May 26 to 29 2020
By Ken Waxman
Performance photos by Susan O’Connor
Although it should happen more often at festivals but seldom does, much of the most memorable music at Vilnius’ Mama Jazz Festival came from local artists. Considering that two performances were by internationally recognized Lithuanian jazz stalwarts – saxophonist Vladimiras Čekasinas, whose 75th birthday coincided with the festival’s 20th anniversary; and drummer Vladimir Tarasov whose collaboration with two Ukrainian players was billed as We Stand with Ukraine – this wasn’t surprising. Notable creative music from other local players was also highlighted during the concerts that took place May 26 to 29 in the city’s well-appointed Lithuanian National Drama Theatre.
An extravaganza in all senses of the word, Čekasinas’ Suite for Free People on May 27 paired the veteran saxophonist with a selection of his improvising peers, and added contributions from the strings and horns of the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra. Also present and more Jazz-affiliated were two pianists, including Petras Geniušas, who output rhythmic interludes, plus a trio of drummers, and electric bassist Leonidas Šinkarenka.
Conducted by Modestas Barkauskas, the chamber orchestra was especially prominent in the concert’s first part, a recasting of varied themes Čekasinas had composed for theatrical programs that prominently featured the voice of Larisa Stannow, and the voice and flute of Neda Malūnavičiūtė. Vocal and verbal sound variations in several languages were part of that section with Malūnavičiūtė often illuminating the proceedings with a variant of Baltic scat singing and Stannow dedicated to more formal rhymed storytelling. Added at junctures were lyrical double counterpoint and surprising yodel variations from the two.
Although at points relying on a walker due to recent surgery, the animated Čekasinas, who sometimes added synthesizer washes to his solos, mostly used it as a prop, chasing other soloists across the stage, or sitting in it to more easily squeak plastic toys beneath his feet. Encompassing dramatic and lyrical themes, the orchestral backing occasional pivoted to swing with tonal color added by affiliated pizzicato strokes from the string section as well as occasional designated inserts from brass and woodwind soloists.
More notable was the concert’s second part, a so-called Big Jam session. Command of the material by the players who went one-on-one with Čekasinas were worldly enough in their improvisations so that gaps or disorganization were never issues. Soprano saxophonist Vytautas Labutis expressed emotions with a concentrated display of trills and tones. Meanwhile, tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Liudas Mockūnas was earthier in his approach, bellowing extended slurs and honking intense riffs which complemented and contrasted with the Čekasinas’ soprano saxophone stutters. With sprinkled piano notes urging them on, the two then suddenly stopped and recapped the duo’s initial head. When it came to lick-trading with the bassist however, not only did Šinkarenka meet Čekasinas’ circular breathing with versatility and verve, but he even appropriated some of the toys to create additional peeping noises as he played. Finally, as the orchestral, vocal and improvisers contributions came together at the end, the entire ensemble reached a polyphonic climax of triumphant intensity.
Dedicated more closely to close-knit, in-the-moment improvisation was the set two nights later by drummer Tarasov – who had made a brief appearance to duet with Čekasinas during the latter’s celebration – and his trio: pianist Volodymyr Solianyk, who teaches at a music college in Kyiv, and has temporarily relocated to Vilnius; and bassist Mark Tokar for whom special arrangements were made with the Ukrainian army to allow him temporary leave from his military unit. Although support for Ukraine’s edifying struggle against the Russian invasion was voiced by Tarasov at the concert’s conclusion, there was nothing political about the performance. Instead, it was an object lesson in close listening and speedy reaction. Beginning with a dazzling display of string strategy from Tokar, the bassist emphasized his instrument’s varied string textures as he intertwined a mallet among his strings or vibrated col legno smacks as he slowly advanced the narrative. Simultaneously Tarasov used slaps, smacks and subtle smashes from his collection of drums and cymbals to confirm the suite’s stop-time function, interacting with the bassist without overpowering him. It was a full five minutes before Solianyk played a single note, but his subsequent flowing melodicism confirmed the lyrical underpinning of the performance, accompanied by Tarasov’s unforced brush work. This contrast between aggressive and amiable textures continued throughout the set as the drummer emphasized different parts of his kit and the bassist slapping a towel or using a soft drink can to exert additional pressure on his string set. Confirming the trio’s underlying lyricism, the pianist’s two-handed approach reflected both European Romanticism and Jazz Swing. Eventually his wide-handed swirls, the drummer martial pops and steady walking from the bassist allowed the three to segue into “Just One of Those Things” revealing that the linked performance had actually been an exercise in deconstructing Cole Porter material from the beginning.
Preferring originals to songbook material and staying closest to the Jazz continuum was the Laivo Troupe, which made a notable impression during the weekend’s afternoon Showcase presentations. The band consisted of saxophonists Kazimieras Jušinskas and Kristupas Gikas, trombonist/tubaist Simonas Kaupinis, guitarist Dominykas Norkūnas, bassist Gediminas Stepanavičius and drummer Domantas Razmus, the latter of whom had also contributed rhythmic bottom to the Čekasina celebration. Mixing arrangements and improvisations, the tunes were driven by constant tuba burps and connective drum ruffs. Incorporating marching band inferences, big band-like horn vamps, clean soprano or alto saxophone linear elaboration and piles of piercing flanges from the guitarist that could have fit an arena Rock band, the Laivo Troupe was consistently engaging
If the Laivo Troupe projected high-quality free music, then the sounds from tenor and soprano saxophonist Vytautas Labutis and accordionist Andrius Balachovičius who played immediately afterwards on Saturday, were exemplary in a more traditional manner. The duo mixed strands of Free Improv, Swing, Klezmer and Baltic folk music into a lilting hodgepodge that wiggled, oscillated and excited in many tempos. Pumping accordion slides and saxophone trills kept things moving with call-and-response vamps, while sprightly melodies were maintained. With the accordionist’s tremolo shifts as continuum, Labutis had space to create darker and more intense extensions, often played prestissimo. The duo’s jumping and jangling suggested that with equal facility it could, without discontinuity, gig at an avant-garde nightclub and or a hip wedding reception.
Those venues wouldn’t fit the Quark Effect, whose electronic experiments are definitely futuristic and 21st Century. Closing out Sunday’s Showcase series, alto saxophonist Kornelijus Pukinskis, drummer Dominykas Snarskis and especially synthesizer and laptop manipulator Matas Samulionis projected a self-contained sound the echoed and warbled distinctively. With programmed themes and sampled asides evolving in slow motion, paced drum jiggles and repeated reed slurs added measured live lyricism to the programmed algorhythms. In fact, sometimes the electro-acoustic interactions were open enough so that pre-recorded piano samples fit hand in glove with improvisations from the trio members.
As an international festival MamaJazz also included prominent representation from elsewhere. The most notable was the closing concert by Anthony Braxton’s all-American saxophone quartet with James Fei, André Vida and Chris Jonas. Playing every variety of saxophones from sopranino to baritone in different combinations, the four worked their way through a nearly hour-long Braxton original which combined a notated and graphic score with portions left open for improvisation. Additionally, an undulating electronic drone operated by Braxton underscored the performance, but it was never prominent enough to disrupt the proceedings.
Working in unison or in double, triple or quadruple counterpoint as often as soloing the other players usually depended on Braxton expelling scraps of melody and/or hand signals to mark transitions. With Vida’s broad slurps and slides from baritone saxophone often supplying a connective ostinato, the three other players advanced the narratives singly or in pairs. Among the stretched timbres, birdcalls and astringent cries was one conspicuous interlude when Fei on sopranino and Jonas on alto saxophone traded tongue pops and stops. Another highlight was when the higher and lower pitched saxophones lined up in twinned pairs to contrast the timbral separation yet collaborative fluidity of the horns. Then, with a bleating crescendo that countered down in chiming pulses, the piece was over.
Part of the modern mainstream, American tenor and soprano saxophonist Ben Wendel took a more conventional approach to playing and improvising during his Saturday night set. Backed by top-flight contemporaries and fellow Yanks – bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Greg Hutchinson – plus Israeli keyboardist Shai Maestro, Wendel and company ran through a series of clean, carefully conscribed tunes. Prodded, though not driven by the drummer’s hard claps and clips, the bassist’s fluid thumps and the pianist’s rhythmic runs and light-fingered clusters, the results sounded familiar even when playing originals. Variety was expressed when the saxophonist added EWI extensions, which when combined with Maestro’s piano decoration and Hutchinson’s wood block pops doubled the melodic content. Sparring, overblowing and projecting altissimo screams, Wendel’s extended techniques were only used as brief tune-spicing, sometimes unaccompanied, but more prominently as a coda to Sanders’ tandem humming and bowing solo feature.
The band’s cumulative parameters were best expressed on two particular tunes however. There was a poignant, soprano saxophone reading of “I Loves You Porgy”, which also featured lyrical comping from Maestro and duple-time slap from Hutchinson. Then, the final tune was a Bop pastiche based on “Wee” which interpolated brief snatches of familiar and half-remembered tunes, and where Wendel’s intense slurs and trills were more reminiscent of Gene Ammons’ mature style than those of more contemporary saxophonists. Ending in a swing groove the performance also depended on sympathetic tremolo lines from the pianist and light snare slaps from the drummer.
Rymden, the festival’s opening act with Scandinavians keyboardist Bugge Wesseltof, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström also trod a middle road between electric contemporary and more mainstream acoustic Jazz. Wesseltof’s electronic wiggles usually created grooves with textures that replicated organ washes, surging piano vibrations and mellotron-like waves. Meanwhile backbeat drumming and bass string tugs preserved the horizontal groove. Even when pressure intensified the performances to Rock-like assemblages, density was brightened with piercing bass string strums, tremolo keyboard clips and spikey cymbal vibrations. Overall when Berglund’s col legno bass string pressure met Wesseltof’s linear exposition, impact was melded with melody to expose both parts of the trio’s interlocking skills.
Other instances of burgeoning talent were heard during the festival, especially in the two afternoon showcases. Synthetika, with saxophonist/synthesizer player Artiom Zalizko, drummer Jonas Filmanavičius and keyboardist/electronics manipulator Nikita Kiriuchinas added noises and space-age-like whooshes and flanges to the ebb and flow of mostly horizontal interface. The nine-member Lithuanian Youth Jazz Orchestra, conducted by keyboardist Austėja Marija Kimbartaitė impressed by offering several professional-level solos in a comprehensive program of generally swinging originals that completely avoided standard school band arrangements.
Constantly working the midground between familiar-sounding and riskier music has been the reason for Vilnius MamaJazz festival’s continued popularity. This year fit that paradigm and it’s certain that more of the same will appear during future festivals.