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Baltic jazz journey


Kaspars Zaviļeiskis

Review of the «Jason Hunter Baltic Quartet» album «ImagiNation»

Having had the opportunity to attend jazz events organized by our neighbors in Estonia, the name of American trumpeter Jason Hunter, who has been living in Estonia for many years, has always surfaced in the artist lineup in one way or another. It’s a clear confirmation that he has long become a part of the Baltic jazz scene. Now is the time to call him a part of our musical landscape as well, as «Jersika Records» releases Hunter’s Baltic Quartet album «ImagiNation.»

In a kind of Baltic collaboration in jazz, Jason has gathered three bright musicians from all three Baltic countries. Representing Estonia in this recording is the expressive young-generation alto saxophonist Allans Kaljaste, Latvia is represented by the uniquely skilled Hammond organ player Atis Andersons, and Lithuania is represented by the superbly groovy drummer Augustas Baronas.

Speaking of groove, the album, encompassing five compositions, kicks off with a low start, dismissing any unnecessary intros and clichés. «1 — 4 — E» clearly and brightly announces that this is jazz in a fairly classic bop sense, but with the easily perceptible presence of Hunter’s original musical sensibility, making the recording sound absolutely contemporary and sonically juicy. The latter aspect can certainly be credited to «Jersika’s» sound engineer Mārtiņš Krastiņš.

The new and promising Estonian saxophonist Allan Kaljaste feels like a fish in water in this environment. In Hunter’s opening composition on the album, he doesn’t play a secondary role but offers a slightly avant-garde expressive solo. A similar freedom is granted to Atis, allowing him to showcase his best skills on the Hammond organ, inevitably followed by an enthusiastic solo from August. The message is clear — this is an egalitarian quartet where no one is just a side player but excels in precisely hitting the upper corner of the goal.

The surprisingly big-band atmosphere of the American musical composer Richard Rodgers’ hit «I Didn’t Know What Time It Was» takes the listener back to the interwar swing era, reminding that Hunter and Kaljaste are also members of the energetic Estonian big band «New Wind Jazz Orchestra.» Although Hunter’s arrangement logically extends beyond the swing era frames, reaching one of the album’s climaxes at the end, the reminder of jazz roots is evident.

Catchier is Hunter’s original piece, «Imagine That,» built on a structure that keeps the listener in constant intrigue, imagining a live concert where, with bated breath, you await the next turn. This was precisely the feeling during Hunter and colleagues’ concert at the «Noass» Art Center this summer during the 23rd International Improvisation, Jazz, and Global Music Festival «Rīgas Ritmi,» where the new album «ImagiNation» was partially presented. Ivars Arutjunjans had replaced August on drums for the live performance, contributing his unique touch to the quartet. The sense of a live performance in the album is accentuated by the fact that it was recorded in an analog process, as is customary for «Jersika.»

As in almost every jazz album, there’s a place reserved for a ballad. This time, it’s «Lover Man,» composed by American singer and pianist Jimmy Davis with jazz pianists Roger Ramirez and James Sherman. It became a hit through the legendary diva Billie Holiday, for whom the piece was primarily written. Hunter sings the flugelhorn solo in his own arrangement of the song, but the most surprising element in this piece is the high-register Hammond solo by Atis Andersons.

More sophisticated tones are found in the album’s closing and longest track, «Good For You,» which offers a relaxed atmosphere. Atis and August provide a stable groove, allowing the brass instrument duo to leisurely explore and play Hunter’s composed melodic theme. Kaljaste, however, doesn’t miss the opportunity to soar a bit further in «space.» In the ten-minute flow of sound, there’s a logical place for a soulful organ solo that almost ventures beyond the predominantly lazy stream of «Good For You.» It is released from the HES frames only at the end when the quite substantial funk groove comes to a close, unfortunately, marked by a fade-out.

In conclusion, «ImagiNation» is a convincing jazz album that simultaneously looks to the past and the future, proving that jazz is a stable yet ever-changing value. In the right hands, it can still captivate the listener’s mind like a wide-open convertible on a hot summer day.