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Jazz identity quest amid folk melodies and marches

Ēriks Miezis

Big Band of the Latvian Navy Orchestra takes a fresh perspective on Latvian folk songs

Based in Liepāja, Big Band of the Latvian Navy Orchestra, marking the 30th anniversary of the restoration of the Navy Forces, released the album «Veltījums Tautasdziesmai» (Dedication to a Folk Song) a year and a half ago. As the title suggests, the album features arrangements of Latvian folk songs for the big band lineup, created by Lithuanian musician and arranger Rimants Giedraitis, who selected well-known folk song melodies recognized by almost everyone from the extensive folklore materials.

Similar concepts, where a foreign ensemble looks at Latvian music with a fresh perspective, have been realized by other prominent Latvian big bands. Almost a decade ago, the Latvian Radio Big Band collaborated with Australian wind instrument virtuoso James Morrison on the album «Mare Balticum.» At the same time, the Jelgava Big Band celebrated its recent jubilee with versions of Raimonds Pauls’ melodies arranged by the award-winning American arranger Michael Abene.

The genre of folk song adaptations has always managed to survive and maintain its relevance in Latvian professional music — from the late 19th century to the present day, when folk songs have been recognized as valuable material for creative expressions, even by jazz musicians. A closer examination of the history of jazz music reveals similar processes in the United States, where, in the early 20th century, widely known themes from movies and musicals served as the basis for improvisations, eventually becoming the so-called «standards» through the practice of musicians.

Listening to the album, it becomes clear that the sequence of compositions is not chosen randomly. The opening piece, «Jūriņ’ prasa smalku tīklu» (The Sea Requires a Fine Net), successfully serves its role as a compact, energetically charged introduction, inviting the listener to a further engaging experience of the orchestra’s instrument groups. A similar, very classic, and swinging sound characteristic of big bands is later enjoyed in the version of the theme from «Pūt, vējiņi» (Blow, Winds). The eleventh track — Gunārs Rozenbergs’ «Čuči, guli, līgaviņa» with an extended solo episode by pianist Matīss Žilinskis — serves as a worthy conclusion. Convincing piano playing is felt throughout the album, forming a strong rhythmic foundation along with the bass and drums.

In the interpretations of folk songs the big band offers, we can experience the broadest spectrum of emotions. «Sasala, jūriņa» (The Sea Froze), which we heard in its traditional arrangement and a completely different mood in the choir performance at this year’s Song and Dance Festival, is performed playfully and carefree in the album. Bright and major harmonies contrast with the tragic content of the song «Gūla meitīna» (A Young Girl Is Sleeping). An additional vocal part by Gatis Supe is added to the arrangement for a more vivid revelation of the content, where the lyrics of the folk song tell and explain what can only be roughly inferred from the instrumental parts. Gatis Supe’s vocals can also be heard in the third track («Saulīt’ vēlu vakarā» — The Sun Late in the Evening).

A vivid Cuban music color is reflected in the melody «Auga, auga rūžeņa» (The Rose Grew, Grew), which, in my opinion, is one of the album’s most successful and convincing pieces. Particularly enjoyable are the very skillfully arranged sections in the composition «Seši mazi bundzenieki» (Six Little Drummers), where the relatively simple folk song theme is complemented by a stylish, rhythmically framed, and syncopated funk groove. An almost authentic New Orleans Dixieland sound with ensemble improvisations and clarinet timbre can be heard in the interpretation of the song «Bēdu manu lielu bēdu» (I Grieve, Grieve). The arranger’s imaginative flight can also be admired in the dreamy and airy «Caur sidraba birzi gāju» (I Walked Through a Silver Birch) and the contemplative «Tumša nakte, zaļa zāle» (Dark Night, Green Grass).

Overall, the album does not stand out for its overly experimental sound or self-serving creative explorations attempting to convey something genius or unprecedented. The choice of folk song adaptations seems quite logical in the end, as the Big Band of the Latvian Navy Orchestra, like their military music colleagues in Riga, still has to fulfill a public order and try to reach as broad an audience as possible. What better way to lead them onto this golden path than with folk songs?