Jazzkaar Festival Live Review

Now in its 27th year and located in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, Jazzkaar Festival is the largest Jazz festival in the Baltics. Forming part of a larger network of music festivals in Estonia, such as Tallinn Music Week and the Winter Jazz Festival, Jazzkaar has established itself as a regular presence in the annual festival schedule, drawing acts as diverse and renowned as Gregory Porter, Pat Metheny and Bobby McFerrin in previous years. Attracting a crowd of young crate diggers as well as well-heeled older jazz purists and opportunists, this 2017 edition was no different in the admirable breadth and variety promoted on its three stages.

Opening the main stretch of the festival was American singer Dianne Reeves who played a sold out 1800+ capacity Nordea Concert Hall. The opulently modernist stylings of the Nordea Hall were an appropriate setting for Reeves’ performance which blended jazz classics like Miles Davis’ All Blues with pop covers such as her down-tempo, funk-inflected version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

Perfectly illustrating the diversity of programming at Jazzkaar, directly after Reeves’ performance came the frenetic Arab-cum-African polyrhythms and bombast of Yemen Blues. Drawing on a culture-clash of West African and Latin beats with Yemeni singing, the band had the crowd at the smaller Vaba Lava venue jumping. Combining influences in a subtler and less obtrusive manner were acoustic-electronic duo Grandbrothers. Comprising Swiss pianist Erol Sarp and German producer Lukas Vogel, they presented a beguiling mix of prepared piano and triggered samples, bringing to mind the cinematic scope of Nils Frahm and the minimalist rigour of Hauschka. The jazz element emerged in the duo’s live improvisation, bringing an unusual warmth to the normally austere electronics of house and techno.

Estonian jazz was also showcased in all its force during the festival with stand-out performances from the drummer Toomas Rull who presented his Quotes project; a socio-political commentary set to improvised backing, as well as from the ‘70s funk stylings of Estrada Orchestra who captivated their audience with a cosmic slop of reed-breaking tenor sax and solid rhythmic backing.

Talking of rhythm, the UK’s very own Yussef Kamaal bought their unique blend of machine-gun drumming and Rhodes to a late night crowd, flying the flag for the South London jazz revival. Drummer Yussef Dayes was sadly absent for the show but in his place was Josh ‘MckNasty’ McKenzie, older brother of Labrinth. McKenzie kept things moving forward with his improvisations and reactions to Kamaal Williams’ changes. Ultimately, though, it was the intricate piano playing and beautiful vocalisations of Armenian composer Tigran Hamasyan that formed the most satisfying performance of the festival. Hunched over his piano and switching between solipsistic Chopin-style phrasing to synth-loops, mouthed percussion, frantic polyrhythms and technical ingenuity, Hamasyan’s set evaded confinement to the page.

The range of programming at Jazzkaar was undoubtedly its finest feature. Whilst at a glance the festival schedule may have seemed daunting or inconsistent, this variety and juxtaposition of performances is ultimately what jazz is all about: yoking together the old and new to create a brief glimpse of something unique and inimitable.

[This feature was published in EZH Magazine on 01/05/17]