The Viljandi Variations: Kevin Le Gendre finds a lot more than folk music at one of Estonia's premier festivals

 esttonia

Parimusmuusika, the sub-title of this joyous festival is translated from Estonian as 'folk music'. However, the wide range of artists on the bill shows how much genres blur. During four action-packed days in the bejewelled Baltic town of Viljandi, where as many as 25,000 visitors swell the population by some margin, there are dozens of groups who fit the standard profile of 'roots' ensembles. Accordions, fiddles, jew's harps and bagpipes are to be heard at regular intervals yet there are also irregular time signatures, challenging harmony and the daring improvisation that pertains to the jazz aesthetic. It is the Estonian artists who provide highlights in this respect, and the Tormis Quartet, featuring master guitarist Jaak Sooäär and vocalist Kadri Voorand, both familiar faces at the Jazzkaar festival in Tallinn, is simply majestic. Their interpretation of the works of Veljo Tormis, a renowned 20th century choral composer, generates enough warmth from a large audience to rival the heatwave currently sizzling through most of Europe. Compelling, unusually shaped melodies are given adequately expressive textures by Sooäär's wily battery of electronics, while second guitarist Paul Daniel brings understated, undulating rhythmic accompaniment to enhance the harmonizing of Voorand and fellow vocalist Liisi Koikson.

If Nordic folk songs have been a staple source material for many ECM artists then Tormis is an equally fertile kind of stimulus for fresh modernity grown from a deep tradition, which is further bolstered by the arrival of the Ja Ellerhein Girls Choir. This makes for a spectacle that is as touching as it is sonically intriguing, and the collisions of old and new are also heard in performances by Mari Kalkun and Tintura, the former combining voice, kannel (zither), vibraphone and percussion, and the latter voice, violin, double-bass and drum programming to bewitching effect, reflecting a grasp of the dynamics of hip hop, as well as folk music and improvisation.

Established 26 years ago, Viljandi has a pedigree among festivals that can be ascribed to the beauty of the setting, as well as the quality of the line-up. The bulk of the concerts take place in the ruins of an old castle, whose drained moat has created a sensationally picturesque valley that sweeps down to a long and winding road. The biggest of the outdoor stages offers a breathtaking panorama of a shimmering lake. While these surroundings are remarkable, the town of Viljandi itself has immense charm, as cobbled streets, wooden houses, and small yards offer a soothing calm that is hard to find in a sprawling metropolis such as London. In this centenary of Estonian independence a burgh like this is a good advert for a quality of life that flows into the generally celebratory ambience of the festival, which is very family friendly. Yet the sharp melancholy of some of the music also resonates with Estonia's tragic past under Russian rule. Siberia is credited as the source of some of Tintura's songs, and it was in one of its prison camps that August Maraama, Viljandi's boldly progressive major, ended his days after being arrested and deported by Soviet authorities in 1941.

Hence the sight of black, white and blue flags and civic pride that pervades most of the concerts makes a great deal of sense. Estonian Voices, the a cappella sextet led by the aforementioned Voorand, whose blend of jazz, folk and classical has attracted large audiences right across Europe captures that feeling as well as any other group. Arrangements that play artfully on the contrasting characters of the singers – the two sopranos Mirjam Dede and Maria Vali and tenor Mikk Dede all impress – are excellent and the harmonising is rich throughout. An orchestra, or rather orkestar, with a more raucous energy is Macedonia's Kadrievi, who elicit delirium and dancing in an audience that cannot resist the relentlessly swirling gypsy rhythms drawn from Eastern Europe and oriental sources. An octet with a mighty bottom-end provided by the bombardon (bass tuba), the group has the explosive character of a funky New Orleans marching band, and like its American counterpart, the standard of playing is high. As for Niger's Bombino, they play a storming desert blues not unlike Tinariwen, in which vocalist–guitarist Goumour Almoctar lays down rugged solos.

Energy levels are kept up in the closing gala concert by Viljandi's artistic director Ando Kiviberg, who invites a few dozen groups on stage to play bite-sized sets to remind the audience of what they have had the chance to enjoy over the sun-soaked weekend. Georgian vocal group Debi Gogochurebi steals the show with its rapturous polyphony, but it is Kiviberg's nifty shape-shifting – he sings one minute, plays pipes and double-bass the next – that is a potent encapsulation of traditions in transition.

Kevin Le Gendre

Trumpet-Man Martin Shaw Gets Linear And Limber At Imber

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Promoter Carole Merritt has built a loyal following for jazz at Imber Court in Surrey, me included, and tends to pick a star player for her monthly events and put him or her in front of a good rhythm section and see what develops. This time it was trumpeter Martin Shaw in pole position, his band of brothers comprising pianist John Pearce, bassist Dave Green and drummer Matt Home. So no passengers there.

Shaw seems either to be submerged in the ranks of the BBC Big Band or to appear in the line-ups of other leaders. In other words, he's a jazz all-rounder and has the aptitude to step into any kind of musical situation and excel. Yet his solo outings are rare and, on this evidence, to be cherished. Broadly of the Clifford Brown persuasion, one might say, he's not a grandstand player, more a linear improviser who enjoys seeing where the creative impulse takes him.

A nicely balanced programme emerged, its variety sufficient to place Shaw among our very best practitioners, either on trumpet or flugelhorn. Pianist Pearce was in commanding form, alert to every signal, his adroit touch making me think of Hank Jones, no notes wasted, each response or solo a quiet gem. Still with the tireless Dave Green alongside and Matt Home, another who is quick to follow and enhance a soloist's direction, there was the ideal bedrock for Shaw to prosper and he did.

Opening with a nifty 'Bernie's Tune', the trumpet tone nicely centred, Shaw followed with 'My Romance' as a flugel ballad, wringing out every embellishment possible, Green's solo similarly affecting. Then it was 'Secret Love' and 'Lover Man', before Shaw fell back from all this love-making and gave Pearce a trio run at 'Just in Time'. Tightly muted for 'What Is This Thing', Shaw then tackled 'All Blues' on flugel, the familiar bass motif presaging a distinctive move away from the Davis model. That said, he shoved the Harmon back in and gave 'Bye Bye Blackbird' his close attention, the highlight a duo joust with Green.

A personable communicator, Shaw clearly relished the occasion and so did we. Get him back soon, Carole!

Peter Vacher

Kofi's Cannonball Caps Swanage Summer Weekender

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The sun, sea and sounds were a reminder of the famous film, Jazz On A Summer's Day, and while an introduction from Eli's Chosen Few was missing, traditional jazz emanating from the Marquee suitably provided the backdrop. In the Lindop Tent, named after long standing festival director Fred, Tony Kofi's Portrait of Cannonball started the festival, setting the bar high for subsequent acts. Tearing into the Adderley canon, both familiar ('Sack O'Woe', 'Nardis' and 'Work Song') and less so, Kofi's spirited approach was supported by a tight rhythm section – Alex Webb (piano), Andy Cleyndert (bass) and Alfonso Vitale (drums) – and he was joined by Andy Davies, whose trumpet solos were sharp and clear. Vocalist Deelee Dube was added for several numbers from the Nancy Wilson/Adderley 1961 collaboration.

Friday's proceedings continued with the octet of another altoist, Alan Barnes, the strong line-up including fellow saxophonists Robert Fowler and Karen Sharp, with Mark Nightingale on trombone and Bruce Adams on trumpet. They handled a mixture of old and new standards with great versatility and style, including, surprisingly, a rendition of Bix's 'I'm Coming Virginia', a feature for the forthright Adams. 

By Saturday, a listener could have been forgiven for thinking the festival was an altoists' convention, as Greg Abate showed what a brilliant interpreter of Parker-inspired post-bop he is, breezing through 'Yardbird Suite', 'Out of Nowhere', 'Steeplechase' and others, his predilection for fast tempos ably matched by Craig Milverton's trio. Other highlights were Rollins' 'Pent Up House' and his own composition 'Contemplation'. The bar set high, it seemed unfair to throw the youngsters of Clark Tracey's Quintet into the arena, but the front row of talented trumpeter Alexandra Rideout and Sean Payne's oblique and imaginative alto was sufficiently different to prevent comparisons. Bebop's future is in good hands.

Not to be outdone, the tenor players arrived, firstly in the shape of Simon Spillett, characteristically fast and inventive, who with trombonist Ian Bateman covered material by J.J. Johnson. They were augmented by forceful trumpeter Ben Cummings, later to be seen with the enjoyable New Orleans inspired band, Brass Volcanoes. In a different setting, Diane McLoughlin's tenor provided the perfect foil for bassist Alison Rayner's lyrical and thoughtful compositions, then on the main stage Scott Hamilton showed why he is firmly in the mainstream tenor tradition. With his rich, full tone, he attentively accompanied the engaging vocalist Champian Fulton, an accomplished pianist whose ballad work at times had a Garnerish touch. Echoes of Ellington, featuring Claire Martin, shared the top spot on Saturday, to the appreciation of a large audience, though to this listener it seemed uninspiring at times. Meanwhile, in the contemporary camp, Phronesis overshot their start time for an elongated soundcheck – mystifyingly so for a trio – then into their second number had to pause for more. A slightly disappointing set which could have been more adventurous. As one audience member observed: "the emperor's not-so-new clothes".

Sunday's highlights included the close collaborative duo of Alan Barnes and Dave Newton and a wonderfully joyous set from Jazz Jamaica, who invited the audience to dance, a risky proposition given the mature years of some. But little encouragement was needed and there were chants for more at the end. The Jazz Repertory Company closed the festival with a JATP performance full of power, enthusiasm and entertainment. Appropriately, guitarist Nigel Price was featured as a player, rather than in his capacity as festival organiser – a role for which a good deal of recognition and appreciation is due.

Matthew Wright 

Ageless Astatke Leads African Head Charge At Jazz Á Vienne

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Jazz á Vienne's annual two-week gathering has been charming crowds for almost four decades, thanks to a diverse and vibrant programme and a headline venue – a stone-built Roman amphitheatre – that never fails to get jaws dropping.

Choosing what to see from this year's embarassment of riches (Ron Carter, Melody Gardot, Marcus Miller, more) wasn't easy. But after a 20-minute taxi ride from Lyon and a meander around an old town festooned with images of this year's mascot – a Miles-meets-Marvel trumpet player (courtesy of graphic artist Brüno), it was up the hill to the Théatre Antique, with its vertiginous terraces and summit dotted with temples and ancient statues, and an Africa-themed night boasting three A-listers.

Mulatu Astatke, the daddy from Addy, led a seven-piece outfit of UK-based players, among them cellist Shanti Paul Jayasinha, fresh from Orphy Robinson's remarkable Voicestra Polyphonic Collective debut at the Gibraltar World Music Festival. Astatke, 74, seemed reinvigorated by his music, a hypnotic meld of funk, soul, latin jazz, Ethiopian tones and extra heavy percussion, gifting us stints on congas, timbales, vibes and keys: effortlessly, elegantly dexterous. This line-up, give or take the odd change, has been with Astatke for a while and no wonder, what with John Edwards' bass thundering mightily alongside percussionist Richard Olatunde Baker's chattering krakeb castanets, Byron Wallen's warm and expansive horn vying with James Arben's fierce tenor-sax squalls and a loose-limbed Hawkins perched, Gould-like, at a baby grand, delivering chords chewy enough to get your teeth into.

Then came Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traore, barefoot and regal in a blue shift dress, a Stratocaster around her neck, the fire in her belly almost palpable. Flanked by musicians on electric bass, guitar and riffing ngoni lute, aided by a kit drummer on a mission, Traoré unwound slowly, her lyrics in French and Bambara crisp and pure, her charisma mesmerising. Traoré is a committed boundary pusher who has long blended traditional West African rhythms with jazz, folk and rock. She has previously covered 'Strange Fruit' and collaborated with the likes of the Kronos Quartet, but here she worked on adding layers, establishing grooves. Laying aside her guitar, she danced with a fluid freneticism, taking back the mic to sing of the power and beauty of Africa, of its challenges and riches. It was a consummate performance cheered on by the 7,000 plus crowd. That new Mama Africa mantle is in the bag.

Standing centre-stage in a white and gold boubou, Youssou N'Dour spread his arms and delivered 'New Africa', an exhortation to work together for change, to consider the legacy of pan-Africanists Cheikh Anta Diop and Kwame Nkrumah. Formerly Senegal's minister for culture, N'Dour has left political office and his music, refreshed, has benefitted. Africa's most successful singer, N'Dour garnered attention in the 1980s as the golden-voiced leader of Etoile de Dakar (a 'jazz orchestra' that like similarly designated ensembles in the region – represented a modern African negritude) and created the popular dance style, mbalax, fusing jazz, rock and latin music with traditional rhythms. Surrounded by stalwarts including maestro percussionist Babakar Faye, pounding a row of conical sabar drums into submission with a stick, and axeman Jimi Mbaye, firing lightning bolts from a Fender Strat (with which he also recreated the sound of the kora), and with keys, kit drums, two backing singers, a tama talking drum player and a face-off between Faye on djembe and a somersaulting acrobat/dancer, this was a Senegalese-style soul revue with hit after hit and encore 'Redemption Song' raising clenched fists along the terraces.

Down in the 350-capacity Theatre Municipal Vienne, the experimental Jazz Mix series kicked off at midnight with London's Ruby Rushton, here in trio format. Led by Ed 'Tenderlonious' Cawthorne on flute, beats and soprano sax, with Aidan Shepherd on keys and Tim Carnegie on drums, they served up spiritual jazz mains including 'Prayer for Yusef', along with edgy Hancock-esque fusion, holding their own under mercilessly hot stage lights before a gaggle of drunken twenty-somethings.

Special mention, too, to the following night's late nighters: Lagos-based guitarist Keziah Jones, who improvised a thrilling set under the stars at 2am. Representing Dalston's Total Refreshment Centre were improvisation dons Ill Considered, a London quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman, who squalled and snaked through, around and alongside the freeform expression of Emre Ramazanoglu on drums, Yahael Camara-Onono on percussion and way-out-there bassist Leon Brichard. Their intense free jazz had a 1960s devotional vibe and the potential to take them further, to a summit, perhaps, and beyond.

Jane Cornwell
Photo by Pierre Corvaisier 

See The Wood From The Trees: Splashgirl Sun-Blessed Amid Südtirol's Stunning Sights And Sounds

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Director Klaus Widmann's theme for this year's Südtirol Jazz Festival was 'Exploring the North', with most of the musicians and bands chosen from Scandinavian countries. Yet other nations were represented too, as demonstrated by a performance from Estonian saxophonist and composer Maria Faust (below) who led her band on-stage to perform her award-winning composition 'Sacrum Facere', a suite of seven pieces about the destiny of women through the ages. The music – inspired by Estonian folk and sacred music – is haunting and beautiful. As the natural light fades and the surrounding granite faces becomes more dominating, the experience becomes dramatic and quasi-spiritual.

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Norwegian piano trio Splashgirl (pictured top) are set up in a small glade in the trees, with the audience sat in wooden chairs scattered among the trees. The sun filters through the canopy above, acting as tiny spotlights highlighting the band, as they infuse their urbane post-jazz stylings with subtle electronics. Meanwhile, in the cellars of a small country hotel and vineyard artist-in-residence, saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen and Tuomas A. Turunen play two short improvised compositions – the Finns combining brassy bellows with Turunen's accompaniment on a pair of wine bottles. Turunen loves his wine and has, so far, transcribed the taste of over 150 wines into musical notation. As each wine is sampled the pair give their musical interpretation of it on piano and sax. A heady mix of improv and alcohol!

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The big concert on the festival's final day was held outside a mountain hut 2,154m up in the Dolomites (above). The concert featured a composition in five movements by Lyytinen, using seven drummers and Andreas Stensland Löwe on electronics) to augment the natural drama of the amazing backdrop. At times, ominous looking clouds added to the extraordinary combinations of sights and sound. 

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Other shows that deserve mention include Mats Gustafsson's Fire!, who were joined by the excellent Swedish vocalist Mariam Wallentin. The group managed to accomodate the fragility of Wallentin's beautiful vocals with the full onslaught of Gustafsson's baritone sax (above) and Johan Berthling's thumping bass to great effect. Elsewhere, Verneri Pohjola gave two excellent concerts – one a duo in the modern art museum with percussionist Mika Kallio and the other with his full band showcasing his Edition album Pekka in a working woollen mill.

This festival is clearly a labour of its director's passions – featuring mostly unknown or emerging artists, and most of the concerts are free. In choosing locations of outstanding natural beauty and, in some cases, sites that are completely off-the-wall, Widmann and his team create an experience that's not just unique, but world class.

Tim Dickeson (story & photos)

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