Riga Jazz Stage 2022
(Splendid Palace, Riga, Latvia. 7-9 April 2022. Festival/ Competition Report by Martin Longley)
Riga Jazz Stage is usually an annual event, but this edition marked its reappearance following the lockdown era. The Latvian contest is divided into a pair of categories, with singers always in place, and the instrumentalist focus changing each year. In 2022 it was time for the drums. This 13th competition took place over two nights at the grand old Splendid Palace cinema, with the results being announced just prior to a third-night set by the US singer and drummer Jamison Ross, who was also part of the jury. Other balances of the scales were Paul Pace (Ronnie Scott’s), Önder Focan (Nardis Jazz Club, Istanbul), Latvian pianist/composer Raimonds Pauls and Māris Briežkalns (artistic director of both Riga Jazz Stage and the Rīgas Ritmi festival). Other jurors included representatives from Jazz At Lincoln Center in NYC and the Kaunas Jazz festival in Lithuania, present via video links.
There were 12 entrants in each category, although one of the drummers pulled out of attending, tipping the balance slightly. The opening night saw all performers presenting one song or composition, everyone backed by the Riga Jazz Quartet: Kristaps Vanadziņš (piano), Rihards Goba (guitar), Janis Rubiks (bass) and Miķelis Vīte (drums). Besides their musical prowess, these four should be congratulated on their sheer stamina, for rehearsals, soundchecks and actual performances.
The first evening in particular was a marathon. Even with just one number apiece, it still took three sets, with two intermissions, to work through all of the contestants. The second evening’s final had whittled the singers and drummers down to six finalists in each category, but each of these was now allowed a pair of songs or compositions, which retained the longueurs of the opening night.
It must be noted that all of the singers were female and all of the drummers male, although presumably this rigid divide was established due to the available entrants. Nationalities were quite diverse, circling around Europe and across to the USA. The transitions from entrant-to-entrant went very smoothly, with no technical malfunctions, and the sound balance was fine throughout. For much of the time, there seemed to the artists to be a general consensus over which shone, although there were three from the first round that really should have made it to the finals: singers Alexandra Smerechanska (Poland) and Alina Zalozna (Ukraine), plus the Italian drummer Christian Anzolin. Smerechanska chose ‘Lullaby Of Birdland’, with an old school mobility, confident and slick, but still varying her phrasing trajectory. Zalozna’s original song wasn’t so jazzed, but she had an individualist presence, and a projecting, authoritative performance stance. Anzolin was a refreshingly hard hitter, but still pacing out his blows, definitely the highest volume sticksman of the first night. He offered variety, coaxing out a muted wooden box tone on the skins. A good thing!
There was a problem with many of the singers, whose core styles and approaches appeared to arrive from mainstream pop rather than actual jazz music, especially with their intonation and phrasing. Curiously, some of those artists that were sieved through to the final selected material that was way more jazz-rooted and uncompromising on the second night. Given that all of the jury had arrived from the jazz sphere, it would seem like a sound concept to select a jazz repertoire, even on the first night.
I particularly enjoyed the playing of Yannick Ballmann (Belgium), his tune-choices being particularly good: ‘Nardis’ on the first evening, then ‘Beatrice’ (Sam Rivers) and ‘Matrix’ (Chick Corea), on the second, with the quartet’s guitarist sitting out. Ballmann demonstrated a deft cymbal-lightness, with creative skips and flashes across the skins, adding constant accents, but not overdoing the constant soloing. Even though being quite hyperactive, this fitted well with the tunes.
The drums winner was New Yorker Domo Branch (from Portland, Oregon), who also received the award. With his larger-than-life Stateside style, this was no surprise, as he had the confidence to ration his heavy hits, employing great subtlety for much of the time. This had a strangely commanding effect, displaying great control of dynamics. In the final he had the courage to play two long-ish pieces that found swathes of space, with dramatic pauses before hits, plus multiple mallet shimmers and bass rumbles.
I particularly enjoyed the singing of Paula Saija (Latvia) in the final, although she wasn’t actually that remarkable on the first night. For the second show she used speedy, light phrasing, with a tongue-twisting, theatrical presentation, expressive during ‘The Peacocks’, and surprising everyone with a trumpet-impersonating scat. She is on the bill for Rigas Ritmi 2022.
The Turkish singer Eylul Ergul chose a song that was very redolent of her homeland, completely switching the atmosphere. Along with Ergul, the eventual vocal winner Louise Balkwill (UK) was probably much further along the career advancement line than most contestants. She emanated a confidence already born in jazz clubs, and was clearly experienced at working an audience.
Balkwill was more impressive later that same night, at the regular post-show jam session with the AG Trio. She took to the stage and quickly instructed the band with her needs, then finger-clicked off at a rapid, slickly enunciating pace. Earlier in the jam, Branch too had displayed an ‘effortless’ command of speedster swing, lightly bouncing the snare and deftly snicking the cymbal on the small drumkit, powering with massive energy yet physical restraint. The Latvian drummer finalist Pauls Pokratnieks (second place) also impressed at the session, getting into some hardcore swing propulsion. Otherwise, the AG Trio, led by introverted bassman Andris Grunteweren’t exactly encouraging to the contestants, given that their late-night sessions were supposedly a platform for spontaneous guesting.
On the Friday session (the best one), the trio was augmented by a saxophonist and guitarist, as well as three competition drummers. While, on other nights, A.G. Trio did create a suitably smooth, ‘sophisticated’ jazz backdrop in the Radisson Hotel bar-area, which actually boasted very good acoustics due to its abundance of soft furnishing.
LINK: News story/competition results
Riga Jazz Stage Website