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Mom at the Song Festival, we at «Rīgas Ritmi»

Evilena Protektore

Latvia’s jazz splendor at Rīga’s most prominent jazz and improvised music festival, «Rīgas Ritmi 2023»

Evilena Protektore

This summer turned out to be quite splendid for Rīga’s jazz (and not only Rīga’s)! The event offerings throughout the city were filled with a variety of concerts, some for a fee, but many with free entree. Considering that this year people were a bit «out of their minds» as they suddenly realized that pandemic restrictions would not return, they decided to fully enjoy the newfound freedom, so the concerts were exceptionally well attended, which is a cause for joy. However, this year was challenging for the brightest festival of July – «Rīgas Ritmi» took place simultaneously with the Song and Dance Festival. Some thought that the idea of organizing a jazz festival simultaneously with such a grand celebration was akin to suicide, but Māris Briežkalns and his team had zero doubts: «Mom will go to the Song Festival, we will go to ‘Rīgas Ritmi’!» I also managed to join the «Rīgas Ritmi» crowd and attend some of the concerts, which I will briefly describe in this article!

True, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the entire festival, but I considered my options, chose to be where Latvian musicians were playing, and had the chance to enjoy one evening at the «Noass» floating workshop and the «Radisson Jazz Lounge.» Let’s start with the latter!
I was fortunate to spend two full evenings in the hotel’s jazz lounge — first with Latvian singer Monta Tupčijenko, who currently lives in Germany, followed by a jam session led, as usual at the Radisson hotel, by Andris Grunte with his trio. (I’ll remind you — every Thursday at the Radisson hotel’s bar from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, jazz sessions take place with A. Grunte’s trio, free admission, the only nuance — there is no microphone on-site, so the evenings are dedicated to instrumental jazz; during the festival, though, the sound system allowed participation with any instrument, including vocals). On the second night, charismatic British singer Louise Balkwill, the winner of the «Riga Jazz Stage» competition, performed, accompanied by local musicians. In both evenings, the special guest for the jam session was the local trombonist Vadims Dmitrijevs, who also shared some of his impressions on the events:

«I have never been to the Radisson hotel’s jams before, and it was extremely interesting for me — how everything happens there, how it is — playing in the hotel lobby, and such a large lobby at that… Everything looked quite good — a beautiful stage, a slightly glamorous atmosphere, a good audience, it was enjoyable to play! Although the overall impression is very good, I must say that it is very different from the jazz club vibe because everything here is very refined and somewhat chic. Everything seemed even a bit pompous for jazz, as it is still more of an underground music movement. This luxury feeling that I experienced at the Radisson hotel is rarely felt in a traditional jazz concert.»

Evilena Protektore

One thing I noticed at both jam sessions was the number of players — I would even say it was record-low. Perhaps it was because of the Song Festival, maybe other events, and there were almost no other musicians on the spot, only listeners; only a few stepped on the stage, which surprised me. As far as I remember, the jam session stage was overcrowded yearly, and you had to stand in line to play even one song. This time, however, the same people were on stage all the time — the «house band,» with occasional foreigners. It was a bit sad because I can’t imagine a jazz festival without a jam session, as that’s where the most enjoyable communication between all festival participants happens. It’s hard to say what went wrong this time, but maybe it’s not the festival’s problem, but something more global. Although, for example, the «M/Darbnīcas» stage is always full of jammers, if you look deeper, it’s the same people every night. What to do about it? Is it a natural process marking a new phase in the development of local jazz? Maybe the hotel wasn’t the right place for the jam session because, as Vadims said, jazz music is more of an underground phenomenon, and the luxury hotel bar doesn’t particularly «inspire» free musical communication. Although, if there is a desire, the place doesn’t matter that much.

Evilena Protektore

But let’s get back to the concerts! As I mentioned, on the first night, Monta Tupčijenko performed, where she presented both her music and compositions from Krists Saržants’ repertoire, as well as works by other composers. This concert could be described as contemporary and elegant in musical terms — Monta’s and Kristaps’ music, along with their musical tastes, harmonized very well, forming a creatively intelligent listening experience. Monta’s compositions clearly show German influences, while Krists’ are influenced by Denmark (Saržants spent a semester studying with composer Søren Møller in Aalborg). I confess — I would have enjoyed this concert more if it were held somewhere where the musicians could have the audience’s full attention. When the music is elegantly unobtrusive, the sounds of a coffee machine make you think that sitting in your comfortable chair at the table, you could immediately discuss everything happening, which hinders fully seizing the concert. The overall impression of the second night’s concert was slightly different because Louise’s personality is so radiant that it can be heard even through a concrete wall. This young lady stepped onto the stage in a glittering dress, opened her mouth, and, with her singing, moved the audience to the English-speaking world, missing only the cigarette smoke. Louise’s low voice, interesting choice of jazz standards, vibrant personality, and undeniable talent, along with an excellent understanding of jazz traditions, made the evening somewhat Westernized — there was no feeling that we were in Latvia, although most of the musicians on stage and the audience were locals.

Another concert that I was fortunate to enjoy took place at the «Noass» floating art space, where artists from the «Jersika Records» label performed. Finally, I got to experience live Kārlis Auziņš’s trio, which performed shortly after the documentary film «KIKOK 1962 | Latvia’s first jazz festival.» The official description of the festival concert stated that «compositions are a starting point for an improvised journey, with the main emphasis on interaction,» and that excellently characterized what I saw on stage — Kārlis Auziņš, Edvīns Ozols, and Kaspars Kurdeko had no communication problems. Auziņš’s music is quite complex, and musicians with insufficient experience couldn’t perform it. This is one of those cases when you can no longer think about things like notes, chords, or harmonies. You immerse yourself in the musical material and create art; all the musicians involved excelled at this task. I remember Ozols once told me that Auziņš’s music is something else; it is extremely beautiful, but you must be ready to perceive it, and I agree entirely with that. Similar to the duet «Mockunas/Kazlauskas» performance on the same stage a year or two ago — you either have to be fairly educated as a listener or be ready to open your mind and simply let the music sound and resonate with your emotions and feelings.

Evilena Protektore

The concert continued with a collective that differs significantly from Auziņš and his trio both in terms of their music and personalities — Miķelis Dženuška with the project «Uzvāras bulvāris.» I had heard this collective several times before and knew what to expect — a creative mess full of vivid emotions and very high-quality music that makes you smile and nod your head along. If there were a chance, I might even start dancing, and, in my opinion, I wasn’t the only one. In this concert, Miķelis presented his debut album «Satiksmes mezgls.» Although Miķelis has already released several albums, this is the first one that came out on vinyl. As usual — the concert was a success, and the audience was delighted!

In conclusion, I want to share a quote from Maestro Raimonds Pauls, who shared his thoughts on Latvian instrumental music and its development at the «Rīgas Ritmi» press conference: «I am pleased to talk about how instrumental music is developing, although the number of listeners is not what one might wish for, but we have grown a whole generation of excellent young musicians — saxophonists, percussionists, and so on. It seemed that jazz was declining at one point, but no, there are many interesting events!» I completely agree with the Latvian maestro Pauls. What I see proves that each new generation entering the jazz world is increasingly more creative; people compose, improvise, perform, travel, and show the world that everything is happening for us. And if suddenly there is a sadness that something seems to be missing, remember that «music is the best medicine» (M. Briežkalns); let it heal you!

Evilena Protektore