Cassandra Wilson, Edmar Castaneda and Pat Metheny shine at Jazzkaar Festival


The Baltic states might be a long way behind their Nordic neighbours in terms of the kudos of its major jazz festivals, but Estonia’s Jazzkaar is undoubtedly the exception. This year was its special 25th anniversary edition set in the capital Tallinn, a chic coastal city that’s an unassuming yet fascinating mix of the medieval and contemporary. A Silver Jubilee would have been no more than a pipe dream after the Soviets banned the city’s jazz festival in the late-1960s with the petty excuse that, “you do not need any jazz here, you have your singing festivals, that’s enough.” But Jazzkaar, under the shrewd stewardship of artistic director Anne Erm, has become the go-to festival of the entire Baltic area as well as a genuinely high profile fixture on the Tallinn arts and entertainment calendar.

Earlier events included US saxophonist Greg Osby as guest of Swiss trio Vein, the Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and Marius Neset quartet. But everybody was talking about the Colombian improvising harpist Edmar Castaneda Trio (pictured above), a new star in the making. The final weekend welcomed jazz superstars and blossoming local – as well as more exotic – talent. Vocal diva Cassandra Wilson (pictured below) was in retrospective mood at the new Nokia Concert Hall, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking Blue Light Til Dawn album. The 58- year-old jazz siren, with a head of Medusa-like dreads, held the audience spellbound. At once both barmy and shamanistic, Cassandra has a rare gift that makes you feel like you’re listening to her in her living room rather than on a big concert stage. She told a full house it was her first time in Estonia but she already loved the people and was catering to their vibration. The band, featuring longstanding guitarist Brandon Ross and her Swiss musical director/harmonica player Gregoire Maret, wonderfully evoked the heady, blues-soaked jazz ambience of Blue Light.

Jazzkaar seems to have something for everyone and the younger generation were getting their kicks from bands such as Portico Quartet. From folky hang drum-based London buskers to electro minimalists; nowadays they’re offering a mix of trance dance anthems and ethereal Steve Reich-like jazzy post-rock, the latter the far more challenging option. They went down a treat as did the crowd-pleasing Spanish female flamenco group Las Migas. Then an authentic Estonian Sax legend, the pianist Tõnu Naissoo recreated a trio recording he released in 1967, the first Estonian jazz album to be released in Soviet-controlled Estonia. Naissoo’s playing was intriguing with its darkly hued modal Paul Bley-like touches, and influences from east European romanticism through to its influence from the folky Nordic jazz of that period.

Pat Metheny Unity Group
closed the festival with a typically long two and a half hour set. Covering many aspects of his career, he incorporated his Orchestrion, from wailing jazz-rock numbers through to brief tracks from his Ornette Coleman collaboration, and played duets with every member of his high level band, the standouts being Antonio Sanchez and Chris Potter. Potter turned up to the afterparty jam without his sax, but at least part-compensated with an unexpectedly impressive display on the piano. ‘Positively Surprising’ as is the motto of the Estonian Tourist board and it’s something that could equally be applied to its world class, home-grown festival.

– Selwyn Harris