REVIEW: Jazzkaar Festival 2018 \\ The Bad Plus, Sons of Kemet, Intimacy and Experimentation

Tallinn is lovely. There’s no better way to describe it than that. But if you venture beyond the quaint medieval Old Town, with its cobbled streets and decorative spires, you’ll find the city has a hip urban edge to it as well. The same goes for Jazzkaar, the Estonian capital’s long running jazz festival, which strikes a balance between cosy and cool, comfortably crowd-pleasing and progressive.

This year’s headliner was Laura Mvula, who won over a lukewarm crowd in the vast Alexela Concert Hall, dancing to a grooving Troy Miller drum solo in her striped “circus pyjamas”, adding keytar zaps to a funked-up Weather Report tribute and getting everyone on their feet for Green Garden. Later that night, Sons of Kemet, flew the flag for the new wave of British jazz, with a ferocious set at Vaba Lava, one of two venues in Telliskivi Creative City – a collection of graffitied former factory buildings out beyond the train tracks where most of the performances took place. Telliskivi is Tallinn’s hipster hub – home to startups, creative studios and bars – and gigs here drew a young crowd. Drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick got them jumping, as tuba player Theon Cross blasted visceral basslines and wounded animal bellows. Shabaka Hutchings put so much power behind his lairy tenor lines you could see the veins bulging in his neck. It’s no wonder there’s such a buzz around this band. They play full on rage music. It’s the new punk – the hardest shit there is right now. And, with everything that’s going on in the world, it’s exactly what we need. 

The Bad Plus EZH Mag Jazzkaar Review

Orrin Evans of The Bad Plus © Siiri Padar

On the same stage the night before, brilliant American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire gave one of the more freewheeling performances of the festival. Everytime I see Akinmusire live it’s completely different. He’s a well of ideas. Here he reinvented tracks from latest release A Rift In Decorum, exploring delicate classical cadenzas and adding flexing, razorwire lines to the thrashing sonic nebulas stirred up by bassist Harish Raghavan, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Justin Brown. There was an experimental streak to a set from The Bad Plus as well, touring for the first time since their change of lineup, but sounding flawless. New pianist Orrin Evans mixed things up with slamming octaves and spikey solo runs that gave the trio’s chilled-out EDM and beat music-inspired grooves a welcome edge. Hurricane Birds had a Hitchcock vibe – at one point it sounded like a flock of ravens were attacking the upper register of the piano – though definitely in a good way.

Jazzkaar is the biggest jazz festival in the Baltic states, but one of its best features is a series of Home Concerts – tiny gigs hosted by local families – that show off its intimate, convivial side. At Raul and Helen’s house, a grand design in a swathe of birch forest just outside the city, we took our shoes off at the door and padded around drinking blueberry juice and eating homemade cherry cake as young vocalist Maarja Aarma and her quartet played mellow neo soul. Bassist Janno Trump, leader of one of Estonia’s most talked about young groups (the unfortunately-named fusion ten-piece Trump Conception), impressed with a beautifully paced solo.

Maarja Aarma EZH Mag Jazzkaar Review

Maarja Aarma © Sven Tupits

There are lots of celebrations in Tallinn this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Estonian Republic and Jazzkaar had a strong programme of Estonian acts. Back at Telliskivi, on the Punane Maja foyer stage, the Mauno Meesit Trio opened an Estonian showcase with a gloomy, atmospheric mix of ambient guitar, beaming vocal lines, sawing electric violin, bowed cymbals and thumping drums. I loved the idea behind Modulshtein, a trio featuring guitar, synth and electronics, clarinet and decks. On the whole the execution didn’t live up to the concept, but there were some nice moments: mellow bass clarinet wanderings contrasted with harsh drum and bass grooves. An hour of powerhouse instrumental techno from German trio Komfortrauschen (an exciting new discovery) was the best of the heavy, electronic sets. But one of the most interesting was a performance from Argo Vals, who closed the Estonian showcase, playing to a small, late night crowd in front of a pulsing light screen. He mixed dreamy guitar loops with washes of crystalline ambience and flickering firefly electronics. And, in one set, brought together the sense of intimacy and the creative, opened minded attitude that makes Jazzkaar work so well.

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Thomas Rees