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A historic moment for jazz in Latvia

Evilena Protektore un Aleksandra Line

For the first time, jazz has been acknowledged as an equal participant in Latvian culture. In a conversation with Indrikis Veitners on how to keep up with the bar set by the acknowledgment, how to maintain and develop the music further

Kaspars Balamovskis

The beginning of the year for the Latvian music scene usually is very colorful — we have the chance to enjoy two huge events — «Lielā Mūzkas Balva» (Grand Music Prize) and Annual Latvian Music Recording Award «Zelta Mikrofons» («Golden Microphone»). Although, those aren’t the only events that took place recently and where our jazzy and almost jazzy friends have been noticed — «Kilograms Kultūras» («Kilo of culture»): Riga Dome Choir School’s musical department students have received a prize in «Starts» category for the production of «Pūt, vējiņi!» («Blow, the winds!») musical, composer Karlic Lacis. Another nominee in the same category was a young singer Paula Saija with the concert program «Pauls un Paula – jauns vārds» («Pauls un Paula — new name») and her 3rd award in «Riga Jazz Stage 2022» competition; also a young pianist Matiss Zilinskis with his album «Jazz Trio – Childhood Memories». Another category, «Popkultūra» («Pop culture»), features an ensemble «Vintāža», where a lot of jazz musicians perform, Arī apvienība «Vintāža» with an album «Atmiņu lāse. Latviešu estrādes piezīmes» («A drop of memories. Notes of Latvian Estrada»), a lot of jazz musicians play in this ensemble. The fact that «Kilograms Kultūras» finally recognizes jazz musicians also is quite significant, but the success jazz has reached in another award ceremony is unprecedented. In the second one, jazz music long since has its own category, but the «LMB» one usually concentrates more on classical music. But not this year. I have to say that this is truly a historic moment which cannot be ignored because it hadn’t appeared there in only one category with no hope of getting a single scrap, but rather in various and even more — with the awards to take home!
Nevertheless, despite the surprise and joy that comes from the fact that jazz musicians have achieved so much this year in this classical state award, opinions and discussions unavoidably take place. Not all opinions are pleasant. Who has the right to be nominated? Why was this prize given to this artist and not that? Did this artist even deserve the prize? On how things really happen in both ceremonies, on nominees and winners, and on the significance of both awards for Latvian jazz in these conversations with Indrikis Veitners and Mareks Ameriks.

Today we met to discuss two award ceremonies where our jazzmen have achieved unprecedented heights — the Grand Music Award and Annual Latvian Music Recording Award «Zelta Mikrofons»! It looks like this has been a spectacular year! Maybe let’s start with the most recent ceremony? I’m talking about the Grand Music Award, which surprised me with how many categories featured jazz musicians — «Gada Uzvedums» («Gada Uzvedums»), where three concerts competed for the prize: Paula Šūmane (violin), Jevgēnija Frolova (viola) un Anna Veselova (cello) at Mazā Mežotnes castle, «Tristan und Isolde» opera by Richard Wagner concert performance at «Cēsis» concert hall (soloists, Latvian National symphony orchestra, conductor Andris Poga) and Matīss Čudars (guitar), Edvīns Ozols (bass guitar), Ivars Arutjunjans (drums) cultural center «M/Darbnīca»! I might say a peculiar trio of concerts; I can’t imagine how these three events can compete with one another…

I can! It would be more complicated if there were an opera alongside those.

But Wagner and two chamber ensembles (because the jazz trio could be characterized as such) and a symphony orchestra…

Well, that is undoubtedly a question the jury has answers to, but I think it’s pretty symptomatic and a huge turning point in the way the Latvian establishment sees jazz music. With these achievements, Latvian jazz had established its role as a valid participant in Latvian culture life. That is why, when I wrote my congratulatory post on Matiss’ timeline, I said it was a historic moment for him and the Latvian jazz community. For the first time, jazz has officially received appreciation on a state level — the Grand Music Award is a state award, after all, not a private one. Thus it’s a very important event! I also think that enormous gratitude has to be given to Mareks Ameriks, who has been a member of the jury, but also other members are well informed about jazz and the result shows that their view on who deserves the award is broader, more modern, they evaluated not the grandeur of the event, but it’s the essence. If the grandeur were more significant, an orchestra would win. However, the grandeur is in the event itself — I have no doubts that the concerts at M/Darbnīca were a very memorable one, a fantastic one, and it’s magnificent that it has received appreciation on a state level.

You know, on the one hand, I agree that it’s huge that the state finally sees jazz as equal, but on the other hand, I still have the feeling that people don’t quite get where to place it in the whole structure. For example, jazz is classified as academic music in State Culture Capital Foundation because it is being taught at the Academy of Music, but let’s be reals — you can’t call jazz «academic» music. Academic music is classical music, and jazz isn’t classical; it’s jazz. It might become classical in a hundred more years, though.

Some say jazz is contemporary classical music!

Well, maybe, every music has been a part of the entertainment at some point, right? But nevertheless, the fact that Wagner and Cudars are in the same category, competing against each other, doesn’t sit well with me. Of course, both are outstanding composers, but I don’t see how you can compare.

In this case, it’s not the music that is being evaluated, but rather a concert as a happening, the level of the concert, not the author. Wagner can also be played quite crappy! [smejās] The point is to show the importance of the concert in the context of cultural life, the creative life. I think the vote of the jury was very well thought through. And the voting, by the way, happens in a close setting — the jury discusses the events, then they vote, but none of the members know who the winner is up until the award ceremony.

That is very good.

Yes, that’s why it’s pretty objective. So, it means it was a conscious choice in favor of a cultural event, and jazz has been acknowledged as equal and essential, and maybe even the most current that takes place in Latvia. It’s revolutionary, and it’s something we have to appreciate and rejoice about! It’s also a challenge because now we are responsible for keeping up with the expectation this award had set — will we be able to?

How does the jury find the concerts to attend?

Each concert is submitted, and it’s up to the jury to decide which concert is worth attending. That is how the event calendar is formed. The events are very different, and all are of various quality levels. Mareks Ameriks deserves praise for informing the jury of jazz events in Latvia and for persuading them that the events are worth attending. But I’m not talking about lobbying; the award is based on the opinions of very competent people.

Another category where our jazzmen have been noticed is Young Artist of the Year (Gada Jaunais mākslinieks), where a singer Arta Jekabsone competed against trio «Metamorfoze» and Riga Dome Choir School’s musical department’s production of «Pūt, vējiņi!» with music by Karlis Lacis. The award went to Arta, my congratulations to her! I don’t know anything about «Metamorfoze», but talking about the students, I question whether a school band can even be considered an artist. The production they were nominated for was a part of their learning process. I’m not saying they didn’t deserve it, but can a school’s band be considered a young artist?

Why not? It’s outside the curriculum; Una Stade and Annija Putnina deserve a gold medal for what they managed to achieve; the fact that this is a school band doesn’t mean the performance wasn’t up to standard.

Kaspars Balamovskis

I’m not talking about the performance level; I have no doubts it was a phenomenal show, and huge respect for Una and Annija; I don’t have any objections to the nomination; it just sparks some discussion.

It is a result of school work, but it’s more than the curriculum requires. It became a happening in Latvian music life; there were a lot of positive comments and reviews on the production. The musical department is relatively new, and its success in such a short time is impressive. They also were granted an «audience favorite» prize. I have no objections — students, not students; it’s unimportant. What is important is that the jury evaluated the essence, the scale, and the result.

I also have no objections whatsoever, but the comments on the web require me to ask these questions — someone has to be the bad cop! [laughs]

The gist is that it’s a Latvian state award, and despite the genre, age, and other factors, it is an acknowledgment of the achievements. At last, the massive wall of genric definitions has been demolished, some snobbish borders eradicated, and people started seeing things clearly without some indescribable prism of perception.

Ok, so another question — Arta Jekabsone. There are some controversial opinions concerning her nomination — firstly, can she even be considered a young artist? Secondly, can she be considered local? After all, she has been living in the USA for the last, what, six years? Yes, she visits, but quite sporadically. Those questions are usually raised every time people like Misha Maisky or Mikhail Baryshnikov are awarded — yes, they are from Latvia, but they don’t live and work here anymore.

But she carries Latvia’s name into the world; she identifies as Latvian. It’s amazing that here in Latvia, we are able to appreciate our artist’s achievements abroad.

And what about the status of a young artist? She already has three albums released and several competition awards worldwide. Can she be a young artist with such achievements?

Arta is at her career’s starting point — she is no longer a student; she is starting out as an independent artist now.

Who defines when you are at the starting point?

The jury! But what do you think is the point when you aren’t a young artist anymore?

When you release your third album? [laughs] Ok, maybe that’s not the main factor, but it is important…

The jury may have appreciated that Arta has finally been noticed in Latvia. In a broader context. That may be the reason.

Kaspars Balamovskis

Maybe, her name has been heard pretty often this last year. Anyway — once again, my congratulations to Arta! But let’s move on — Karlis Auzins also has been nominated, although in a different category — an excellent performance during the year. Unfortunately he didn’t get the award.

Unfortunately, but being nominated is already impressive and very prestigious. Karlis is a musician who follows his path with no compromises, patiently and relentlessly, and in the context of the Latvian music business, that commands great respect. It is challenging in our circumstances. I think it is just a matter of time; we will hear his name again soon.

Hopefully, but since we already touched the topic of albums, let’s switch to the other award — «Zelta Mikrofons». Arta’s album has been applied but, unfortunately, didn’t get the nomination.

Yes, Arta applied with her album together with Erik Leuthäuser — «Beachfinds»; I liked this album a lot.

Maybe let’s do a short walk-through of the albums that were applied but didn’t get the nomination? Please, give a brief commentary on those because you are the one who listened to everything! So, Lūpa «Funktieris»!

This is a mysterious guitarist; I have yet to learn who he is, but he plays some bluesy music. It was the only recording to stand out — it was entirely out of context.

Suite A.S.N.S., Jānis Ivuškāns & Liepaja Music Orchestra

I enjoyed this one a lot! This is an excellent example of a «Third stream». A fantastic debut for Jānis, my congratulations! Generally, I have to say that the selection process is entirely subjective — even for us, jazzy people, so to speak, that evaluator the recordings in this category, first places differed significantly. In this award, the points get counted «mechanically» — each jury member gives each recording points that are being counted, and thus the winner is clear. But my choice, after listening to all recordings, my choice corresponds with what I concluded about the previous award — Latvian jazz music’s level is very high. The number of applications has increased since last year — all in all, there were 16 recordings applying for the award! One of the biggest nominations, except for the pop and rock music categories. It’s impressive! And all the recordings are fascinating, beautiful, and very interesting. Some may not be outstanding, but if we talk of the quality of the music — there were no bad albums! No album that seemed dull! Yes, there were debut recordings; some were more experimental than others, and some may have had better sound quality, some better artistic qualities, but in essence, the picture is inspiring.

Yes, I agree with you completely! But let’s move on to the next one — Latvian National Armed Forces Navy Orchestra with an album, «Veltījums Tautasdziesmai» (A dedication to the folk song).

This album has some intricate arrangements! This is an army orchestra led by Uldis Locenieks, amazing musicians, and a very good band. However, I have to say that the most exciting thing about this album was the arrangements; they were made by Lithuanians, and the program was prepared specifically for this ensemble. Maybe one could comment on the mix and mastering of this album, but the music is very beautiful.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that these players do not specialize in jazz; it was their own initiative to make Latvian folk song arrangements in jazz.

Exactly. And the album turned out to be very interesting. In general, I am pleasantly surprised by this, and also by Ivuškāns’s album, I had no expectations, but the result left a very good impression.

It looks like Liepāja knows how to surprise people! I have to add that Ivuškāns deserves some praise for all that he has done to develop Liepāja’s musical environment.

And maybe that is the main reason why jazz in Latvia has grown so much — it’s all about the people. They create this environment that moves mountains; it is vital!

The next one on our list is Matiss Zilinskis with his jazz trio and a debut album, « Childhood Memories».

It is undoubtedly a debut, and it was very nice listening to this album. But, of course, it is only the beginning; you can hear the eclectism in there — he played everything he knew, what he has learned, what inspired him — in this album, he played everything he likes, which is very positive. Optimistic compositions — that is what I wrote in my sidenotes. It’s relatively traditional; maybe that is why I felt comfortable listening to it. A super debut! It’s very good that he decided to do this — to record and release an album.

It’s a lot for a third-year student!

Also, choosing such sidemen as Artis Orubs and Andris Grunte was a marvelous choice. Such a choice significantly influenced the quality of the album. I’ll be waiting for his next album eagerly!

The next one is Deniss Pashkevich, with two albums! Deniss Pashkevich Trio «Code Of Ethics» and Deniss Pashkevich Quartet «Melody».

«Melodija» is Deniss’s tribute to tradition, a very beautiful album, very well and professionally played! But the «Code of Ethics» impressed me more — free jazz with electronics, a very powerful recording! A pity that this album wasn’t nominated. I’d gladly exchange one of those for this recording; in my opinion, it definitely deserved a nomination. This (frīdžezs) is totally Deniss’ thing; it’s like a well-worn shoe for him; he has this free vibration in him. He is one of the most convincing and one of the best players in this field in Latvia. I insistently recommend this album, but you have to listen to it with an open mind; there’s an energy there; it’s unexplainable and magical, just as it has to be in free jazz. This album was in my top 5.

Later on, I will ask you to reveal your «top 5», but for now, let’s continue with albums submitted but not nominated — Ilona Kudina and her «BALTIC TRANSIT»?

I liked what I heard in this album, although it was quite hard to find. Some outstanding players are there — Viktors Ritovs, Artis Orubs, Arta Jekabsone, Ilona herself, and Oscar Stagnaro. What worked against this album was that it was virtually impossible to find anything about it. This is more a reproach towards «Zelta Mikrofonams»; there has been a discussion about this album because the jury only had the audio files, nothing else. If you have a CD or a vinyl, there’s usually some information there, but without a physical carrier, you have nothing; you don’t even know who played there. I had to do the research myself. Context is very important to me. I liked the compositions, but it wasn’t that convincing because of the lack of information.

S&T Syndikate’s album «Elevator Music 2.1»?

A good fusion album! Some of my other colleagues were very impressed by it, and several reviews were really praising. Although in my personal list, it was ranked slightly lower because there were other recordings I liked more. This is a very good and interesting Latvian product.

Pauls Pokratnieks’ project Pulse Trio with the album «The End Is The Beginning»?

A very good contemporary and modern jazz! Pretty meditative but tasteful electronics. Here’s another problem — a lot of sound recordings, how to choose?!

Yes, that is a problem; people play too well! [laughs]

Yes, maybe some albums lost undeservedly, but they are specific, more in the niche. Usually, projects that are powerful, big albums win, and the music that is more intimate and more specific typically falls behind. Others are simply brighter.

Although «bright» doesn’t always equate with «better». Here we are once again back to the same old topic — we need an award of our own! Then we will be able to create subcategories, and no album will fall behind because it’s more «out of the box».

Now would be the perfect time to do that…

It’s a good idea, but I doubt that 16 albums are enough for an award ceremony. Let’s wait a couple more years! For now, we have one more submission left — Jekaterina Sarigina and her album «Mayflower».

This is a mood album. Katya’s debut — a long-awaited one and very professionally done. A beautiful album, although maybe too perfect. Sometimes perfection comes in the way.

Honestly, I don’t understand how you can compare all these recordings.

I can only share my methodology. The first thing I do — I find the weak albums. Then, if by any chance all the albums are of the same quality and are good, I start going into details — how well the sound production has been done, how well played it was, some professional moments, innovations — how much is original and how big of an event it was in Latvian context. For me, it is vital to know how big a resonance the recording has created in society. In the end, though, everything was very objective — what seemed best and what I liked best.

Ok, so let’s talk about the nominees. Let’s start with Atis Anderson’s organ trio’s «Organic City» album! I think it stands out because it’s the only Hammond jazz album in this selection…

Here’s the thing — it’s not the only one in this selection; it’s the first in Latvia. Also, it’s very well made!

Ģirts Raģelis

How do you mean exactly — the first? How can that be?

Because there’s no album in Latvia where Hammond would be a primary instrument, not a sidekick — it is a recording of Hammond’s organ music. This is the first album in Latvia where Hammond plays the leading role — a classic Jimmy Smith trio. I wasn’t expecting this album to be so good, but it had very interesting original compositions, this album was in my top 3, and it is huge for Latvia! Once again, we have to give credit where it’s due — cheers to Mareks Ameriks for releasing so many good albums in a relatively short time span!

I think «Jersika», and also us with the «JAZZin» team, have earned at least the Order of the Three Stars for what we are doing for Latvian jazz! In a historical context, I mean. [laughs] In all seriousness, Mareks has been diligently releasing jazz; nobody else does that; we as well, have been concentrating solely on jazz music; I think we deserve some acknowledgments! Anyway, let’s move on to the next recording, Latvian Radio Big band collaboration with Pierre Bertrand, Christophe Lampideccia, Minino Garay, and Paloma Pradal — «Les Nuits de Montparnasse».

A very modern, advanced big band album with complex compositions, fantastic solos, and very high-class music! It’s perfectly in tune with the tendencies of modern big band music — playing complicated, deep music. It’s a huge achievement in the professional sense; such collaboration is commendable.

And another album by the same big band with music by Raimonds Pauls — «JAZZ SUITES: REIMAGINED!»

A remake of Pauls’s suites from the 60s. The album follows the stylistics of traditional jazz; the tendencies of those years are very recognizable there. Nevertheless, the thing that bothered me in this recording was that I know the sixties music very well and missed the sound my ears needed to hear.

Two more albums left, one of those is by Vestards Šimkus and Endless Roar — «ACCLIVITY».

Yes, a debut of Vestards in the free jazz field.

But can you even call it free jazz? The only jazzy person in the band is Stanislavs Judins, and none of the band members call their music free jazz; they say it’s free improvisation.

Let’s put it that way — I enjoyed Deniss’s album immensely, but I didn’t enjoy Vestards’ performance as much. It just didn’t resonate with me. I don’t think it’s the right field for Vestards. I don’t doubt his talent or professionalism; all of the musicians in this album are magnificent. But if Denis has this inner conviction, the belief, which you can hear in his every note, Vestard’s performance just didn’t resonate with me. This is my subjective opinion, nothing more. My congratulations to all musicians on a well-done job; it is incredible that they have recorded such a creation. Such an adventure must have been challenging to Vestards, I think; he is a classical musician, after all. This album testifies to the fact that classical musicians nowadays have become more open-minded and brave. It is the right way to go.

And finally, the winners — LUPA band with an album «KOKI // SKETCHES OF TREES».

This is a sure leader right from the start. Compliments to Andris Buikis, it’s mainly his project, and he has worked very hard on that — wonderful musicians, amazing players. There was some criticism from colleagues that this project has become more commercial. Anyway, this album is not as experimental and avantgardesque as previous ones, but overall performance — the ability, the idea, everything just clicked. It is something you can hear in the best jazz recording — when all the right people come together, things start happening.

Something similar to our «2R+2B»?

Yes, exactly, they clicked, they fit each other like a glove, and there can be no questions on whether something is right or wrong; it is a whole new energy.

Ok, I’m ready to hear your «Top5».

Latvian Radio Big bands with Pierre Bertrand, Christophe Lampideccia, Minino Garay, Paloma Pradal — «Les Nuits de Montparnasse»
Atis Andersons — «ORGANIC CITY»
Deniss Pashkevich Trio — «Code of Ethics»
Arta Jekabsone & Erik Leuthäuser — «BEACHFINDS»

There was another nomination, where our jazz people were spotted — Instrumental or cross-genre music album.

Yes, Daumants Kalnins and Janis Berzins. It’s exciting to judge this nomination, but simultaneously very hard because it has… everything!

It’s like breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the same plate!

Yes, it was very interesting, the category had film music and meditative piano solo’s by Andrejs Osokins, but Daumant’s and Knuts Skujnieks’s album «Drošinājums» was definitely a winner — an amazing album! It looks like Daumands has found the right path for him, he follows it, and I wish him all the best! It gets better with each new project. There was a good guitar trio album by Janis Berzins, Reinis Jaunais un Gints Smukais — «BĒRZIŅŠ JAUNAIS SMUKAIS», but I have to admit that guitar albums are very peculiar. It was very interesting, a good album.

So how does the judging happen in this award? I remember several discussions on that topic; you also mentioned that the LMB jury didn’t know who the winner would be up until the ceremony. Was it the same here?

It’s similar, yet not the same. First of all, you are invited to judge. If I’m correct, there are more than 60 people involved. Then you have to choose the categories you will be evaluating; each jury member has to choose a minimum of three. You can select more, but you have to consider the number of albums you would have to listen to. Since all the listening takes place in December, finding the time takes a lot of work, but you have to listen and then reflect on the music! It’s an impressive amount of fork, and it’s not easy. Then you are given a chart where you give points. There are not only musicians among the jury members but also journalists and critics, and I believe it’s the right thing to do. A professional opinion might be quite limited in a way, but music is a thing that resonates in society, so the opinion of said society is important. So, after the points have been assigned, you submit your charts, and the points are being counted. The main discussions usually happen when you have to assign each album to a specific category. These discussions are the most exciting in this process, and listening to colleagues and engaging in conversation is interesting.
All in all, this award is a good illustrator of the «year’s crops» — you see what has been made during the year. It would be nice if we had a fuller picture since not all albums that have been released are being submitted for the award, but it’s up to musicians to do that, and this choice has to be voluntary. Some don’t submit their recordings because they don’t believe in the objectivity of the results, but these allegations have no substance. There’s also an opinion that the jury members must be more diverse.

Aleksandra Line’s conversation with Mareks Ameriks

For the first time this year, the «Jersika Records» label’s founder has been a member of the jury of the Great Music Award. Initially, Mareks was approached by Karlis Vanags and Davis Jurka, suggesting he partake in this adventure. My conversation with Mareks took place several days after the award ceremony. In this conversation, I asked Mareks to share his impressions on the results:

«Working as a jury member means attending concerts and jury meetings every month; you have to summarise everything you’ve seen and heard. The year spent on this journey can only be characterized as positive — I have discovered a lot of good music and new concert venues that, probably, I wouldn’t be able to find on my own. I was amazed by how colorful, rich, and qualitative musical scene we have here. Chamber concerts with peculiar musician lineups, new original works… I attended the longest concert of my life — during the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music’s festival «Deci’bels», which began at 10 am and lasted until 9 pm. Our music is very different, and it is able to compete on a world level, I would love to hear some of the music in recordings, I also have some ideas concerning «Jersika Records», some musicians I would love to get in touch with. I have communicated with my colleagues a lot; Ilmars Slapins, for example, gave me a book written by a «Steinway» piano tuner about his meetings with the world’s most iconic pianists. My personal collection has gained new albums.

Initially, my mission was to place Latvian jazz on the scope so the jury would pay more attention to it. My mission had success — my opinion and comments were heard by colleagues. Overall, I believe that the Latvian music scene is reported on very objectively — piano music, big-form works, jazz, and all these are musicians we can be proud of, and their careers are already on a high level. I was pleasantly surprised with the results of the concert of the year, but I also believe that being nominated is already a huge achievement. The jury told me that they would love for me to continue being a part of the team, and together with the new jury members, we will try lobbying for jazz to have its own category. It would most definitely benefit the jazz scene».