In Tallinn, a city where gothic cathedrals are overlooked by contemporary glass hotels, and ultra-fashionable woman in high-heels carefully tred their way through the medieval cobbled streets, it is evident that tradition and modernity go hand in hand. The Jazzkaar festival, fittingly then, is a celebration of music which borrows from the past, whilst at all times looking to the future.
Embracing a range of influences including the Nordic folk heritage of the North, the gypsy traditions of its neighbouring South, and the established jazz cannon of the West, Estonian jazz has found its own organic sound. Local musicians such as Villu Veski and Tiit Kalluste have sought comfort in the vaporous sounds of Scandinavia, matching ghostly soprano saxophone with pulsating accordion. Their duo performance in one of the city’s seemingly infinite cathedrals was simply breathtaking. Completely attuned to their surroundings, the utilisation of the building’s natural echo provided an ethereal and reflective quality to the sound.
In juxtaposition, Jaak Sooaar is the driving force of the experimental scene; his guitar led trio, The Dynamite Vikings, are influenced as much by John Zorn and Tim Berne as Jan Garberick. Strangely the performance took place at a Pavilion on the outskirts of the city (a huge greenhouse of a building with tropical plants to boot) but the performance was a fascinating blend of subtle Zappaesque parody, intense free jazz solo work and some of the funkiest riffs of the festival: uncompromisingly forward thinking music without being inaccessible.
As well as being a showcase for local artists, the abundance of global talent made Jazzkaar a festival of international appeal. Stepping in from the cold Estonian air, the charismatic Lenny Andrade certainly warmed things up as her Brazilian Sambop Band set forth with their lively and often romantic bossa-nova. Sticking with the Latin theme, Son De La Frontera made the concert hall feel like a Spanish street party with their traditional flamenco guitar work and dancing. But personally, Grammy award winning Angelique Kidjo from Benin was hands down the most entertaining and energised performer of the week: her Afro-beat and funk derived music set the crowd alight with pulsating rhythms and textures.
There was no shortage of big names to draw in the crowds either with Dave Douglas and Al Di Meola selling out their concerts, and with living legend Roy Ayers bringing his notoriously tight soul-jazz outfit to town the chance of the dull week was impossible. Still exhaustively touring, even now in the autumn of his life, Ayers’ show was positively electric. With one of the best working rhythm sections in the business and an unfaltering capacity to make people dance, smile and generally go wild, his place at the top of the entertainment ladder is as secure as ever.
But ultimately the highlights of the week were the impromptu after-hours jam sessions at Clazz Jazz Club. Nestled in the Old Town world-class recording artists were able to trade fours with local musicians long into the morning, providing a grateful audience with epic cutting contests and rousing sing-a-longs: a harmonious international example of the transcendent power music.