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Jazz Folk, Ethno Jazz, or Reinterpreted Folk Songs

Aleksandra Line

Does Latvian pride in folk heritage manifest in jazz music too?

Māris Justs un Jānis Pāža

At the end of April, returning from the largest jazz-focused conference, «jazzahead!», where I have been representing Latvian jazz for the last seven years, I, as usual, brought home a handful of albums – mostly in CD format. In the beautiful boxes or sleeves hides diverse content – both various national compilations, including one composition each from albums released throughout the year, just like how we create them, and albums released by labels or musicians that were ready to be showcased to others.

For about a month, I entertained myself with occasional listening. It is clear that music is a subjective matter, and some of the albums personally appealed to me more, while others did not resonate at all. However, a few things stood out while appreciating the sound, presentation, and approach. One of them is how many jazz musicians and composers worldwide convincingly blend jazz with ethnic, folk, and world music (I know that this is roughly the same thing, just called differently in different contexts).

Of course, it doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader; we in this magazine, also talk about genre boundaries dissolving more often nowadays. Every genre imaginable and jazz: those who do not play rearranged standards or try to compose «tradition» in the 21st century convincingly mix it with classical music, film music, minimalism, funk, sometimes even metal, rock, or spoken word. Sometimes, the result is a «shaken, not stirred» outcome, where the listener can feel one or another genre on the palate, like grains of semolina. And some of these «porridges» are pretty well mixed together: such musical examples are most pleasing to the listener’s ear.

These examples don’t have to be sought far. Looking at the jazz selections of our neighboring countries in 2023 (both generous double albums), in the «Estonian Jazz» CD, there is pianist Joel-Rasmus Remmel’s composition, «Mu süda ärka üles,» based on a folk song. In the «Jazz from Lithuania» compilation, we can hear «Kaledu ryta» from «Vik & the Vibe Tribe» with vocalist Viktorija Gečytė in the foreground and «Плавай, плавай, лебедонько» («Swim, swim, little swan»), a Ukrainian folk song arranged by Andrejs Polevikovs. Understandably, the Ukrainian theme has been relevant throughout Europe in recent years, not only in social and political spaces but also in culture and art. I also delved into other artists’ albums who mentioned that their country’s folk music was the source of inspiration or the greatest support in creating their jazz (!) albums.

So, my long-time Hungarian-Dutch friend Viktor Harasti and his «ViO Trio» pandemic creation «Equanimity» are dubbed a «futuristic jazz fairy tale,» yet surprisingly, it sounds as if inspired by Northern sagas. Berlin-based violinist and composer Sebastian Peszko has released a marvelous album, «Journey,» generously adding Gypsy jazz (manouche), blues, and folk to jazz, and it naturally comes together, sounding like an authentic and unified musical product. Rob Duguay from New York sent me an album, «Rovanio,» by Brazilian Nanny Assis (recorded with Ron Carter, Randy Brecker, Chico Pinheiro, Fred Hersch, and even the St. Petersburg String Orchestra – what a star lineup!), a crazy cocktail of jazz, samba, and bossa nova, telling the story of Rovanio’s Brazilian roots. And Slovakian Maria Rehakova, who, together with her London mates, recorded and will release a touching album, «Topol’ana,» this fall – here, jazz tightly intertwines with Slovak folk music, and listening to some compositions gives the impression that they are not just arrangements of folk songs but an entirely new genre. Lastly, «A Swedish Portrait» – saxophonist’s Fredrik Lindborg’s Swedish portrait with original compositions by Lars Gullin, mixing jazz tradition, Swedish folk music, and classical repertoire.

These are just personal observations, dear reader (so I don’t claim absolute truth). Still, it seems like this is one of the directions where jazz continues to evolve globally – drawing on folk music and creating a modern sound. I wanted to explore whether this trend is also relevant here in Latvia, in our choir nation, the land of Song and Dance Festival, in a country rich with folklore, epiphanies, and poetic culture. However, I didn’t find much to latch onto.

Most likely, many have heard the name «Patina» – the most long-lasting group that defines its genre as ethno jazz, wrapping melodies from Latgale and other Latvian regions in modern arrangements. The group was founded by Biruta Ozolina (vocals, kantele – kokle), and members included Viktors Ritovs (synthesizer, piano), Indriķis Veitners (clarinet, saxophone), Oļegs Grišins (bass), and Tālis Gžibovskis (percussion). By «long-lasting,» I mean that since the group’s founding in 2003, it has performed, participated in various international festivals, released an album in 2007, and I found the last media news about its activities even in 2015. The «Lauska» publishing house defines the group’s genre as post-folk. Still, the group «Zari» also defines its activities as post-folk, so, understandably, the genre boundaries here are quite unclear – and the group members are doing something different.

Latvian folk songs, especially those from Latgale, have inspired many Latvian jazz musicians. Māris Briežkalns and his quintet released the album «Latgalian Evergreens,» Laura Amantova’s jazz quartet and Rūta Dūduma-Ķirse released the double album «Katram sava tautasdziesma.»a Saxophonist Artis Gāga once incorporated folk song lyrics into his compositions. A few years ago, the Rēzekne youth trio Lipskis/Justs/Arbidāns presented their debut album, «Taids Džezs.» The duo project «Kalnejas» by Marija and Toms Valmiers calls itself alternative folk music, with a slight jazz influence evident here and there. In essence, folk jazz in Latvia is more of a style than a permanent lineup – rather a program, dedication, recording, or project.

A significant portion of Latvian music exists in project form. Where it’s project-based, it’s not always taken seriously, as Tālis Gžibovskis once remarked (and I occasionally agree). Singer Elza Rozentāle tried to be more consistent in this field years ago by establishing the group «Bur mani,» labeling its genre as ethno-jazz. She brought together talented musicians Kaspar Kurdeko, Toms Poišs, and Kaspar Vizulis, recorded the debut album «Tālu tālu,» introduced technical innovation (concert tours with wireless headphones), and… disappeared. Well, maybe not entirely disappeared, but the latest news about the group’s activities dates back to 2022.

Then there’s the beautiful initiative – the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music’s contemporary music festival «deciBels,» which took place for the ninth time this year. Several times, at least during the festival’s initial years, students from the Academy’s Department of Ethnomusicology and Jazz Music came together to create a concert program enjoyed by audiences. I attended this festival for several years, and in the «Ethno+Jazz» programs, I truly heard many exciting things – not always, but often, the students invested much of their time and emotions into these concerts to achieve a splendid and enjoyable result. Indeed, these results could be further developed and perfected, but all of this also ended up being project-based. Unfortunately, I no longer see «Ethno+Jazz» in the «deciBels» festival’s posters.

Another initiative emerged this year: Jānis Ivanovs Rēzekne Music Secondary School decided to organize the international ethno-jazz music ensemble competition «Guoyu pa Jazz.» The goals were to promote young musicians’ professional growth and comprehensive development and improve students’ collective performance skills and experience. Participants had to perform their region’s folk song in an original arrangement and a free-choice piece in an original arrangement or an original composition with elements of ethnic music. Nine music ensembles from seven Latvian and Lithuanian music education institutions participated, bringing together more than 60 participants. The musical performances of the ensembles were evaluated by Indriķis Veitners, the head of the Jazz Music Department at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, Lithuanian avant-garde jazz and contemporary music performer Arkadijus Gotesmanas, Asnate Rancāne, the leader of the Latvian contemporary folk music group «Tautumeitas,» and Kalvis Sležis-Zaļkalns, a teacher at Jānis Ivanovs Rēzekne Music Secondary School. The competition results can be viewed on the school’s website, and its representatives claim that the initially set goals were achieved.

This is probably all that local jazz musicians are doing in the direction of blending these two genres. If someone reading this remembers another example I forgot to mention, I would happily discuss it. There was no basis for an extensive study in this direction this time, and I regret it – listening to foreigners and thinking about how much some proudly boast about our folk cultural heritage, I believe this could be an intriguing development direction. If someone personally shows me «Latvian folk songs in jazz arrangements,» I will most likely consider it musically uninteresting, but as seen in the examples mentioned at the beginning – when folk is subtly integrated into jazz, it becomes an absolute pleasure.

However, it seems that Latvians can do it too. In early June, at the VEF Culture Palace, during the final concert exam marathon of the Academy of Music, I listened to the performance by Līga Kupča, a master’s student in the Jazz Department. Līga, who is virtually unknown in this country because she rarely participates in concerts, does not organize her own shows, and does not attend jam sessions, has prepared a convincingly bold program at the academy. It consisted of Latvian choir songs in jazz arrangements, which were very well received by the audience. So, we can also create something interesting. But whether Kupča will continue to develop this idea – we’ll see.