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The power of interplay and improvisation

Valters Sprūdžs

Flutist Ilona Kudiņa’s «Baltic Transit» is proof that a powerful leader knows how important his team is

Ilona Kudiņa’s BALTIC TRANSIT 2022

I played the flute when I was a kid. For five years, I woke up at 6 a.m. to go to a brass orchestra rehearsal that took place before the first lesson. In spite of the best wishes of my teachers, these years left quite an imprint on my character. Part of them is meant for my psychotherapist only. However, thanks to these years, every time I hear the flute, I listen to it with great interest.

Flutist Ilona Kudiņa lives in the US since 2000 and plays jazz and music of other genres. I haven’t heard of her before now, but it’s nice to hear her play. Even though Ilona’s career as a flutist began with classical music and a place in the Latvian National symphony orchestra, improvised music always attracted her. After moving to the US, she studied at the prestigious Berklee music college. This album flows with her wish and ability to play improvised music, tell her own story, and collaborate with great musicians. When we take a look at the line-up, it immediately becomes clear that this will be a professional and high-quality recording. Ilona made a wise choice, inviting true Latvian and foreign jazz music masters to this album.

The drums are played by Artis Orubs; he has been a concertmaster of the Latvian Radio big band’s rhythm group for many years and a member of countless other projects, as well as a teacher in the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy jazz department. His drum play is precise and powerful. Artis can adjust to absolutely different music styles — I’ve heard him playing jazz, country, blues, folk, and pop music, and he’s very persuasive in all of these genres — oftentimes, this is a solid base music needs.

Viktors Ritovs is also closely connected to the Latvian Radio big band and Jazz department of the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music as a pianist and teacher. He’s already been a stable and reliable part of Latvian jazz for many decades. Viktors has an absolute pitch, rich musical language, and a great sense of rhythm. I’ve been to different jazz and world music workshops at the «Rīgas Ritmi» festival, where he, as a listener, jumped to percussions and dived into the depths of polyrhythms as soon as the chance arose.

Even though this project’s live shows usually feature Andris Grunte on double bass and electric double bass, this recording features Oscar Stagnaro from the USA, whose biography is so impressive that it’s quite hard to choose what’s more important. He was awarded with «Grammy» four times, has been a teacher at Berklee for many years, and is an author of many workbooks on bass play and Latin American music style. He has left a great impact on the whole sound of the album as an author, arranger of many compositions, and a great bass player.

Arta Jēkabsone is a singer who studied jazz vocals at the prestigious «New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music». Her vocal tone is crystal-clear and warm. Arta’s created polyphonies sound just as powerful as her scat solos.

The first composition of the album, «Karma», begins with impressionistic motives, later turning into a melodic composition with some smooth jazz elements. The sound of the flute here is complemented by some interesting effects. The composition is clearly two-parted, and in the second part, the flute plays together with beatbox-type percussions, and looping begins a new part in terms of mood, rhythm, and dynamics. The composition becomes funky and makes me smile.

«Dedication» is a dedication to the bassist Andris Grunte. The ballad begins with a flute and bass interplay. Later on, drums and keys join. Melodic motives intertwine with one another, followed by an electric piano solo. We have to pay attention that the timbres of electric keys and electric bass greatly complement one another — and a beautiful mood appears.

The third composition of the album, «Mariellas Dream», is my favorite here, and the author of it is Oscar Stagnaro. Here we clearly feel Latin America’s music influences for the first time. In addition to a sunny and worry-less composition, there’s a bass solo — it’s a little bit shy in the beginning and, in the end, melodically rich. Drums solo, along with instrumental accents at the end of the composition, is a clear statement.

«Oasis» is a true fusion representative in the classical sense of the word. Active, even a little bit crazy. All the classical elements are here — bass slap riffs are joined by tumbao, instrumental solos follow one another, and additional percussional layers add rhythmic richness to it all. I’m thinking about Chick Corea’s «Electric Band» here. I have to say that the flute’s sound is a fresh addition to everything here, and the only thing that doesn’t let the listener fully enjoy the sound is that in the parts where the bassist slaps, the bass, in my opinion, isn’t loud enough.

The fifth composition of the album — the popular song «My Favorite Things» from the musical «The Sound of Music» — is arranged by Oscar Stagnaro. This is the first composition where the vocalist joins the band. Flute, vocals, and bass in unison play the melody with a changed rhythmic phrasing, making this version especially interesting. Latin America’s influence can be felt in this arrangement as well. I’d like to pay special attention to the piano solo at the end of the composition — that’s truly powerful and breathtaking.

«Aiz ozara augsti kolni» is Artis Orubs’ arrangement of a popular Latvian/Latgalian folk song. Arta Jēkabsone’s polyrhythmic singing and different polyrhythmic percussion layers that intertwine the arrangement are what I associate with African music. Flute and piano solos are short but nice. It’s a pleasure to hear a well-known melody we’re a little bit tired of in such a different but meaningful arrangement. I think it suits the composition well enough.

«Tuoli dzeivoj muna meiluo» is another Latgalian folk song, even though I haven’t heard of it before. The arrangement was done by Viktors Ritovs. The rhythm group took care of the good swing; meanwhile, Arta Jēkabsone, in her expanded scat solo, showed her abilities — and it’s a true joy to listen to.

«La flor de la Canela» is the last composition of the album. It comes from Peru and is also arranged by Oscar Stagnaro. From the calm ballad, the composition grows into an active Latin song, and nevertheless, it leaves me a little bit indifferent. I wanted a slightly more powerful ending to this story.

Some time ago, I noticed how interesting the way instrumental music works, and the same goes for music with vocals but no lyrics. As a huge fan of the singer-songwriter genre, the text always played a very important part for me, but when there’s no such in the music, there’s more space for your own thoughts and imagination. In my opinion, the music with no lyrics lets you easily dive into your thoughts and serves as soil for conversations with yourself. And this album is a great example of such music. When we think analytically, there are a lot of things to enjoy in this album — its overall sound, the great interplay of the band, the individual abilities of every musician, the successful flow of the recording, and the great work of the sound post-production team. Also, we should probably stop analyzing it so much and just enjoy the music. This is a nice recording to simply enjoy.