Tallinn is renowned for the old and the new, its castle-walled quaintness and its digital advancement, its Old Town, and its cultural youth. Skype was born here, and Estonia is recently offering an amorphous (though effective) online residency e-status.There is also an often stripling art-workforce, customarily found at the vanguard of internet media navigation strategies. In 2018, Estonia is celebrating a century of independent existence, although the nation’s character was, not surprisingly, well established prior to 1918, and it also suffered from a hyper-restrictive Soviet presence for two stretches.
Jazzkaar has been running annually since 1990 but its roots lie in a short lived mid-1960s forerunner, which was ultimately banned by the Soviets. Jazzkaar is now a ten day festival that mostly inhabits the Telliskivi Creative City. Yes, we could be in Brooklyn here, with former factory spaces converted into artistically-inclined studios, venues, bars, and cafés. This zone has transformed the edges of Tallinn during the last decade, sitting right next to the increasingly desirable Kalamaja area of wooden-exterior houses. Also, even since last year, an impressive market area has sprung up (the visually appealing manifestation of an alternative shopping mall concept), just along the disused train tracks, with Balti Jaama now offering organic produce and crafty goods, as well as even more victual-vending hip-spots.
Amongst several connections between performances during the festival, there were notably strong showings from both vocal and piano-centered groups. On the vocal front, one of Estonia’s finest artists played an important part in two ensembles. Kadri Voorand has a life as a sometimes out-there jazz singer and pianist, often subverting her source material via electronics. She also has other existences, being the leader (and arranger) of Estonian Voices, and also part of a quartet devoted to the compositions of Veljo Tormis. Deceased in 2017, Tormis was second only to Arvo Pärt in terms of an Estonian composer’s international recognition.
The six piece a capella Estonian Voices inhabit no secure style, possessing elements of choral, jazz, folk, easy listening, and new music, never completely any of these, but invariably flying off into some liberated creative stratosphere. Making an assured entrance, they were relaxed but slick, Voorand introducing the members via song. The roster is fifty-fifty male and female, although range can be high or low for either, as light as their nimble footwork and bodily interactions on stage. Mild beatboxing issued from the men, and “The Tokyo Blues” created a honeyed groove from the pen of Horace Silver. Voorand had some inspired solo moments, skating with a stream of loquacious scat, her body language equally expressive. The interplay between the singers was exact and dynamic, their bent altering from satirical to sincere, according to the moods of each number. One small annoying detail was that the sound engineer had a habit of sharply cutting their microphones at the end of songs (or even phrases), as if to escape the evils of reverb.
The Tormis foursome has an unusual line-up of two guitarists (Jaak Sooäär, Paul Daniel) and two singers (Voorand, Liisi Koikson). Their Tormis Remains program is usually performed alone, but for this festival they were joined by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. This immediately set up an enjoyable tension between straight choral singing and the sometimes rebellious jazz (and beyond) detours of the more individually expressive Voorand and Koikson. Sooäär (another one of Estonia’s key players) can often be somewhat extreme, and there were traces of this when he and Daniel upped the volume and intensity of their playing, with some surf-dueling twang. Voorand turned on her electronics at certain dramatic points, building up a looped, atonal weight, the choir complying, as she added subsonic melodica, made jarring cuts, and hopped between soft and harsh vocalizations. To conclude, the choir gradually dispersed around the space as electronics receded and natural acoustics rose in dominance.
A few days later, Trondheim Voices came down from Norway to reveal another way of conducting human sounds, by making them partially inhuman. Each member wears a small electronic device, garbed in distinctive headgear—skull-globes with protuberances—that lend them a visiting extraterrestrial aura. All vocal issuances are transformed in real time, mostly via their electronic portables, but also by their sound engineer. Many of the sonics sounded electronic rather than verbal, sometimes taking on a percussive nature, others being completely unidentifiable as human-sourced. There remained enough discernible vocal material to retain a singing character, as the performance took on a ritual cast, invoking sibilant sounds of nature: caves, streams, birdsong, deep core humming. Tones were disembodied, lighting was dim, highlighting the illumination of each singer’s portable cube, as they huddled in a tight circle, then gradually moved out to separate stations. Harmonic layers emerged, becoming smoother prior to chittering, as the calmed mystery was slowly deepened. Trondheim Voices are one of the most unusual a capella groups to be experienced, if electronic tweaking is allowed in that universe.
Jazzkaar was also very well endowed with pianist-leaders, several of them offering highlight performances during the festival. Nik Bärtsch (Switzerland), Benoît Delbecq (France) and Kristjan Randalu (Estonia) presented very different sets, exploring minimalism, rhythmic invention and atmospheric lyricism, all three players balancing compositional structure with improvisational unpredictability. Another one of Estonia’s rising talents is the pianist Kirke Karja, who led her quartet close to the start of the festival. Upon witnessing her as a bandleader on several occasions, it’s remarkable that Karja continually provokes consistent change in her line-ups, as well as in her general stylistic direction.
This time, the horn front line was retired in favor of guitarist Kalle Pilli assisting a doom-prog opener with an accelerating riff structure, the leader sprinkling glassy trinkles at high velocity, navigating skipped, jerky beats. A bluesy funk developed out of bowed bass sparseness, and a percussive arrhythmia made a sudden cutaway to pinched guitar distortion. By this time, we could have been into the Stockhausen number that she apparently included as the second piece, but the three works played sounded more like a lone suite-like journey. Flickering white lines on the rear-stage lighting lozenges exacerbated the heady jolting of the music. Karja included player piano impersonations and prepared interior rummaging, alongside funksome honky tonkin’, all these elements delivered with absolute confidence and a belligerently exact virtuosity. Jazzkaar wasn’t all about voices and pianos, but these were its dominant channels of expression for much of the program.