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Today’s jazz in Latvia has not emerged out of nowhere

Ronja Burve

Celebrating Gunārs Rozenbergs’ 75th anniversary, honoring the oldest generation of Latvian jazz, and the latest album «Linda» by the Latvian Radio Big Band

A person — a legend. Gunārs Rozenbergs was certainly such. A trumpeter, composer, and arranger whose musical presence was once a standard on both radio and TV screens. Rozenbergs has countless compositions and arrangements in his «musical bank,» and his area of influence extends far beyond Latvia’s borders. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the esteemed artist. And, as it happens on such occasions, he is remembered and commemorated in conversations and concert programs, and not only that — the Latvian Radio big band has just released the album «Linda,» dedicated to Rozenbergs. In the second part of this article, I interviewed the artistic director of the big band, Kārlis Vanags, about the album’s creation process dedicated to Rozenbergs.

But in order. Who exactly was Gunārs Rozenbergs? And how can the younger generation get to know his musical legacy better? I talked to the jazz historian and head of the Jazz Department at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, Indriķis Veitners, about Rozenbergs’ contribution to Latvian jazz music.

For many, Gunārs Rozenbergs’ name requires no commentary, especially for those who followed his footsteps during his lifetime, attended concerts, and listened to him on the radio. However, we don’t have such opportunities today, and the information available on the internet about this legendary figure is scarce. Can you briefly outline Gunārs Rozenbergs’ role in Latvian jazz history?

Gunārs is one of the most legendary and well-known Latvian jazz musicians, one of those who has achieved a lot in Latvian jazz, almost like a symbol, a brand. He is still remembered. And his influence was very significant, even in the Soviet Union. Years have passed, but Gunārs is still remembered here. Another thing is that Gunārs had a very strong personality. With all his eccentricity, so to speak, alternative behavior, and such things. With his fantastic talent, excellent trumpet playing, and incredible arranging skills — well, he was absolutely outstanding and a genius.

You were honored to work with Gunārs Rozenbergs in the «Mirage Jazz Orchestra.» Can you tell us about your experience?

I had the privilege of working with Gunārs, also in the old Radio Band, when I worked there in the last two seasons. For us — the younger generation because we were much younger — it was just an opportunity to work with a legend towards whom everyone felt the greatest respect, the greatest honor. At the same time, Gunārs was a simple person in everyday life and could also be harsh. But maybe that was also what we liked the most — that there was no beating around the bush, no complimenting, quite the opposite — everything was quite direct and without frills. And then you had to, so to speak, digest it, reconcile, draw conclusions, but then if you did that, you also gained that respect from him, of course.

Working with Gunārs was… [laughs] Well, there are various stories about that. Once, Raimonds Kalniņš and I were discussing how interesting it was that he stood in front of the orchestra, «Mirage,» and he didn’t really conduct because, in a way, there was no need to conduct anything. But, you know, in a big band, it’s important for the orchestra leader to indicate certain things, right? To show when to go further, for example, or who’s playing the solos, to regulate things a bit. Show the ending, give the tempo at the beginning – that’s the task for him. But Gunārs often didn’t actually do that. He just stood there, but he was still in the music. And then, Raimonds and I concluded: he’s listening. He was listening to something because it wasn’t like he had just switched off. No, he was inside that music. In that moment, it seems – why isn’t he showing? But he was listening to other things. He was apparently listening to the flow of the music. He listened to whether everything was happening as it should, whether there was the right energy – a bit of different material. It wasn’t a story about showing a solo now; it wasn’t that important. In fact, it was important for him that everything went as it should and that the process was as needed. And that, actually, is what has stayed with me the most.

But who then showed the tempos and endings?

Well, he showed the tempo, but often, for example, with drummers, there were shouts of «Don’t drag!» and it wasn’t a story about dragging, but it was a story about energy, about not pulling back, moving forward so that there is that energy. Just like many of his colleagues say, even Lolita Vambute always remembered in interviews that he always said that the band had to be like a thunderbolt. That was the moment that mattered to him – that there had to be confidence, a push, an energy, and that, I think, was the most important thing. You can’t say it in words; you can only feel it.

In connection with the artist’s 75th anniversary, several concerts dedicated to Gunārs Rozenbergs have taken place in the past year with various line-ups. Among them was the concert program «This milk is too strong for me» (Šis piens man ir par stipru) at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, which you initiated. What was the students’ reaction when they got to know Gunārs Rozenbergs’ music more closely?

Well, you should actually ask them. I think it was quite a cool concert. In any case, the hall was packed, and the audience really liked it. However, I had mixed feelings because I chose pieces that I simply liked. That was the idea with which our regular concert series began, continuing when the academy faculty played together with the academy student’s big band. I think it’s very important that it happens that way. And of course, I chose Gunārs because he played an extremely significant role in the history of Latvian jazz, and I personally really like his music.
But it was very interesting to me that what sounds to you as something familiar, like well-worn shoes, and you know how it should sound because you’ve played that piece a hundred times before and you know it by heart; for students, it has to be explained. They don’t know it; they are a different generation, and they haven’t grown up with it like we did. As soon as you turned on the radio, that Radio Band sound was just playing all the time; the sound of Gunārs Rozenbergs was just ingrained in your bones. And that seemed a bit strange and a bit sad to me because, you see, this is the way we lose those traditions.

Yes, actually, in preparing for this article, I realized that you couldn’t simply Google or find this material on Spotify. You have to go and search, and you need to know where to look.

Well, thank God that quite a few recordings have been preserved – those same old recordings of the Radio big band. There are also videos where you can see how it all happened. In any case, what characterized that generation (Gunārs’ generation – including Raimonds Raubiško and the whole array of other musicians — Egīls Straume, Ivars Birkāns, and so on) – they had a very precise sense of jazz, that «correct» jazz feeling, as they said. And it’s the feeling of American jazz. Those were the times when American jazz was a model, and in the context of the Soviet Union at that time, it was very important because it was the sound of freedom, the breath of freedom, and for Latvian jazz, it was very beneficial at that time because, again in the context of the Soviet Union, we sounded like the West. We sounded like Americans, like the «firm,» as they used to say, and that’s why it caused such a huge sensation because elsewhere, it didn’t sound like that, and there wasn’t that American sound. But at the same time, it was also a very personal sound; it wasn’t a pure copy of, say, Ted Jones or someone else; it was still the sound of the Latvian big band. It was a collection of personalities that had come together in the Radio big band. And Gunārs simply brilliantly knew how to write, which all those guys understood and appreciated. By the way, I remember how once with Jānis Pinkulis, a trumpeter, we were talking and playing together, and he said that, in his opinion, Gunārs wrote just brilliantly for the reeds, for example, for flute and clarinet. That’s appreciation from a colleague in a simple conversation. And at that time, they weren’t throwing compliments around like that. Well, that’s the magic that was there, and maybe that time now seems so legendary.

Perhaps the most ambitious of this year’s dedications to Gunārs Rozenbergs is, of course, the freshly released album «Linda» by the Latvian Radio Big Band. I know you were invited as a consultant for this album. What did you do there? And how would you comment on this project as a whole?

I was invited to participate in the concert as a soloist; I didn’t participate in the recording of the album itself, but many former members of the Radio big band took part in it. I think it was a very correct idea and a very cool project because, on one hand, it was a kind of showing respect to the old masters who are still here, and not everyone is. The other thing is that it’s really important to realize that Latvian jazz today didn’t emerge in some empty space; on the contrary, it has a very large and valuable tradition that would be unreasonable not to bring into the spotlight and use because it’s a gem that we have, and it depends only on us whether we keep it alive. And precisely because the younger generation is already so far from that time and they don’t have the opportunity to meet Gunārs in person and listen to these recordings, precisely for these reasons, such projects need to be carried out. It has to be known that it’s a tradition that we have solid jazz roots in Latvia, which we need to continue developing. They are unique to us; no one else has them!

Therefore, in my opinion, the album is excellent and comes at the right time – right now, there are still enough people who can feel a connection to that time and memories; it’s not too distant. And at the same time, for the younger generation, it could be quite a discovery.

Sergejs Budanovs

On April 14th, at the VEF Culture Palace, the concert program «Dedication to Gunārs Rozenbergs» was performed – the presentation of the album «Linda» dedicated to the Latvian Radio Big Band’s artistic director and the grandmaster of Latvian jazz. I spoke with saxophonist Kārlis Vanags, the creative director of the Latvian Radio Big Band, about the process of creating the album.

The album «Linda» was released in honor of Gunārs Rozenbergs’ 75th anniversary. How did this idea come about?

The idea, one could say, was somewhat logical. One of our tasks is to preserve that heritage and look back at what has happened before us in the respective genre and instrumentation. But, of course, Gunārs Rozenbergs is one of the biggest names both as a composer and as an arranger and performer. Over time, we have played various works and arrangements of his in different programs, and the idea to create a concert program and an album somehow coincided with this time, which was also Rozenberg’s anniversary year.

So, it wasn’t specifically planned; it was part of the process?

It wasn’t specifically planned. Such an idea was already there, and with or without the anniversary, it would have happened anyway.

Gunārs Rozenbergs’ album «Laura,» released in 1979, contains ten compositions, while this new album has 14 completely different, previously unreleased pieces from the 70s and 80s. What was the process of choosing this repertoire, and why these particular pieces?

Well, it was a bit of an archaeological process. I really had this interesting rummaging through archives and phonoteques, and we consciously searched for what hadn’t been published. A large part of these compositions had been recorded in some form, but maybe some of them were in the planning stage – there was a composition, but the quality of that recording might not have been good enough to release it in its original form. There is also a difference in sound from recording to recording. So, it seemed very interesting to deliberately search for music from different periods. I am closer to the aesthetics of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s, and I think Rozenberg’s handwriting was very different during that time. You can very much feel what he was listening to during that time and what came into his field of vision. It was also interesting to find compositions that were created around the same time as the «Laura» album but were not included in this selection. As there is a very, very early Rozenbergs, the very beginning of the 70s, compositions from 71, 72. At that time, Rozenbergs was 20, 22 years old. And the most surprising thing is that his writing had stabilized even then. It couldn’t be said that there were any searches for instrumentation – it was clear that his vision was already very specific.

So, at quite an early age.

Yes, that might be the most surprising and interesting thing. Yes, there are several very early compositions, such as «Diendusa,» where maestro Raimonds Pauls is also featured as a soloist. This collaboration had also begun to develop around that time. Yes, well, then these two decades appear.

Regarding archaeological research, where did you find these recordings? At the Radio archives?

Yes, they are stored in the Radio phonoteque. And here, a big thanks to our assistant Ansis Pavasaris, who helped to find and select them by year, by title, and by lineup because I couldn’t say that these recordings were very systematic. Also, you can roughly understand from the library numbers what years they are from, who played there at that time, and roughly understand the context for which it was written. So, thanks to Zigis Lindens as well, who several years ago had already selected and systematized a lot and also created lists and catalogs in the phonoteque where you can search.

In preparing for this interview, I also realized that, for example, there isn’t much information about Rozenbergs on the internet for the younger generation; it might indeed be challenging to get acquainted with his music. So, these events are very helpful.

Yes, if you don’t specifically go to archives, libraries, or phonoteques to search, that material won’t be there on the first page of the internet search. But it’s good that the majority is preserved in such a format and is available if you know where to look. Many thanks also to Mareks Ameriks, who is also a huge enthusiast in this field, finds these recordings on tapes in various versions, restores them, systematizes them, and then delivers them to the listeners in a more organized format.

In preparing and selecting these recordings, you, of course, listened a lot, studied scores… What new things did you manage to learn and discover about Gunārs Rozenbergs’ music or his writing style that might not have been known before?

Well, over time, listening more and also transcribing and editing sheet music, you understand the clichés of each author, how they create structures, and what some of their principles are. I think I had the opportunity to understand what defines Rozenberg’s sound underneath that sound defined by the people. This can also be explained from a theoretical aspect, and this process of transcribing notes, restoring something, and editing has allowed me to understand it.

And what is it?

Well, if quite specific, he has an interesting principle of doubling voices in the orchestra – strengthening certain specific voices. It is beneficial when there is an incomplete lineup, or maybe these are freelance musicians. Then, this technique allows you to perform the arrangement as intended and reasonably sonorous without significant shortcomings. There are also interesting harmonization methods that Rozenbergs uses. Quite a bit of this kind of polyphony in a small number of voices, namely, either a kind of triad or something created in triads. Still, it is very interestingly juxtaposed – some upper structures against seventh chords. When analyzed, it’s very simple, a kind of triadic movement, but that is what creates that special sound.

A whole series of Gunārs Rozenbergs’ friends, colleagues, and contemporaries were invited to the recording (Raimonds Pauls, Madars Kalniņš, Aivars Krūmiņš, Jurijs Smirnovs, Eduards Raubiško, Bruno Jurgenbergs, Aivars Hermanis, Jurijs Širokovs). What was it like working with them?

They definitely, in their way, were a cool meeting and also a tribute to these musicians of that generation, as many of them are already at a respectable age, and that instrument might have been put aside. But this recording might have encouraged some of them to pick up the instrument again. And it was fascinating; these were engaging conversations, memories of those times. It always seems somewhat romantic when you haven’t been there, and then, when those people tell you their stories, in your head, you can create the scene of how it approximately happened. And basically, even though all this happened decades ago, the events are very similar to what we experience today. They were practicing, preparing for concerts, and playing, living a musician’s life. Well, all that actually happens today, only back then, the people were slightly different. And interestingly, many of them haven’t met each other in years. The so-called first phase of the Radio Big Band ended in the distant ’96 — how many years ago was that, 12 years? [laughs]

Perhaps you also heard some interesting stories from them about those times? Is there anything that stuck with you?

Certainly, any of those stories are fascinating. For example, how recordings were made or programs were created. Or memories of significant musical events, like the Tallinn Jazz Festival, or just what life was like, how recordings were made in the radio studio — who wrote what, who played solo where and why, what were the personalities of those people, what they argued about. [laughs] Also about achievements during that time, especially in the eighties, when the first collaborations appeared, later in the nineties — the first American musicians came to us, for example, Frank Foster, or indirectly through «Remix,» Grover Washington. So those were very, very significant events. Also, what happened around the time when the record «Laura» was made, or, for example, Egīls Straume’s «Fiesta.» All of that is very interesting.

And are there any other concerts expected?

I think definitely. We start planning the next concert season in September, and I would like to take this program to the regions as well because it’s a very important part of the history of rhythmic music, jazz, and improvised music.