Two opposite worlds of «Rīgas Ritmi»
Not a review, but a philosophy of music inspired by a concert of the biggest festival in town
Last summer the list of well-known names and different concerts by various jazz festivals was quite inspiring. Every month was flavored with something interesting, something jazzy, every musical taste was satisfied, of that I have no doubts. The listeners were able to choose whether to attend a concert with no entrance fee or to buy a ticket, those who weren’t able to afford one, could choose a free show. «Rīgas Ritmi» festival, which is still the biggest in the country, also provided a vast amount of concerts, inviting artists from all over the world, this year we were even graced with a performance from several artists and ensembles from China. Unfortunately I was able to attend only one concert night, but it was one I really wanted to hear and was very excited about. The concert left quite an impression, which made me think of different things concerning how the listener sees the musician, how the listener evaluates an artists’ worth.
It has become a tradition for the festival to last for several days in a row, I was lucky to attend the fourth. A concert of my choice took place in the Congress hall, which is also a trademark of the festival, since it has been hosting the event for many years now. The reason for this choice is not really important, although I suppose it is so because in the center of the town there are simply no alternative venues (Raimonds Pauls once said that the place is overdue for a renovation…), or maybe the organisers feel some spiritual connection to the place, a sense of nostalgia of sorts. All in all, it’s not really important, so let’s get back to the concert!
First part — Paloma Pradal
I knew absolutely nothing about this artist before, but upon hearing her name I decided that she probably comes from Spain. I was very excited to hear the second part of the concert, the artist that was supposed to perform became popular during his time as a musician in the band «Dirty Loops» and this particular period was full of achievements. After the concert I had to admit to myself that the first part was more inspiring than the second one. Maybe the reason was hidden in the fact that I was anticipating the show too much, I imagined the tunes that the band would play. The band was very popular and influential because they had their own approach to arranging popular tunes, they proved that it is possible to do that and not sound as a «jazz for lovers» compilation CD and be challenging for a musician to play and exciting to listen to. After researching a bit, I found out that Jonah (Nilsson) managed to keep the vibe of the «Dirty Loops» band alive, and probably that was what made me anticipate a certain sounding of the concert and what left me slightly disappointed in the end. Probably I wasn’t the only one who made the same mistake or maybe I just want to believe that I’m not alone in my sorrow but usually I try to attend concerts with an open mind and not place the artists in different boxes and give them the chance to make art the way they want to and not restrict them in any way, after all it is about the musician and his creation, not about my wishes and expectations. But that’s beyond the point.
The point is, that comparing both performances, the first became a revelation and a complete surprise. Going through my notes, I found a description of the singer: «A proud Spanish music woman with a hard blood and a heart that cries», so I decided to look up some information about the artist, what was that amazing performance about, because it touched my heart with the passion in the music, and it turned out that the singer isn’t Spanish at all. She is in fact only half Spanish, born in France and is considered to be one of the leading artists in her country that works with Flamenco music and sings in Spanish language.
I found the whole image of the singer a bit controversial — she had a very beautiful dress, the one you would wear for a performance on a big stage, she stood in front of the microphone all proud and graceful, a Spanish beauty, a little careless but with a hard set to her face, head raised up high, as if not afraid of anything, and suddenly a tattoo on the shoulder — a tribal style bird, an eagle or something like that, a slightly aggressive one. And I got this strange feeling that she should be singing something else instead of the traditional Spanish folk songs accompanied by a modest guitar.
For the most part, the program was lyrical, although it doesn’t mean that the music was calm and flew like a river, no, it was passionate, full of heartbreak and heartache, soul searching, emotional, sometimes even borderline hysterical, and sometimes even stern. Some compositions were slow, some — more active, and at some point the singer surprised everyone by playing a cajon. In the middle of the song she just went to the other side of the stage, unpacked this unusual drum and started playing some pretty complicated rhythms. All in all the performance was very moving, but it couldn’t be any different, because the duo played in such a touching manner that even our Northern European hearts weren’t able to stay totally indifferent.
The guitarist was a surprise and a relation to me, he modestly waved his hand at the audience when the singer introduced him, but when it was time to play he showed that he was able to play fast and precise, and at the same time be extremely expressive and not overbearing. Another pleasant surprise came in the face of the Martin modernization of the sounds of Flamenco music, because the guitarist wasn’t afraid to use effect pedals in such music. You can actually find these effects in modern jazz or ethno jazz, but rarely you will see a truly traditional musician using this kind of gear. It was very impressive to see and hear how he was able to maintain that authenticity of Flamenco music and embellish it with the creation of modern times. It didn’t sound as an experiment, no, it sounded organic and right.
At one point I thought that this project could be similar to «Tango Sin Quinto» with Aija Vītoliņa as a soloist, because in Latvia Aija has become a «face» of Spanish music and I must admit that after comparing her to Paloma, I can say that she sounds pretty authentic. Nevertheless you can find several differences in the two artists, mainly it is heard in the qualities of the voice. For example, Paloma‘s voice has this slight husky sadness in it, that sometimes turns into a growl which for our people might seem incorrect, forced, because this kind of sound simply doesn’t exist in our culture, that is mostly based on choral music. This kind of drawing shows us that the person singing has went through a lot of heartbreak and is on the verge of losing all his life force, because his personal pain is so huge and he has given up. Our voices are «clean» and transparent, because the music we grow up with influences our perception of the sounds we hear and our impressions and opinions of it. But while listening to Paloma I didn’t get the feeling of something not being right with her vocals, it sounded true and convincing.
Second part — Jonah Nilson
During our show «JAZZin Muzikālās piezīmes», where the guests were representatives of different Latvian jazz festivals, one thing was said that resonated with me. One of the guests was the «father» of «Rīgas Ritmi» festival Māris Briežkalns who has commented on the presence (or likely the absence) of local musicians in the festival’s program. He said that he’s not inclined to invite a musician to perform in the festival if he plays using a note stand. Later on he explained himself saying that he meant a band that has gathered temporarily to perform a program composed recently and rehearsed only a few times, realising that the program would not be played in more than a couple of concerts and later on would be forgotten. Also this very program would be played prior to the festival in the same city, which automatically kills the uniqueness of it.
Also it shows that the band leader doesn’t really care for the musicians that will perform with him, every single one is exposable, which in turn shows the attitude of the said musicians towards the material — there is no point in learning the music by heart, if you’re playing it once or twice, thus the note stand. As a result the listener gets an idea that the musician doesn’t really care about the music, that there is no actual emotion invested, which leads to the following conclusion — the attitude towards the music is reflected in the musician’s image on the stage, if a musician has a note stand, he doesn’t take the music seriously. The band hadn’t played this music together, hadn’t lived through it. I can’t say that I fully support this point of view. For some unexplainable reason a big band is allowed to have sheet music on the stage, then why a smaller lineup isn’t allowed to do the same? I don’t believe that having a note stand on the stage automatically means that he doesn’t know the music or this certain musician is not important to the band.
I can however agree with the fact that playing without a music stand is more beautiful than if you have one, because when the musician doesn’t concentrate on the written music, he is able to communicate with the listener. If a musician isn’t able to stand straight and not be buried in the music and the listener has a chance to see his facial expression in the moment of musical creation, then it really isn’t… nice. Otherwise I am not against using sheet music on stage. The only condition would be to have a decent note stand, a clean one, of stable construction, and not a cheap one you usually use at home. If you decide to go on stage with a music stand, do that with class.
But getting back to what Māris (Briežkalns) said about not wanting to see artists with music stands at his festival. I would like to address the fact that Jonah’s musicians where indeed using sheet music. Not all of them and not in paperback, but on a tablet, but nevertheless… I’ve got that weird feeling of an unjust occurrence, because he is allowed to do that and we’re not? Especially considering the fact that our musicians usually play in «Egle» where a few people listen to them carefully and the rest of the crowd usually drinks beer and enjoys their evening in the company of their friends while talking loudly accompanied by the sounds of music provided by the festival. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the musician will play his music badly on given conditions, on the contrary, a jazz musician isn’t able to play his music badly, because he was the one who did the composition and he continues composing during his performance, meaning improvisation.
The fact that he was invited to perform at the festival will mean to him so much that he’s going to do his best in spite of the circumstances he will find himself in. The goal of a jazz musician is to pass on the message he hides in his music even though the circumstances are unpleasant, even if the place is loud he will do his best, because that’s what he does. It has nothing to do with having a note stand on the stage, but yes, it is the pain of a local jazz musician, to be such a rare guest of the festival that is the biggest in our country. Of course, I’m not saying that the festival is at fault, but somehow it is a reflection of the situation in our country, that the listener and the organizer of a cultural event doesn’t see Latvian jazz musicians as someone of worth. Naturally it is all show business and it is easier to sell for musicians, there is a stereotype that «they from over there know how to play». But if you know what you’re doing you can sell anything, the question is how you promote it.
But I’m getting off topic again and we should get back to the concert we discussed in the beginning. One might think that I wasn’t satisfied with the performance or that I wasn’t impressed by the talent of the artist, but this isn’t true. It was the first time I’ve heard this singer performing live and I was very curious about how he might sound, how he might behave on stage and etc. in his recordings you could hear a very rich instrumentation, both acoustic and electronic drums, some samples, synthesizers, bass guitar, horns… but reality turned out slightly different, because there were only four people on the stage. Naturally I was curious about the way they are going to reproduce the recorded sound. So, on the stage you could see drums, bass guitar, piano, various synthesizers, Jonah himself also played electronic keyboards. I must admit it sounded amazing. Every member of the band is a professional, knows his instrument very well, he is very talented, gifted. The singer himself was outstanding, the way he sang was beyond compare. His playing is the same as his singing, simply outstanding. The level of his vocal technique is so high that every singer should strive to achieve yet, I’m talking about both the sound and the strength, the speed and precision of his improvised phrases that were wise and interesting to listen to. If you close your eyes and try to imagine the person singing you would see Michael Jackson. You open your eyes and there is Jonah doing the moonwalk. It was exciting and amazing.
But not only the vocal reminded me of Michael Jackson, the whole musical concept was close to what Michael Jackson did in the 80s. Apart from the compositions from the «Dirty Loops» period (would be weird if there were none, because the world found out about this singer because of the band), Jonah played the tunes from his solo program, and soon I found out exactly why I had the image of Jackson appear in my mind. You see, the most famous Jackson’s albums were produced by the one and only Quincy Jones (their collaboration resulted in three albums — «Off the Wall», «Thriller», & «Bad». «Triller» is still on the second place in the RIAA — Recording Industry Association of America chart, where the album is positioned higher than the Pink Floyd’s, Adele, and even Eagles with their «Hotel California» album). Jonah’s collaboration with Quincy Jones is what makes the music sound so warm and why it brings a sense of nostalgia, because I really like what Michael Jackson sang while working together with Quincy Jones.
Anyway, all in all it sounded very impressive, I could say that this is a very fine example of a modern pop music, which isn’t boring when a musician listens to it and which isn’t too challenging for a regular listener who doesn’t want to go too deep, who just wants to enjoy the music, the quality of the performance and the semantic contents. It is an example of a positive energy combined with interesting arrangements, it is like the cream of the 80s but upgraded with interesting chords, riffs, accents and the sound of modern music instruments.
Another thing that is actively used by the band during their live performances is a «playback», a previously recorded musical fragment, some vocal fragments as well. At one point I started wondering whether live vocals were really necessary in the performance because voice samples were used so much that it in fact became too much. Why should a live singer put some effort into the concert if the job was already done during the recording… there was also a moment where I started wondering similar things concerning instrumental playbacks.
Let’s start with the fact that the concert itself began by having no musicians on stage at all, but somehow the music still sounded. It happened like this, a staff member showed up on stage, pressed the button and went away when the music started playing. The listeners were left to enjoy the view of an empty stage and the sounds of music coming from out of nowhere, or better yet no one. This became a first sign that the concert is going to sound slightly different from what I expected. In the end it turned out that the playbacks were used throughout the whole concert, except one tune where Jonah himself played the piano (acoustic one), which was, of course, wonderful. Personally I have nothing against using playbacks during concerts, after all we are modern people and it would be unwise and kind of old-fashioned to ignore technological innovations. I realize the idea that a sampler is a wonderful tool to make some specific ideas come to life, a tool that can also be used as a special effect that helps to achieve a certain sounding which is impossible to do with an acoustic instrument. But I think that at this point we should consider creating a limit, and allowed percent of how many effects or how many previously recorded musical fragments would be polite to use during a live concert.
Jazz musicians usually concentrate on the things that a performer is able to do with their instrument, on the things that he is able to play live, because that is just more interesting. Of course, jazz musicians are able to enjoy the use of electronic efforts during concerts and the result that is being achieved with the help of those, but playing with the playback isn’t considered a very exciting activity. When a musician plays with another musician, their contact on stage creates something magical, something intense. When you use a playback, you are very limited in time and in space, in tempo, arrangement, dynamics, energy, and the list goes on and on. You cannot look the playback in the eyes and give it a sign that you want to change something, it is not possible because everything is predetermined. Again I’m getting off topic, I know, but Jonah’ s concert had too many playbacks and if it is so, then what’s the point of having musicians on stage at all? What is the point of that concert?
A music festival is a place where music happens, it usually happens live. If you are at the disco where you want to relax and dance a little bit, you don’t need a lot. You need a drink and to hear a song that you’ve heard on the radio for 1000 times, and you want to hear it sounding just the same as it did before. Because that is the only way you know this tune and that is the music that allows you to dance. But now, we are at a festival, in a concert hall, in a cushy chair, we came to enjoy the art of music, but where is the art if everything has been pre-recorded? One can discuss musical tastes, but an ability to play 100 times something that will sound absolutely the same isn’t art that you would want to enjoy at a festival that clearly states on every poster «improvisation, jazz, world».
Although I am convinced that the most part of the audience enjoyed the concert very much, in fact, I was one of them. It just made me think about the fact that everything has its right place and time. And yes, after all said my conclusion would be that the first part of the concert played by two people without any playbacks and sheet music was more honest and touching then the second one. Because it was less synthetic and more true, from the heart. Even though if we talk strategy, everything was built correctly, the first part of the concert was more lyrical and acoustic, and the second more electronic and energizing. Unfortunately for me, the best wasn’t saved for last.
As a conclusion I would like to add that in the end it’s not that important how exactly the music was played — with a lot of effects of without any at all, was ir sad or fun, in the language you understood or didn’t, the important thing is to feel that the artist truly believes in what he does, or if he’s only doing the ropes, because you can’t fool the listener, he will see if your heart isn’t in it. Maybe he won’t know how to describe it in professional terminology, but he will have the feeling of something amiss. This was the evening when everyone played from the heart and it was beautiful.
The full gallery is available at our JAZZin Facebook page.