 singers, dancers and other performers (including drummer Orubs). The event, which takes place once every five years, filled the city with bands, choirs, dance troupes and craftspeople, all in traditional dress. It was clearly a source of great pride to the Latvian people and grabbed a surprising amount of space on Latvian television. Did it impact on attendance at Rigas Ritmi? Probably not too much, as the open air events were all well-attended and each of the Congress Hall concerts sold well.
It was once again a pleasure to be invited to attend Rigas Ritmi and to enjoy the hospitality of Latvia's capital. In 2014 Riga becomes the European City Of Culture, which will bring a year-long series of events to the city. Hopefully Rigas Ritmi will benefit from this and continue to bring top quality jazz and its relatives to this beautiful Baltic capital.