A story of the new Latvian — Estonian collaboration
Jazz pianist Anna Wibe about the reasons to learn, play and love music
I’ve known Anna for some ten years — from the moment when each Wednesday night was busy with music in an amazing place called «Artelis». At that time the beginner pianist quite often went on stage as a part of her Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Music school studies, and jammed, supported by her teachers. Then she disappeared for a while, at least from my eyes, went to study in Tallinn for five years, and performed with great Estonian musicians. Returned home very silently, but reminded of her existence loudly again this January — with her debut album «Vibes», consisting of her original compositions recorded with Estonian coursemates. So we immediately agreed to have a cup of coffee on this matter and tell Anna’s story.
Do I immediately have to talk nicely now? Are you recording?
I am. Tell me your story.
I am a jazz pianist, I compose, work as a teacher in the Sigulda Arts school. Besides, I try to go on with my musical activities, at last releasing my album — this was an old dream, and it took me lots of time.
Did you always know you will become a musician?
I began attending music school at the age of six. I liked it a lot until my teens, and at the end of school I was so happy to set my instrument aside, being sure I will never do that again. And then, on my graduation day, my mum wittily decided to give me a synthesiser as a present. Two years after my graduation I still wasn’t doing music at all, but then realised that I don’t feel well in a regular school environment, it’s too difficult to be integrated in this society, and I miss music. Then I went to the Mediņi music school and now I’m happy it all turned out like this. I never had any doubts since then.
Did you ever want to get back and understand your choice of the piano as an instrument?
Sometimes I think it would be easier to play some other instrument. Mostly — small, easier to carry. A flute maybe. A brass instrument. Maybe it would be wiser and easier. But I love my instrument, I love everything connected to it, and I wouldn’t want to change anything now. Piano is such a universal instrument, you can do so much with it.
You have recently returned to your hometown Riga after your studies in Tallinn. How did it feel to be away?
Going away was cool — that was a period when I wanted to change things around. New experiences, new emotions, new people to get acquainted with — it was great. I left right after I finished school, my boyfriend already went there to study before me, and, when I realised who teaches the piano there, and took a look at how he played, it was very inspiring. Kristjan Randalu is very impressive — both as a musician and as a teacher. Besides, many friends and acquaintances have already moved there — everything was prepared, friends helped me out, I didn’t have to worry about a thing. The process of adaptation therefore was very easy.
And how do you feel now, once returned home?
It was a bit different with returning — I came back silently, didn’t tell anybody. Estonians, as I thought at that time, like playing with locals more. Maybe it’s the matter of language, maybe I just wasn’t lucky, but I didn’t actually have a solid chance to earn money doing music there. I was a sub for some people, but I didn’t have financially reasonable concerts all the time. It was an aggravating factor. While I was studying, I didn’t worry about it much, but after the end of my studies I wanted to be back here. Half a year after my returning Sigulda school came in sight, they offered me a job. In Sigulda I teach speciality and compulsory piano at the Rhythmic music department. Right now I have four speciality kids aged 10-11, and all the rest are other instrumentalists and vocalists, 10 more kids in total. As long as I know, the popularity of the school rises, and this year many new students have enrolled.
What comes easier for you as a teacher, and what is more difficult?
It was very difficult to hold yourself within the frame of the program and work on some certain things. When I came, the midterm was nearing, and, while I was trying to understand their level and which things they lack, it was the very last moment to begin studying for it. There are some exams all the time, which they have to prepare for. When you’re just starting to work as a teacher, you want to achieve so much, you cannot control yourself so well and are trying to give them so much information about everything, and then understand that their capacity to understand is smaller. I also had some experience with a usual high school — I have worked there for 2.5 months, teaching music. It was a huge challenge. I ran away from it. It has so little connection to music. Kids are interested when they study in a music school, after all. And I think every musician gains so much, while teaching.
When did you begin composing yourself, and what does it mean to you?
I began composing in my childhood, continued doing it in high school, I studied with Andris Dzenītis. At the time I was already composing for a jazz combo. Then I was lucky that in Estonia with my jazz teacher we needed to compose at least four compositions in half a year. I am really happy that it was a must for us, otherwise it’s hard to make yourself do that. Now I’m composing way less than at that time, when I simply needed to. Any composition I wrote until 2018 has passed through criticism, advice and ideas of my teacher, and I think you can feel his hand in it. He was persistent. He didn’t like things that repeated all the time, he wanted every composition to be very wide, so that something new would be in it all the time, and it kept us in tone.
How saturated were the studies?
In truth here haven’t been that many courses in Tallinn. We didn’t skip any of them. Thanks to the director of our Jazz department — three days of the week were busy with studies, and all the other time could be dedicated to your own growth. And still every day we were in school, it seemed you couldn’t sit at home, you had to go to the academy. I was practicing much during my school years. Now, when I’m back, I don’t have an acoustic piano, I have my Nord. And I was accustomed to playing only the grand pianos in the Tallinn Academy, so it’s hard now. There were only three classrooms with pianos, and all the others had the grand pianos in them. And it’s difficult when you’re already accustomed. Now I have an opportunity to practice at the Sigulda school, the only thing is that it’s hard to make yourself come an extra day a week, if it’s 50 kilometres in one direction.
How did it feel collaborating with the Estonians?
Estonia isn’t that different from Latvia. The mentality is similar, you know what to expect from people, how to react. Estonians might be a little bit more polite, maybe they smile a little bit more often. But there are no huge differences. In terms of music I think every country is better in some bright instrumentalists, and there is an instrument that is played better in every country. I think we have some differences here. I think we have better strings than in Estonia, I hope Estonians won’t read this one (laughs). They, in turn, have better brass instruments. I think the result is better, when we collaborate.
Did you get a chance to work with Estonian jazz union, being there?
Yes, the association there accepts everyone, you just have to pay a small amount of money for participation, and you automatically become a member. I haven’t joined it, but I didn’t feel any different from it, from not being a member. First of all, the community we had there was all around the academy, a high school across the road, and many teachers took a position at the association, so it was really simple to talk things through. That network was very simple for the people who were present there. A triangle of the academy, high school and «Philly Joe’s» jazz club. A jazz club with cool technical stuff and a good instrument, and a large hall for listeners is what we lack here in Riga. They have a bar, no food, so attending a concert doesn’t become eating with music in the background, and everybody goes there — any day of the week you could go there and meet an acquaintance, even if there’s no concert.
Tell me about your work on the debut album!
We are sextet, I am the only one from Latvia, all the others are Estonians. While I was studying at the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy, we got to know each other and have been doing concerts together for some time, then we thought it should be recorded. When we began recording, two people out of six had been studying in Holland, and weren’t present on the spot at all times, and the biggest problem was to get them all together. We began recording, then one of us had some health problems, and the recording had to stop after the first day. While we were waiting, a part went away again, and it all lasted for some time more. We finished the recording process in summer of 2018, then a long mixing, mastering process followed it, then I was slow with my activities — I needed to find a photographer, make a photoshoot. And then the biggest problem was to organise a presentation concert.
Are all compositions in the album yours?
Except one arrangement of a jazz standard called «Lady Bird». I was preparing it for an arrangement course at the academy, and it seemed to me it was a nice one, this composition seemed very dear to me as well.
Did your band support your ideas?
The band supported me a lot all the time, while we were playing together. It was very typical for that academy environment — all of us have supported each other with composing original music, we have always been playing together as mates, and helped each other all the time. Once we came to Latvia with this line-up, participated in the «Saulkrasti Jazz» festival, I had a really bad instrument at that time — and then they put everything we earned at that tour in an envelope, gave it to me and told me they want me to buy myself a new instrument. I couldn’t believe people could do something like that. They are just so sincere. As time passes, we contact less, everyone has been busy, but I still feel I have a strong team.
What does it mean to be a leader in that team?
It’s hard. When you have six people in your line-up… I had some problems as a not that experienced leader. Six people means six opinions, sometimes they don’t correspond, sometimes they are pushed too much. There happen to be some emotional moments, we have quarreled a couple of times, but we always came to a result and listened to one another. The main thing is some organizational moments, which I’m also bad at. If you’re responsible for the whole band, rehearsals, concerts, it’s difficult. Maybe there are people who are fine doing it, but I’m not one of them.
You sing in your own album yourself as well. Have you been doing this for a long time?
Actually I have liked singing since I was little, and this is my ambition of sorts which I’m sticking to, because this is my line-up, here nobody can argue with me on anything. I understand I’m not doing it very professionally, even though I have taken some private lessons with a wonderful teacher Kadri Voorand back in Tallinn. I had many technical problems, which we have been working on for a long time, but I didn’t do it too much in my spare time. Vocals in jazz music, if this equals to an instrument, is what I like a lot — when I compose, I always sing melodic lines. It seems so natural that in the process of composing I sing and play that music at the same time, that I want to continue doing that. All in all there are two saxophones and two vocals in my album, and all of them are on one level with one task, used as equal solo instruments. There are many places when we are doing four voices.
Where do you see yourself in two years, and in twenty?
Two years is a short period of time, I doubt something is going to change. I will still teach, because that’s what I love doing a lot, and I hope that within the next two years I will make a couple of my little dreams come true. I want to record an album with a trio, which I just began planning. And I want to perform more. And in twenty years — well, I have to do the math how old I am by that time — will I already be retired? (laughs) I want to perform, this is clear. I like living in Latvia, I can’t say I want to run away — it’s nice here, the country has its own life principles and not a lot of people, which is important to me, because I don’t like big cities.
Is there something that can make you run out of patience?
There is a lot actually. I ignite quickly, but I usually live it all through inside me, not showing it to the others. I can get pissed off by anything in the wrong time — if I have a wrong mood, it can also be any insignificant thing. But lately I am trying to control myself emotionally, I try not to get angry. Anger and all the negative emotions are actually useless, they don’t lead to anything — you don’t get better yourself, and the others don’t benefit from it. This is something that every person has to work on, because nobody has to suffer hysteria from a person who’s near.
Why does it feel easy or too difficult to work together with someone on stage or on a recording?
I have realised lately that it isn’t important if a person plays well, but it’s important how easy it is for me to be together with that person. If it doesn’t correspond on that level, it’s difficult. I have heard the stories about the musicians on tours, who tour for two months, sit in one car, and don’t talk to one another at all. Go on stage, play an amazing concert, get off and not talk ever again. You can’t make yourself suffer like that, you have to be amidst people whom you get along with really well. And a personal connection — you cannot explain that, the chemistry between people is either present or not.
Is there anyone in Latvia whom you would like to perform with?
Of course. I have recently thought about that — I have never performed with Andris Buiķis. I’d love to. I think there is a decent amount of good musicians here in Latvia.
What do you listen to yourself daily?
I mostly listen to jazz music, anything from tradition to something more modern. The playlist has been in progress from the Mediņi school time, and it’s mostly jazz. Speaking of new discoveries, there’s a band called «Spirit Fingers». They have released an album recently, sounds really nice.
What advice would you give to young musicians, students? What are you teaching your kids at school?
Speaking of kids, I can advise them to spend lots of time on self-development now — it comes way easier when you’re a child, things come way quicker, with less effort. And speaking of young musicians, I advise them to make a network of acquaintances — while you’re young, while you’re studying, make new contacts, make new friendships, don’t sit aside but communicate with the other musicians instead. As soon as the school is over — that’s it, it isn’t that easy to get those contacts anymore. This also is the reason why I advise them to learn music instead of anything else. This environment is the only one where you can truly develop.