Jazz without a box you need to think in
Talented Latvians throughout the world: a New York story of a singer Elīza Baķe
Fragile, shining, with a flower shawl in her hair, a young singer Elīza Baķe is a jazz and modern music department student in The New School of Jazz, in NY. Elīza has been doing music since her childhood, but started doing jazz quite recently, starting her studies at the Riga Dome Choir School, jazz department. While still in Latvia, she became a Grand Prix award winner in many contests, as well as a participant of Fine & Mellow and City Jazz Late Night Band. I’ve caught the vocalist shortly before her concert in Riga, where she was sharing her favorite and self-composed music as a participant of a very international band, together with a double bassist John Koozin who came all the way from the US, as well as Latvian musicians Jānis Jaunalksnis on the drums and Dāvis Bindemanis on the piano.
The reason you’re here right now, I believe, has its background. Why did you start doing music?
To me music has been very close all the time, but I’ve started realizing it’s my life story only after the 7th grade. My father has a passion for music lifestyle and music itself, so when I was at the 7th grade, he told me «Let’s get you enrolled at the Riga Dome Choir School, it’ll be fun!» I’ve worked on that, took some private lessons for half a year, then enrolled at RDCS after graduating from Adazhi music school. When I started studying, the choir and everything else we’ve been taught has completely opened my eyes, and I was so grateful that my dad realized that was what I needed. He was a powerful impulse of why I’m doing music now, and I’m happy for it. My father is a woodworking machinery vendor, he used to sing in a choir, played the piano, but didn’t finish a music school. Maybe the fact that he didn’t achieve it was the reason why he was so sure I needed it, he noticed I have something in me.
Why jazz? What is in there, that attracts you to this genre?
Improvisation — you can be anyone, you can be whoever you want to be. There are so little frames which you need to put yourself in. Jazz is so different, and, just as many wise people say — that’s a lifestyle. It’s so magnificent and so useful in every life situation. If you’re sure of yourself and if you can react to every situation, realise how to reply better, what impulse you should give out and how to resonate with it — that’s the greatest gift you can have.
Name me the three brightest lessons you’ve learned from your foreign experience!
Time goes fast! People in every corner of the world are so different, and it’s so good to be a Latvian. When you’re born in such a metropole as New York, in such a huge city, it’s so difficult (first of all, for themselves) to define who they are. And then you come from Latvia, a tiny bunch of people who exist for quite a time, and have fought for their liberty and their name, and their dignity — being a part of such a small group makes me feel proud I have a home of my own. I have a place to return to.
Is New York just as tough life school for a musician as we’re picturing it here?
New York is just as we’re picturing it, and even better, for the first two weeks. Then there are rats in the metropolitan and dangerous situations on the streets, and loudness, and rush. And the moment you can put it all into your daily puzzle again, you’ll love New York. And you can love New York for being so very different. If you’ve lived there for just half a year or less, you have seen such a colorful world, so different people. You realize you’re so small and it’s so big. You’re a small human being put into such a big place. Survive a year there and think — yes, I’ve done it. The city teaches you discipline. Ability to adjust and realize what your weak points are, what you struggle with, when you’re put into a discomfort zone.
What has been your biggest inspiration in life?
You know, I think that’s the people around me. I guess, it’s a destiny that inspires me. Everything that’s happening to me inspires me to be open, try to realise where the road leads me.
What are your future life plans? Staying or leaving America?
I will definitely finish my school, I can’t wait to know what happens to me next. But will I stay there? I don’t know. I want to enjoy all the time I’m given and experience everything that happens next, and be sure this is exactly what I need. To be sure it’s right.
What do you miss the most?
Food. The food is so tasty in Latvia! And so high-quality, compared to New York, and way more accessible. Rye bread and cottage cheese. Basically everything in Latvia and Riga is so accessible, doable. Conceivable. New York is huge. It’s so easy to get lost and not find anything out until the end. Getting lost literally and emotionally. There’s so much of everything, imagine, there’s such a pressure — you are a young musician, you need to attend concerts every evening after school, there’re so many of them, you need to decide which one to attend, is it worth paying money, is it worth staying for jam sessions, unbelievably long, with 15 trumpets and 16 saxophones playing one song. It’s so easy to not understand.
And do you participate in jams yourself?
Not that often. I didn’t have a very pleasant experience. Jams happen very often, and I’ve noticed that people go to discharge out there, in a negative sense. Not the «let’s go and listen to each other and create something beautiful», but «let’s come together, play as much as we can, as fast as we can, without listening to the others». There’s so many people, so many songs, so many craziness.
Do you feel any different attitude to yourself as a vocalist at jam sessions?
It depends on people, and on myself as well. If I have no idea in which scale I’m singing my song, people will look at me as if I don’t belong there. If I come to the stage and know my tonality, know which tempo and style I want to sing, then everything’s alright.
Do you get asked to tell more about your country? What do you begin your story with?
Many people have no idea what Latvia is, and they even cannot pronounce it. Many people have all in all opened a map, for the first time finding Latvia on it, thanks to me. That’s so fantastic — while traveling, people see the world being much more available than it seemed before it. For example, right now I’m the first generation in my family that has gone that far, and my father and sister have come to America for the first time because of me, and the country started to become way more approachable for them as well. The same is with people who find out Latvia exists.
Being away from Latvia, how does our jazz community look like?
Tiny. Tiny, but I’m so happy we have jazz venues, jam sessions, it will grow with more and more people in it. Very slowly the Latvian jazz world becomes bigger and bigger. Everything will grow. The Latvians are very talented, and they already inhabit the whole world.
What, in your opinion, should a jazz musician from Latvia be ready for, before he’s going to get experience abroad?
You need to be very open, be able to accept different people and be aware of what you’re worth.