Rigas Ritmi, held in Riga, the Latvian capital, for the past 17 years, always provides an intriguing mix of well-known and up and coming acts. The 2017 festival proved to be no exception to this rule, with pianist and MONK'estra leader John Beasley and blues singer/guitarist Ruthie Foster joining acts such as the Coco'nuts, the Riga Jazz Quartet and accordionist Simone Zanchini on the bill. The 2017 festival featured new venues as well as some familiar favourites, with main concerts in the Riga Cathedral Garden and smaller-scale gigs on the Origo Summer Stage and at Leisure Park EGLE among other venues, as well as jam sessions at Jazz Club Trompete and Blue 54 Jazz. It was another enjoyable, friendly and welcoming weekend: only the weather turned against us.
The festival opened, as is traditional, with a free concert on the Origo summer stage. The stage is situated in the square outside Riga's main railway station, so attracts plenty of passers-by who stop for a few minutes to listen to the music before the journey home, as well as more diehard fans who take a seat and stay for the full two hours and more of entertainment. This year's concert featured the Riga Jazz Quartet with special guests. The highlight of the evening was a surprise solo set from Foster, who impressed greatly with just voice and guitar. She was to appear a number of times in the course of the week, running a workshop, appearing solo in Club Kaļķu Vārti and joining the Latvian Radio Big Band for two concerts.
This year the festival's main venue was the beautiful garden of the Riga Cathedral. It's a stunning venue, a medieval courtyard surrounded on all sides by the ancient cathedral buildings but open to the night sky. On Thursday night the crowd was large but unfortunately the Baltic weather turned against us and the evening's music was interrupted by some torrential downpours. Nevertheless guitarist Yamandu Costa and vocalist Daymé Arocena battled on regardless. Guitarist Costa, playing solo, entranced the crowd with some dazzling displays of skill on his chosen instrument. He played superfast flurries of notes, deep reverberating bass lines and some slower, more romantic melodies. Arocena, accompanied by a quartet, sang a variety of songs from Africa and Cuba. The band was tight and Arocena's voice was strong and evocative, but the rain was relentless.
In the Cathedral Garden on Friday night there was a double bill: a support set from accordionist Simone Zanchini followed by Foster with the Latvian Radio Big Band conducted by Beasley. Zanchini played his hour-long set as a single musical piece segueing one song into the next: most notably segueing "I Got Rhythm" briefly into the theme from The Flintstones. As befits the leader of MONK'estra Beasley kicked off with a big band version of Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie." The big band followed it up with a Beasley original, "Nothing Left To Say," before Foster stepped on stage. Foster started with her own "Brand New Day." She then followed up with "Phenomenal Woman," the lyrics based on a poem by Maya Angelou. Foster and the big band also covered Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" in an engaging and stylistically broad set. When the crowd demanded an encore Foster returned and sang a moving solo gospel tune, Son House's "People Grinnin' In Your Face," accompanied only by handclaps from the band and audience.
On Saturday evening Beasley performed a solo concert in the beautiful concert hall of the recently-built Latvian national library, across the Daugava river from the old town. The evening started with an on-stage discussion between Beasley and myself. We spoke about MONK'estra and Beasley's love of Thelonious Monk's music, and Beasley gave the audience some insight into the forthcoming concert. Beasley's one hour set included improvisations on a range of well known tunes such as Monk's "Ask Me Now" and "Blue Monk," Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and James Taylor's "Fire And Rain." Beasley closed with his own interpretation of the Beatles' "Ballad Of John And Yoko."
Leisure Park EGLE, as in previous years, hosted a number of local acts on its small stage for a series of free evening concerts. It's a lively venue, a collection of bars situated in one of RIga's old town squares, filled with people out for a good time and enjoying the food and excellent beers as well as the music. The Riga Jazz Quartet impressed, as did the Coco'nuts—a septet featuring two female vocalists, a flute and a harmonica, whose name belies a serious approach to music that came over well to the assembled crowd. The band displayed rock and Latin vibes with occasional Santana-ish flourishes from the guitarist and some impressive and powerful drumming.
As in previous years the program of daytime workshops at the Latvian national radio studios prove to be fun and instructive. On the first morning of my stay I took part in a workshop given by percussionist Shirazette Tinnin. Tinnin is a bandleader and composer in her own right, as well as a member of bands led by artists including Tia Fuller. She was in Riga to play with Allan Harris, whose own gig at Club Kaļķu Vārti was later that evening (timetable clashes meant that I missed Harris' performance as well as that of Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg). Tinnin proved to be an inspiring and engaging workshop presenter, full of positivity and encouragement for the young musicians in the audience. She gave demonstrations on the drum kit and on the cajon as well as discussing, and encouraging the audience to attempt, numerous Latin rhythmic patterns.
Foster took a different approach at her vocal and guitar masterclass the following day. She opened with one of her own songs, "Brand New Day." It was disconcerting -but pleasingly so -to hear Foster's gospel vocal being accompanied by three-part harmonies that appeared to come out of the blue. The source turned out to be three young women in the front row. Foster revealed them to be the backing vocalists for the Latvian Radio Big Band concert that evening.
It was a lovely start to another fascinating masterclass. Foster told of her background -including a spell in the US Navy as a helicopter mechanic -and her musical education. She offered tips on songwriting and performing. She also gave us what amounted to a mini concert with songs of her own as well as songs by Bob Marley, Patty Griffin and a terrific rendition of a Mississippi John Hurt blues. The audience clearly enjoyed Foster's easy-going presentation, although they were rather reluctant to ask questions. Foster answered those that were asked with clarity and honesty.
At his own workshop, Beasley engaged with the audience by speaking to each member in turn about their musical interests before answering their questions. He gave insight into his practice regime, exercises for strengthening his fingers, his approach to arranging and to improvisation.
Saturday evening's main concert, in the Cathedral Gardens, featured Greek-born accordionist and singer Magda Giannikou and French funk and soul band Electro Deluxe. Giannikou has a vibrant stage presence, readily engaging the audience as she told stories and gave insights into her songs. However, the bass and guitar accompaniment often sounded out of synch, possibly because of the weather and the threat of rain, so that the music never quite locked in with Giannikou's own singing and playing. By contrast, Electro Deluxe started its set at full power and kept it at the same level for the rest of the evening. The band has an old-school '80s vibe—both musically and visually—which was just what the audience wanted. Within the opening few bars most of the crowd was on its feet and ready to dance.
That was the end of the 2017 Rigas Ritmi festival, but one final treat was in store. Next day, a Sunday, we joined the Latvian Radio Big Band on their coach for a 3-hour journey to Daugavpils for another concert with Beasley and Foster. Daugavpils is in the south of the country, just a few miles from its border with Lithuania and Belarus. Its main claim to fame is as the birthplace of artist Mark Rothko (in 1903, when the city was part of the Russian Empire and known as Dvinsk). The city is now home to the impressive Rothko museum and to a lovely concert hall which hosted the evening's performance. As with the Cathedral Gardens concert, Beasley conducted the band, Foster sang (with her backing vocalists once again in fine voice) and the audience loved it. The smaller, indoor, venue seemed to heighten the impact of the music and Foster's voice came over even more strongly than it had in the open air. The programme was almost identical to the first concert—for me, another highlight of the week and a fine way to end my stay.
By BRUCE LINDSAY, July 12, 2017, All About Jazz