Estonian jazz music has had a presence in foreign jazz clubs and concert venues for a long time, but it has been performed rather infrequently. This century however, Estonian jazz has reached a new level of popularity and the interest in Estonian jazz music has grown continuously in Estonia and abroad. But what are the reasons behind this?
Estonian jazz is exciting and unique
In the 60s-80s of the last century, Estonian jazz artists mostly socialised with Russian and Soviet Union jazz musicians and performed at their respective festivals, the biggest and most powerful of these being the Estonian jazz parade at the Tbilisi ‘78 festival – which people still remember to this day. However, after Estonia restored its independence, in the 90s, Estonian jazz artists created more contacts with musicians abroad and were subsequently noticed by more festival organisers.
Festival Jazzkaar started contacting foreign journalists more actively in 1997, which is when top jazz critics from the United States, Russia, Finland and other countries visited festival Jazzkaar and began to spread the word of Estonian jazz around the world. This trend has continuously grown. A lot of foreign journalists, as well as representatives of agencies and festival organisers, visit Jazzkaar and Tallinn Music Week every year and have found their favourites among Estonian jazz groups. Jazzkaar has also presented many collaboration projects between Estonian and foreign musicians, which have resulted in joint albums and tours.
The number of young, determined musicians keeping the Estonian jazz scene lively and bubbling with new ideas is also still growing.
The supportive powers behind Estonian jazz musicians – the Estonian Jazz Union as well as schools that provide jazz education – are increasingly better and more effective in supporting the artists. It has become a normality in jazz education to study at universities abroad, and Estonian jazz groups collaborating with foreign musicians is also a forward-pushing force. Luckily there are enough good jazz festivals in Estonia where artists can present their new set lists and albums for the audience.
When there was an opportunity to present Estonian jazz abroad more widely before the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, there had already been supportive groundwork laid for it. When the Estonian Jazz Union and Jazzkaar approached the organisers of jazz festivals in Brussels, Tampere, London, Berlin, Hamburg, and Pori – Finland, in order to present Estonian jazz music to a wider audience the answer was, without hesitation, YES.
It’s possible that the timing was right, because Estonian jazz offers something fresh and new. Maybe it was that the audience has been getting tired of Nordic jazz, which has had a large following and been popular in recent years.
The groups selected by the foreign festivals to present Estonian jazz truly belong to the elite of Estonian jazz. They have all performed outside Estonia before, but the previous concerts of these Estonian jazz musicians have never drawn this much attention in the international and local media as they did during their autumn concert series ‘Jazzpresent to Europe’. The success of this Estonian jazz showcase event was supported by Jazzkaar, the Estonian Jazz Union, Estonia 100, the Estonian Tourism Board at Enterprise Estonia, the Ministry of Culture, Estonian embassies, festival organisers in Europe, and Estonian musicians. Without their care and support these high-level performances would have been almost impossible.
The triumph of Estonian jazz in the world
The first performance by the Estonian jazz musicians took place in Brussels on 12-13 September with the famous Flagey concert hall opening its doors for the Estonian musician. The large international group Maria Faust Sacrum Facere performed with the Belgian group De Beren Gieren, and trio Peedu Kass Momentum next to LG Jazz Collective at the B-EST Jazz Fest 2017.
Both Estonian groups were an equal match to those of the Belgians and have performed on foreign stages before. Maria Faust’s group has performed at the Tampere Jazz Happening – the most famous new music festival in Europe, as well as We Jazz in Helsinki, festivals in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and more. Sacrum Facere received a very warm reception by the international audience in Brussels, which was not a surprise because their layered musical pieces rely strongly on Estonian traditions and also gather flashes of thought from the ‘new Europe’, which always creates personal associations and emotions.
All friends of Estonian jazz were also happy to have received another acknowledgement for Maria Faust at the Danish music award gala on 4 December. Maria Faust won the title of best jazz composer as well as the award for best jazz vocal album with ‘In the Beginning’, which includes music that was performed at the opening concert of last year’s Jazzkaar by the Danish singer Kira Skov and an international group.
Peedu Kass Momentum, a group that has been able to breathe new life in to a traditional piano trio by sharing leadership and creative roles amongst themselves, can usually be heard more abroad than on the local scene. They are the first Estonian band to have been selected in the official programme of a major European jazz event: the Bremen jazzahead! festival in 2015. This is the biggest showcase festival in Europe, and it is the place that all jazz talents want to perform. Every year hundreds of jazz festival and concert organisers, as well as journalists and experts attend.
In addition to the bright figures of Peedu Kass Momentum, the audience was also mesmerised by their improvisations and the musical journey from Valga to Brussels. The catchy music and detailed performances of the group have led the trio to perform on more than a dozen foreign stages, from Australia to Canada.
This year, the Tampere Jazz Happening was named the European Festival of the Year (the title is awarded by the European Jazz Network) as an innovative festival that boasts a substantial programme and is expertly run. Although Tampere is close to Estonia, organisers have been somewhat sceptical about whether Estonian jazz is engaging and unique enough for Finnish audiences. Here, too, the critics were won over by excellent performances at the Jazzkaar festival and Tallinn Music Week; and Kirke Karja Quartet, the Kadri Voorand and Mihkel Mälgand duo, and Heavy Beauty with guitarist Jaak Sooäär were all selected for the festival.
An evening dedicated to the music of a single country, this year entitled the ‘Spotlight on Estonia’, was organised for the third year in a row and held on the opening day of the festival. The Tullikamarinaukio club, where it was held, seemed to have an endless capacity, with a long queue snaking outside the venue. Inside, the atmosphere was humming with anticipation; a great jazz audience with an intense interest in getting to know Estonian musicians and music, was in attendance. The crowd also included journalists and festival organisers from many countries.
The presentation of Estonian jazz in Finland hit the bull’s-eye. It was a full house with an engaged audience and everyone found a new favourite with such a diverse selection of groups.
The quartet of pianist and composer Kirke Karja charmed with their compositional density and creative energy. Shortly after Tampere, the group also enjoyed success in Luxembourg, Germany and France. In Tampere, several people named the Kirke Karja group as their favourite. The tandem of Kadri Voorand and Mihkel Mälgand went all out and her extremely bold yet confident vocals were a bit of a shock for the audience who were unfamiliar with Estonia’s top songstress. To round out the night, the Heavy Beauty quartet served up some rock-based tunes with engaging images and patterns, and some special notes were provided by Lithuanian Liudas Mockunas, whose powerful and versatile command of instruments varied from bass saxophone to the flute.
Reviews commended Kirke Karja’s performance for steering clear of clichés, the awesome energy of Heavy Beauty, and the charismatic and versatile technique of Kadri Voorand. When the three-part concert ended, the queue for autographs showed no signs of ending. Everyone was happy.
The prestigious London Jazz Festival offered Kadri Voorand and Mihkel Mälgand, Weekend Guitar Trio, Erki Pärnoja: Efterglow, Heavy Beauty and Peedu Kass Momentum a chance to shine. It was these bands that the organisers of the London Jazz Festival selected after seeing them in concert at the Tallinn Music Week and Jazzkaar. On the first weekend of November, the Voorand-Mälgand duo gave two concerts at the prestigious King’s Place venue with the British jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard. The audience had nothing but the highest of compliments for the experience and every single record that the group had brought with them was sold to new fans.
At the great Barbican concert centre, the experienced Estonian group Weekend Guitar Trio, comprising of Mart Soo, Robert Jürjendal and Tõnis Leemets, were the first to enter the fray. They were the opening act to a concert by the guitar genius Pat Metheny and a full house was expected. This way, many music enthusiasts who had come to listen to the American virtuoso were treated to the atmospheric and improvisational guitar music of the Estonian trio. The second concert of the trio at a restaurant of the Pizza Express was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and is available online.
The Estonian day of the London Jazz Festival turned out to be Sunday 19 November when the spacious entrance hall of the Barbican showcased three special Estonian groups. The modern sounds of Erki Pärnoja: Efterglow made the audience perk up their ears from the very first notes, and more and more people enthusiastically joined in on this melodious journey in search of beauty. Heavy Beauty did not hold back and their music filled the entire building with the wonderful sound of rock jazz. Peedu Kass Momentum, on the other hand, demanded more concentration and attracted some serious jazz fiends.
All three acts had no want of an audience or ovations. Who were the people who set off for the Barbican on that Sunday? They included organisers of jazz festivals from London and Cheltenham, journalists, music enthusiasts, Estonians living in London and passers-by who unexpectedly found themselves nailed to the spot for three concerts, because such incredible Estonian jazz was a surprise for many. Sunday evening, at the final concert of the jazz festival, Kristjan Järvi conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra and with Terence Blanchard’s group, they played a symphonic suite and the only symphony by Joe Zawinuli, one of the greats of international music, who also played at Jazzkaar with Django Bates’ jazz ensemble.
At the concerts of the Jazz Present to Europe programme, the stands of Estonian jazz also offered materials on Estonian jazz events and musicians, sweets made for the centenary of Estonia, and jazz records for sale. The first three jazz presents were met with an extremely warm welcome and musicians were certainly reassured that their music is special and enthralling and strikes a chord with not just Estonian audiences but also jazz lovers in Europe.