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Latgale in Jazz

Evilena Protektore

Continuation of Latvian Ethno-Jazz traditions in the performance of Māris Briežkalns Quintet

In recent years, a fascinating jazz music genre has gained popularity, where musicians attempt to combine what their hearts desire with their roots. This is, of course, ethno-jazz. The surge of ethno-jazz, particularly in the last five to ten years, is largely attributed to the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music and the «deciBels» festival. This trend has significantly influenced the younger generation of musicians, such as the jazz bassist and composer Staņislavs Judins duo and the leading force of «Tautumeitas,» Asnate Rancāne, whose collaboration was facilitated by the festival. Other notable examples include the «Veltījums Tautasdziesmai» album by the National Armed Forces Naval Forces Orchestra Big Band from last year, Ieva Kerēvica’s album «Mantojums,» Laura Amantova and Rūta Dūduma-Ķirse’s album «Katram sava tautasdziesma,» and many others. This is a commendable trend because remembering one’s national traditions is always valuable. In the broader context of jazz, it is clear that the genre needs some fresh blood. Jazz has always been geared towards a unique and distinctive sound, and this approach to music allows for creating something unparalleled. If all the examples mentioned above cover the entirety of Latvia, the album we will explore in this article focuses on a specific region — Latgale. This time, I will share my impressions of Māris Briežkalns Quintet’s album «Latgalian Evergreens.»

The album «Latgalian Evergreens» was presented at the «Boņuks» awards ceremony for Latgalian Culture at the «GORS» embassy in Rēzekne on March 4. However, this is not the first album by Briežkalns Quintet, where Latvian folk songs are played in jazz style. In 2005, they released the album «Latvian Evergreens,» and as far back as 1997, the «Mūsdienu Mūziks Centrs» released the album «Kur tu teci,» featuring trumpeter Gunārs Rozenbergs and saxophonist Raimonds Raubiško. According to the publishers, the latest album is a «logical next step, offering jazz enthusiasts a chance to rediscover and enjoy Latgalian musical heritage in a high-quality jazz sound.» The album was recorded at the Latvian Radio 1 studio, featuring drummer and album producer Māris Briežkalns, saxophonist Kristaps Lubovs, pianist Viktors Ritovs, harmonica and keyboard player Raimonds Macats, and bassist Pēteris Liepiņš. Additionally, three tracks on the album feature a special guest — folk musician, singer, and kokle player Biruta Ozoliņa. The vocalist performed three compositions on the album — «Rudins bolss,» «Še lazdu kryumeņi salopoja,» and «Aiz upītes es izaugu.»

The album’s design features artwork created by Kristīne Kutepova — a stylized Latgalian men’s ethnographic belt. I’ll briefly outline the impressions that the album inspired in me.

The first composition, «Rudins bolss,» is picturesque, atmospheric, and even magical. It lacks a specific rhythm; the drums engage in painting, and it seems that Ritovs’ acoustic piano is playing as if from a distance. All of this is filled with the sounds of electronic keyboards; Biruta’s gentle voice flows on top of it all. The track is relatively short but leaves a good aftertaste — there’s a sense that we are embarking on a journey into free music. However, the subsequent composition surprises with an entirely different, unexpectedly active dynamic.

«Auga, Auga Rūžeņa» is a composition in the lounge jazz style, reminiscent of compilations titled «Cafe del Mar» or the bands «Koop» and «St Germain.» The difference lies in the fact that the music of the mentioned collectives is predominantly electronic, whereas our artists are true jazz musicians, so everything is played live. Typically, compilations in this style are very light, with a smooth jazz flavor, as demonstrated by Ritovs’ elegant piano parts. Lubovs manages to refresh the overall composition with his exciting solo section. Somehow, he succeeded in playing a solo that is both unintrusive, fitting the smooth jazz genre, and, at the same time, incorporating interesting phraseology — such alterations are rarely encountered in this style. There is even such a practice in electronic music for producers to digitally process overly altered notes, making them more diatonic. This practice was not applied here, and Lubovs’ saxophone remains jazzily charming and intelligent. Pēteris Liepiņš takes over the solo with a sharp bass line.

«Latgalei,» the only non-folk song on the album and a composition by Raimonds Pauls, sounds like the soundtrack for an American movie where the main character sits in a smoky jazz club with a glass of bourbon, grappling with a dilemma. The charming or melancholic sound of the harmonica, answered by brief piano lines, honoring of Vilcāne and Bumbiere’s 1970s version, introduces a nostalgic feeling of something long gone and irretrievable. In the repeated verse, the responses are taken over by an equally lyrical saxophone. All of this is replaced by a piano melody, where Ritovs, with his chordal and octave-playing style, resembles Maestro Raimonds Pauls. I assume this was a deliberate choice to honor the piece’s composer. The rhythmic pattern of the composition is groovy, reminiscent of the quite traditional jazz groove ballad playing style from yesteryears. A well-played harmonica solo gives way to a saxophone solo. Initially, the overall groovy style remains, but as the intensity of the solo increases, the musicians transition to swing, where Lubovs immediately showcases great mastery with his lively improvisation. Returning to the initial theme, Macats takes over with responses and sometimes unisons with Lubovs.

«Še Lozdu Kryumeņi Salopoja,» the next composition, offers a spicy cocktail — a groovy foundation with Afro-Cuban rhythms, then the theme suddenly shifts to a jazz waltz, where the saxophone takes the lead. In the interplay, Ritovs’ «Rhodes» is distinctly audible. The harmonica takes over in the solo section, masterfully performed by Macats. Here, the harmonica is no longer nostalgic or melancholic but sunny and lively. Lubovs takes the next solo section, and the overall style returns to Afro-Cuban; here Lubovs delights with his phrases once again. In general, the solo sections in this composition are quite short but precisely as much as needed to savor. Towards the end of the composition, Biruta suddenly enters, singing a «vamp» using the motif of the folk song «Jumalo, jumalo.» The vamp is repeated until the end of the song, where synthesizer plays over Biruta’s vocals.

«Aiz Upītes Es Izaugu» is a composition where the theme is rhythmically challenging for those who would like to clap along because odd meters are used throughout. The next part is contrasting and melodious, and the odd meters are replaced with a clear five quarter note beat. Then, we return to the initial theme and move on to the groovy solo section in a 4+3 division, where Lubovs once again excels on the saxophone. If this composition were played in regular four quarters, it could be called a pretty good fusion jazz example from the 1970s. Still, the composite time signatures adorn the piece, making it even more interesting to listen to.

«Kūkleits Skanēja» returns us to the lounge jazz style, where, again, the saxophone shines in the lead role, occasionally answered by the harmonica. Overall, it is a very sunny composition, where Lubovs once again plays his solo very skilfully and colorfuly. In contrast to Lubovs, the second soloist, Ritovs, in the piano part, is romantic, although not shy to include a faster passage now and then.

The «Latgalian Medley,» consisting of three folk songs — «Svātuo Muora,» «Aiz upītes ezeriņi,» and «Sveša mōte cīmā gōja» — is a very traditional piece. It could be said that folk song arrangements sounded like this during the Soviet era (for a more in-depth discussion, Indriķis Veitners would be more knowledgeable about the creative output of our jazz musicians from that time). The electric organ plays an intense line, repeating a single motif, gradually increasing the dynamics with each repetition. The saxophone enters, performing the main melodic function, and the organ starts complementing the melody with an alternative counterpoint. With each measure, the dynamics increase, seemingly preparing the listener for a moment to start dancing. However, one theme is replaced by another, and the main melody is offered in the performance of the electric organ, embellished with a «wah-wah» or a similar effect and a groovier rhythm. Again, we are ready to start moving, but the composition moves on to the next part, which could be called a drop. A new melody is presented in free rhythm, drums take on a drawing function, the piano part resembles a river, and the section is quite meditative, swiftly replaced by the bass playing in the «slapping» technique. This, in turn, leads us back to the initial theme, of which we hear only a part, and this part is repeated with growing dynamics. The end of the composition sounds clear and leads to a culmination.

«Aiz Azara Malni Meži» is a Nora Jones-style waltz with Latvian folk melodies and harmonies, where Ritovs likely had ample opportunities to express himself. In my opinion, this is the least jazzy composition on the album because, from «ethno-smooth-lounge» jazz, we suddenly find ourselves in a familiar waltz performed at every party. Only interludes bring us back to the charming Nora country waltz. Another part offered in this composition is enjoyable, bluesy-gospel-like, providing a breath of fresh air and leaving a very good aftertaste. Ritovs plays the melody on the piano at the beginning, adhering as closely as possible to the original rhythm, then Lubovs takes over the melody, and now the saxophone offers the melody with rhythmic and melodic variations. The first solo is offered by Ritovs, where many fragments of the original melody are heard. Lubovs takes over the melody in the gospel-like interlude, and then we hear a harmonica solo from Macats, which is also delightful. Again, after a short gospel-like interlude, we return to the theme. Overall, the most brilliant part of the composition is not the theme but the interlude, where both harmonies and musicians’ performances are moving. This is the last track on the album.

In general, the eight-track album is very pleasant, sometimes exciting, and melodic, and it can be enjoyed by both an experienced jazz enthusiast and someone for whom jazz is unfamiliar. Peculiar criticism from my side pertains to the first and last tracks — both deviate from the overall context. If the first composition is outstanding in its magic, the last one offers nothing new except for the bluesy-gospel-like interlude. All the other compositions are held in a specific «smooth-lounge» jazz style, with rare swing moments, making them enjoyable to listen to and savor.