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Miķelis Dzenuška presents his jazz without censorship to a broader audience

Ēriks Miezis

«Pritons» (Joint) with its dirty windows and floors becomes a place where jazz gets «ebonized»

Shortly before the summer solstice of 2020, a young musician called a Latvian Louis Cole among the local musicians, Miķelis Dzenuška, released a couple of compositions called «Pritonā» (At a joint). Simultaneously, the album was his bachelor’s recitals substitution at the Latvian Music Academy, finishing his studies for a bachelor’s degree. Before we turn to more in-depth analysis, I’ll use the opportunity to do some philosophical thinking upon jazz education development tendencies in this album’s context because, as it could have been predicted previously, the work of Dzenuška has evoked lots of discussions also between the evaluators of it (lecturers of Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy and a foreign guest expert).

Nowadays we can often observe that the youngsters who choose to study jazz music instead of classical at musical high-schools do that not because of their genuine interest in this style of music, but just because they want to try out a different studying content, where a balance between theory and practice is kept better. Jazz musicians are actually better trained, and during their professional careers, they often play many roles simultaneously. For example, a typical concept is where a person is at the same time a composer and a performing musician. There’s a more strict work division at the classical music programs, where the ones play, the others compose, and drifting in between different professional areas is allowed but isn’t very common. I’m not talking about some examples proving me wrong (very creative and versatile classics and narrow specialized conservative jazzers) — this story isn’t about them; what I’m trying to say is — studying at a jazz department of a conservatory (in this case it doesn’t matter if it’s in Latvia or abroad) is probably a better environment for those who have a vast range of musical interests and an urge to be multi-artists. Just as the great minds of the Renaissance era, architects and mathematicians and painters, sculptors, writers, natural science specialists, and many more in one person.

Exciting things happen when such a versatile and talented artist at the end of his studies has come to his handwriting and vision about the things that will from now on create his (or her) musical personality. What if that hasn’t been achieved during studies, or if the genuine interest in practicing classical jazz music disciplines has been lost (for example, widening standard repertoire, attending public jam sessions, studying improvisation transcriptions of the well-known masters? What to do the moment when such a young artist, not going through all the necessary literature (maybe just touching its surface at best), at the end of his studies shows something individual, non-traditional, uncomfortable for the jurors, and not quite suitable for evaluation? Isn’t that the very goal to create musicians who create unique content and bring new breezes to the music even if the language of jazz hasn’t been the primary source of musical inspiration? In between thousands of jazz school graduates, such cases evolve more and more often, including the author of this article in 2018 in Basel, Switzerland. An ambiguous reaction was also set by a solution of Edgars Cīrulis to offer a full scope piano solo performance at his bachelor’s exam in Aalborg, Denmark, in 2019, excluding such a vitally important jazz music component as live playing within an ensemble.

Some of the listeners might ask, where’s the problem? Diversity in art is desired; the audience gets a lot from it — everyone can have something to his taste. That’s with no doubt, but here we would have to spot the difference between the school environment and professional music. Such non-traditional student offers to bring some headache to jazz school leaders, who have to give them an official document about a musician’s qualification and a well-deserved stamp «jazz musician» to a fresh graduate. The phrase «jazz language» is the one I use for defining a historically stabilized bunch of criteria and a shared understanding, established in the society within time, about what the ingredients of jazz music are. Considering these criteria, it’s easy for evaluators (teachers, jurors) to do their job — put numbers in the evaluation sheets. Just as at some figure skating or gymnastics competitions — there’s a certain amount of elements, and it’s clearly defined how many points have to be there for this or that exercise. When the institutions responsible for the grades have to evaluate elements that haven’t been included in the course, there’s an embarrassment. What is acceptable and what isn’t? How to stay out of absurd situations? There are many undoubtedly talented great musicians, but is everyone worth a jazz school diploma?

Right here, we get back to the root of the problem. As I’ve previously mentioned, jazz departments of music high-schools can currently create the best environment for youngsters with high creative musical skills. Still, I have to keep in mind that it’s not always true love towards traditional jazz music values shining out of the students themselves. Right now, I can imagine a scenario when merging these borders in the art could continue, and schools would have to go along with the time, implement reforms in the music education, probably creating a universal, according to nowadays reality educational program in music, which doesn’t have a historical division into classical and jazz musicians, as well as has found a genius solution to a life-long discussion about keeping balance in between preserving historical traditions and searching for new means of expression. At the same time, it’s imperative to respect those who don’t tend to be as versatile and want to be loyal to one sub-genre instead. Such musicians aren’t any worse and have deserved to be heard as well.

Art is subjective; everything depends on the eyeglasses through which we look at particular artwork. A lot depends on the previous experience and value system of every listener, reader, spectator. It’s essential to keep it in mind while listening to the album «Pritonā» («At a joint») by Miķelis Dzenuška, just as well as any other more provocative work of art.

Miķelis Dzenuška «Pritonā» («At a joint») (2020)

Album, the way it was published, appeared as a result of the coincidence of many circumstances. It has become an unplanned document of its time, historical proof of coronavirus pandemics. I can quite surely state that without pandemic restrictions, the material included in the album would have resulted quite differently.

To better understand the context of the album creation, let’s get back to March of 2020 when due to coronavirus pandemics in the whole world and Latvia, the restrictions were set, due to which the schools were closed. Including the Latvian Music Academy. While the crisis was developing, the decision to change the exam order was taken — instead of a live performance, a recording was evaluated, which members of the jury had to listen to individually. Change of the exam format was a turn that let Miķelis show what he’s capable of, to show his strongest side, and to hide things he still needs to work on. By his nature, Dzenuška belongs to musicians described in the first part of this article — those who don’t feel well dealing with the classical jazz disciplines, although feel inspired while dealing with alternative ways of expression.

I have to warn that the ones who appraise traditional values could be disappointed by «Pritons.» A conservative listener wouldn’t have anything to listen to there. But the ones who are thirsty for visiting a territory that is rarely seen by anyone will feel «Pritons» as a long-awaited breath of fresh air. Composition recordings aren’t a live real-time collective performance documentation — each score is recorded separately, all tracks are afterward glued together, and, using available music production technologies, create soundscapes. In the context of the album, the word joint symbolizes a flat in Āgenskalns (district of Riga), which was both a temporary home and a recording studio at the moment of the album creation.

In this album, three different stylistic lines can be seen. The first one is compositions of extended form with a bright thematic material and improvised solo sections («Vai jau laiks?», «Fast Food» and arrangement of Lee Morgan’s composition «Sidewinder»), the second one is short, small volume miniature pop songs («Internets mans orākuls,» «Saki, ko Tu gribi.» «Pritonā,» «Slinkum, slinkum, laid mani vaļā») and the third one is closer to contemporary classical music, soundscapes based on colors of the timbre and illustrative concepts («Ievads,» «Pīppauze,» «Paranoja,» «Outro/Thoughts»).

Some listeners would probably think that this concept is too fragmented for an album of such a small volume (a bit more than half an hour of music). The album is quite assorted, a bit of everything. This also has an explanation — primarily, it’s an exam work. Within the previously agreed time, the jury has to show their musical personality, emphasizing versatility, while keeping in mind that it’s a jazz exam. If the conditions allowed that, probably in a more significant period of time, it would make sense to create three different, content-wise, more unified albums: one in a jazz fusion aesthetics, another pop-music based, the third one — in a contemporary classical music direction.

This isn’t just an instrumental album — in addition to the harmony, timbre, and rhythm elements, the musical idea is also performed verbally, with the lyrics’ help. The music is rich in illustrative elements, for example, in the separate compositions, there are the sounds of smoking a cigarette and opening up a pack of alcohol. There’s an exciting plot in the very first soundtrack, where we can guess that the main hero of the story comes home, opens the door, and then from time to time opens the other doors to the other rooms, where a different parallel world exists in each of them. A blind cinema of sorts evolves (just a sound without a picture) as an opposite to a silent movie (only an image without a sound). The themes of the lyrics contain autobiographical motives and realistic daily routine scenes — using forbidden substances and a battle with addictions («Vai jau laiks?»), extensive use of technologies in a person’s life («Internets mans orākuls»), interpersonal human relations («Saki, ko Tu gribi»).

Speaking of the usage of musical means of expression, I have to especially draw the listener’s attention to a harmonically melodic material in the compositions «Vai Jau Laiks» (unison of the vibraphone, guitar, and flute in between the solo improvisation and reprise theme), «Fast Food» (skillfully composed theme melody), «Sidewinder» (composed parts that complement the arrangements and aren’t there in the original version of the composition), as well as the realization of harmony in «Pritonā,» «Slinkum, slinkum laid mani vaļā» and «Internets mans orākuls.» The sounds included in the seemingly simple chords function as a spice, added to a skillful cook’s meal at the right time in the right proportion. It’s interesting to observe how Dzenuška controls himself within a battle with 17/16 in the composition «Vai jau laiks?» and draw one’s attention to the solutions used to get out of the classical jazz standard form. There’s some charm in a very short for jazz format — less than three minutes. A fundamental way of expression to Miķelis Dzenuška is timbre, which he works with creatively using electronic tools and music production technologies, instead of technical possibilities of musical instruments.

Miķelis Dzenuška exits the frame of a common jazz vibraphonist, bringing everything he could on his shoulders. In addition to the vibraphone parts, using a MIDI keyboard in some compositions, he also plays piano and bass parts himself and sings the vocal parts. I also have to give some credit to the other musicians’ skillfulness, especially Jēkabs Zemzaris (drums) and Rūta Sīpola (flute). The other people episodically showing up in the album are Patrīcija Hofmane and Katrīna Kabiņecka (vocal). Svens Vilsons (guitar), Toms Kursītis (bass), Reinis Puriņš (trumpet), Kārlis Feldbergs (trombone), Artūrs Sebris and Zane Švēde-Grīnberga (saxophones). It would be fascinating to listen to this album performed live.

To those who like «Pritons» and would like to listen to uncensored Miķelis, I’d advise them to follow the «BFNL» project and listen to their debut album «Eboniāde,» released at the beginning of 2020. I also have to admit that one could genuinely enjoy the banc performances when played live. I brightly remember their concerts at the «DEPO» club, as well as this year’s Carnival at the Latvian Academy of Arts, where they demonstrated a dizzying and brutal energy burst.