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Baltic jazz unites for a concert in the US

Evilena Protektore

Three jazzmen went to America to show what jazz with a Baltic taste sounds like

Jānis Deinats

In the autumn of 2022, a beautiful anniversary was celebrated in America — a centenary of diplomatic relations between the Baltic countries and the USA. Time flies, while global values don’t change — this is culture, so three Baltic musicians united in a band called «Baltic Jazz Trio» and went far away to demonstrate that we have some art and that art is good indeed! The band features an Estonian bassist Toivo Unt, Latvian drummer Māris Briežkalns and Lithuanian pianist, Dainius Pulauskas — all three of them have already recorded some albums together with the music of the great Baltic composers – Arvo Part, Pēteris Vasks, Raimonds Pauls and Mikolajus Čiurlionis — ​​«Baltic Saga» and «Centenary». Some compositions of these albums were also performed during their concert tour in America. This event is considered unique because all three Baltic embassies worked together to support it. The result was two wonderful concerts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the Organization of the American States Hall. So I’ve met the head of this project, Māris Briežkalns, to talk about it.

It’s hard to believe that relations between the Baltic states and America last for so many years! My congratulations on participating in the event for such a great reason!

Yes, diplomatic centenary. This idea actually began when we were in Houston in 2021 with a Rothko project [«Māris Briežkalns Quintet — ROTHKO IN JAZZ»], and there were some official persons present, so there was a question of what to do next year, because a great anniversary was coming. I had an idea to offer — «Baltic Jazz Trio», a collective from the Baltic states, double bassist Toivo Unt from Estonia, pianist Dainius Pulauskas from Lithuania, and me from Latvia. So we began working on it, but what actually surprised me about this project was the fact that this was actually the first project where all three Baltic embassies collaborated. Three ladies, one from each embassy, were together with us all the time, each of them curating her own thing, and this was a good impulse to collaborate in the future because, as we all know, Latvians are not keen on collaborating with each other, not even talking about the Estonians, where each looks at his own direction, Lithuanians have their own things, we’re in between… But finally, the project was really great. We had two concerts to play — one of them with featured guests, and that was organized in one of the oldest halls, and another concert took place at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It’s interesting that the Kennedy Center was sold out and people were standing, and it was similar to the Organization of the American States hall; meanwhile, we here in Latvia do not always think this is something breathtaking — instrumental music… We really can get these people interested, especially the ones who aren’t a jazz audience; they were very attentive, and we got a very warm welcome.

There was a live stream in the Kennedy Center that’s still available on YouTube, so we, three gentlemen and Ivars Ozols (who took care of the sound because we got to make the sound both for the audience and the video stream). The project got quite a lot of resonance, we got all three Baltic embassies together, and the project continues — we began thinking about the new album with the trio. I have an idea to get a soloist from each of the countries, to add some instruments that would bring a new impulse; the American tour demonstrated that we can do this. Some reviews and grateful comments still keep arriving, and many people keep commenting on the YouTube video.

What was the repertoire you chose to play to the Americans?

We were playing Dainis’ compositions and compositions of the Estonian authors and played a tune by Maestro Raimonds Pauls, a bluesy composition called «Mātei» (To the Mother). Of course, there also are folk songs where we still argue with one another if «Pūt, vējiņi» (Blow, winds, blow) is an Estonian tune or Latvian! It’s interesting that our interplay is also different; while our relations are friendly — Toivo is always late, we begin joking about slow Estonians, Dainius has his own unbreakable way of playing, and I’m a uniting element there, trying to get things together. But yes, I think that’s a little gem in Baltic jazz music, and we’re trying to show something with it. It was my third time in the Kennedy Center — playing Rothko, playing big band with the Latvian Radio big band, and America practically isn’t anything new, scary, or unknown. With how many people I’ve been working with at the Kennedy Center and other places, as well as the embassies — the world gets smaller and smaller. Going there is no problem; our ability and confidence have changed, and we’re in one position with the other musicians.

Today many people are interested in this project and in the ways to develop it. There are thoughts about the future plans, but this project was quick, in a way — three Baltic countries connected through musicians, and this isn’t the main thing, but the fact that there’s just the three of us, so it’s financially easier, we have that background, we have CDs, we’ve been here and there, and it’s surprising how that instrumental music, improvisational music, is competitive.

Especially the one with a pinch of ethnicity — people are always curious to take a look at other cultures.

Of course, there were a lot of people who live there — Estonians and Lithuanians — but yes, it did leave a pleasant aftertaste. Everything is thought about in the Kennedy Center, it’s pleasant to perform there, and it’s wonderful in terms of sound and the audience — you can see the people were prepared and purchased their tickets beforehand.

When will we hear the album?

Two other albums are coming out first. One of them was also inspired by Houston — «Latgalian Evergreens», with my quintet and a special guest Biruta Ozoliņa. Another project has been recorded — «Dziesma bez vārdiem» (A song without lyrics) by Raimonds Pauls with «Sinfonietta Riga» arranged by Callum Au, a British arranger I’ve worked with a couple of times. I must say that «Sinfonietta Riga» musicians admitted that such a wonderful arrangement is something they’ve never heard. My idea was to «symphonize» Maestro’s amazing themes a little bit — widen a melodic line that Kallum did amazing with; we’ll be sending it out to London to mix and master, and that’ll be symphonic jazz. The presentation is in July during the «Rīgas Ritmi» festival. We’ll print vinyl and all the other things. These two projects grew out of the trip to Houston to the Rothko Museum.

So what everybody has to do — we need to go and show what we got. It’s clear that maybe we lose a little bit of publicity because of some state issues, and it isn’t right. For example, there are 11 Estonians in the «European Jazz Network», 7 Lithuanians speaking of Latvia…

Only you?

Right, and that’s the thing. And we won’t even mention the concert hall.

At least we know which direction to go.

We have all the creativity and everything else; music, musicians, and producers must do all the other work.