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Childhood memories and a trip to America

Ēriks Miezis

The debut album of Matīss Žilinskis surprises with the joy of playing

At the end of 2022, a debut album of a young musician Matīss Žilinskis «Childhood Memories», was released. It features ten original compositions with bright, powerful associations evoking names based on autobiographical motives — impressions and adventures of Matīss himself. Line-up unites youth and experience — Matīss Žilinskis chose to play the compositions in a trio format, inviting Andris Grunte (double bass) and Artis Orubs (drums) to join him.

Matīss is a fourth-generation musician and pianist — high-level musicians are his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather (Arvīds Žilinskis — composer, Latvian State Conservatory professor). Matīss has also been a part of many line-ups (vinyl recorded with «Uzvaras bulvāris» and released on «Jersika Records», work in «The Electrodes» ensemble together with a vocalist Una Daniela Aizgale, as well as a duo «Tālie krasti» together with an actor Raimonds Celms). In addition to his studies at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music and active playing, Žilinskis is also a jazz piano teacher at Alfrēds Kalniņš Cēsis Music School. At the moment of this review, he’s in the US, Omaha, as a part of a student exchange program.

«Childhood Memories» is a classical piano trio album where the piano is a cornerstone, while bass and drums function as accompanying instruments. During the whole album, one can count three bright episodes performed by Andris Grunte. In «The Afternoon Coffee», we can hear a little double bass solo break, dividing a middle part of the composition and a reprise. In «The Trip To America», in one of the parts at the very beginning of the tune, the bass plays the melody in a solo manner and high register. And we can hear a full-volume bass solo in «Martin’s Bakery»; meanwhile, Artis Orubs is a star in the compositions «Wasabi» and «Latino Latviano».

The material has many different stylistic lines that quite precisely define the current musical language and interests of Žilinskis. Both in the compositions themselves and in the musical language, we can feel powerful American sound with chromatism typical for the blues genre, rhythmic phrasing with deliberate little indentations from metronomic precision (so-called swing), as well as recognizable intonation content and melodic elements or licks that are typical for a more traditional type of jazz music. Knowing that Matīss in his music has searched most of his inspiration in the works of Raimonds Pauls, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson, these elements are only logical. The compositions have a lot of Latin American music elements, for example, «montuno» (a short repetitive rhythm and melody element with another musical material layered on top of it) in the composition «Wasabi». It’s interesting that the name of the composition could let one think about some Japanese color in it; however, it’s not there at all. Temperament and energy flowing through this composition most probably symbolize triggering taste buds that appear while savoring this Japanese spice. A fast tempo, complicated rhythm, and high energy level are also there in the compositions called «Rush», «Trip To America», and the witty «Latino Latviano». While listening to these virtuoso tunes, I remembered «Presto», one of the early compositions of Raimonds Pauls.

The listening experience begins with «The Evening Walk», permeated with a bright, catchy motif repeated throughout the composition, functioning as a bonding element. A composition flowing in the medium swing tempo has found its perfect place as the first one in the sequence, letting the listener prepare so that the feelings won’t be overwhelming from the very beginning; instead, the impression will be bright enough to create an interest about what follows next.

«The Afternoon Coffee» is where we can embrace the flexibility of musicians and their abilities to feel well in playing swing and straight 8ths style. A tasteful element sequence and musical language make listening to this piece pleasant, evoking joy about the abilities of the musicians to navigate through the styles and create high-quality music using existing musical values. One doesn’t always need to invent a bicycle.

In his compositional practice, Žilinskis also pays attention to the waltz genre. There are two waltzes performed by the trio — a quicker «Martin’s Bakery» and an airy, elegant, and flirtatious «The Beautiful Girl».

«Childhood Memories» is the title tune of the album — here, we can get some peace and calmness for a bit because this tune is in between two virtuoso compositions. Even though the name of it pretty much explains the story, the listener has some space for interpretation left. One can picture the composition as a story or a couple of smaller stories instead — the ones you have in mind when you take a look at a photo album.

In the end, we hear «Ladies’ Turn» — the composition for a solo piano that is obviously a must for every pianist’s album, especially when it’s a debut. Even though no more experienced band members joined this, the dense textures in Žilinskis’ piano play didn’t make me miss anything. This is also proof of the fact that the rhythm group invited to take part in the recording wasn’t a wall to hide the flaws behind it, but equal musical partners instead.

After listening to the full album, there’s a feeling of completeness and a pleasant aftertaste, even though its whole volume is less than 40 minutes, that’s not too typical for jazz albums. I find this tendency positive — nowadays, we often see striving for compactness and conciseness in the works of other musicians as well. Longer versions of the compositions are often left for live concerts, where different circumstances let listeners perceive the musician’s work more powerfully.

Even though this is the musician’s debut album, the material doesn’t leave an impression of a lack of experience or unreadiness. Both the compositions and the performance are convincing, and Žilinskis’ technical capacities with the instrument, improvisations, and arrangements are especially pleasant — he also isn’t scared to play more technically complicated parts where the music demands it.