THEME. Metamorphoses of Lithuanian Jazz

Modern musical forms are open and in constant flux, rejecting any sorts of canons. They alter their habitual shapes, transmute from one state to another, fuse into other musical styles and even transform into non-musical forms of expression. What can be identified as one particular style today may sound completely different tomorrow, leaving the music critics and listeners bewildered. The root of these metamorphoses is not only in the globalization and convergence of (sub)cultures. The never-ending search for new expressive means and individual artistic languages, fueled by a clear tendency toward interdisciplinary and multimedia forms, has its say as well. Isolated and canonical styles simply do not have enough to say about contemporary human experience in its diversity.

The evolution of jazz music, free and flexible by its very nature, is perhaps the best illustration of the above-mentioned process. What is today understood as jazz, with the entirety of its styles and manifestations, would have hardly been classified as such in the Jazz Age and maybe even the Beat Era. Jazz is not so much about big bands, quartets and trios anymore. Instead, it has become the general creative philosophy that rests on pillars like improvisation, mystical sense of swing and freedom of form, fusing together diverse elements in a way that makes them feel (and not necessarily sound) like jazz. Not only jazz itself has mutated; it has also influenced other musical cultures, from contemporary academic to club music. This overview aims to both identify the new hybrid forms of jazz and spot its traces in other musical styles in the specific case of Lithuania.

Jazz after jazz

With some caution, one might say that the musicians firmly associated with the development of Lithuanian modern jazz are still the ones driving it forward and outward. The ‘middle’ generation seems to prefer the more conventional, music-centered forms of improvisatory and compositional jazz. Even though they do occasionally participate in projects initiated by the likes of Vladimir Chekasin and collaborations with non-jazz musicians, yet it is difficult to view it as a consistent strategy.

In the interdisciplinary stage performances by Vladimir Chekasin (member of the now disbanded legendary Ganelin Trio), the connection to jazz is intuitive rather than obvious. These performances are polystylistic theatrical happenings that usually involve Chekasin’s friends and former students – crème de la crème of today’s Lithuanian music, dance, poetry and other arts: Petras Geniušas, Gediminas Laurinavičius, Vytautas Labutis, Leonid Shinkarenko, Arvydas Jofė, Loreta Juodkaitė, Aidas Marčėnas and others. Chekasin’s projects are unpredictable, infused with ethnic music influences, wild energetic outbursts characteristic of heavy acid rock and phrases from classical music. Knowing the artist’s devotion to the music he has been playing for decades, however, one would be hard put to state that the roots of this multifaceted oeuvre are not in jazz. Since post-jazz is too ambiguous a term, extended jazz might be an appropriate tag if one wants to classify this musical phenomenon.

Vladimir Tarasov, another member of the standard-breaking Ganelin Trio, is equally active and inventive in his work. It is not accidental that Tarasov took part in the One Man Band festival that spiced up Vilnius’ musical life in the winter of 2006; he has taken the solo drum performance to a new level, making it a self-sufficient contemporary genre. The multitude of acoustic and electronic percussion instruments that Tarasov masterly uses in his live concerts indeed does sound like a whole band. According to the artist himself, this is the result of his efforts to expand the sound of drums and uncover its true potential, extracting something more than the standard jazz rhythm from the instrument. Besides that, Tarasov is actively engaged in both the contemporary art and modern dance / theatre scenes, creating conceptual sound installations, visual art pieces (that nevertheless retain a special relationship with sound) and music for modern dance performances.

Puzzle Music. Vilnius City Jazz 2005. Loreta Juodkaitė, Vytis Nivinskas, Marijus Aleksa, Beduin String Quartet

However strong and active are the veteran experimenters, it is clear that a new generation, eager to further expand the borders of jazz music, is coming up confidently. Among these younger composers and performers, yesterday’s and today’s jazz students (logically enough, taught by the same Chekasin and his former students), the names of Andrė Pabarčiūtė, Tomas Dobrovolskis, Liudas Mockūnas and Vytis Nivinskas are heard perhaps most often. Raised in pretty much the same academic environment and having developed a similar taste for the free and progressive forms of jazz, they inevitably engage in multiple collaborations with one another and another musicians their age. Their performances are characterized by the willingness to involve various non-musical or non-jazz musical elements, e. g. the improvisatory project Here and Now that Pabarčiūtė, Nivinskas and young drummer Marijus Aleksa did in collaboration with Loreta Juodkaitė, one of the most distinctive artists in today’s Lithuanian modern dance.

This open-mindedness and sincere inclination for daring experiments (which, in case of Tomas Dobrovolskis, go to the point of constructing unique custom-made instruments) is surely a promise for an exciting career and, at the same time, the cause of the success they already enjoy. It is evident that jazz is assuredly integrating into the context of contemporary interdisciplinary arts. The magnetism that talented jazz musicians possess, coupled with their own enthusiasm and interest in like-minded creative individuals from other art spheres, seems to attract circles of collaborators that enrich and expand the formers’ artistic language. At the same time, the reverse process is happening: these collaborators are influenced by jazz and start experimenting with its elements in their own works.

Jazzin’ with contemporary composers

The times when contemporary classical music and jazz were mutually exclusive are, of course, long gone. Expressive means of jazz are included to the arsenal of compositional techniques that formally trained composers use in their works. To be sure, this is not jazz as such, but the presence of its echoes and reflections undoubtedly alters the general texture and mood of the music.

Composers include elements of jazz in their compositions occasionally, as a test of a particular compositional technique. Gintaras Sodeika, Šarūnas Nakas, Vytautas Germanavičius, Bronius Kutavičius, Osvaldas Balakauskas, Faustas Latėnas, Remigijus Merkelys, Zita Bružaitė and Raminta Šerkšnytė, among others – have applied elements borrowed from the jazz language in some of their compositions.

The ways in which such borrowing is performed vary from the adaptation/stylization of certain structural principles characteristic of jazz (Sodeika, Nakas) to using the voice of a jazz singer (Kutavičius) or adding an improvisatory solo part for an instrument typical of jazz music, such as saxophone (Merkelys). Some of these contemporary pieces come so close to their source of inspiration that they sound almost exactly as a free jazz piece could sound (consider Germanavičius’ Direction of Birds, for instance). In other ones, allusions to jazz take the form of tiny timbral hints, but the very title of the piece implies the hidden relationship (e.g. Balakauskas’ Bop-art). In all cases, such ‘intervention’ of jazz creates intriguing links between different (albeit not absolutely unrelated) musical languages and expands the expressive spectrum of contemporary music itself.

There are also curious cases of the reverse intervention, such as famous classical pianist Petras Geniušas playing together with Chekasin. Their mutual project Classical Diversions, initiated by Chekasin, features the two improvising in their own musical languages. While Geniušas plays pieces by the likes of Bartók, Debussy and Pärt (albeit being quite liberal with the actual scores, as he chooses fragments from them and interweaves them with improvised bits on the spot), Chekasin’s distinctive impromptu sax playing provides a provocative counterpoint. In a while, the duo exchange duties: Chekasin plays his own pieces and Geniušas strives to find fitting progressions in the best traditions of jazz improvisation.

Jazz meets ethno

The practice of fusing various ethnic musical traditions with jazz is not new, but the history of experimenting with blending traditional Lithuanian folk music and contemporary jazz is not too long. The process of such amalgamation usually happens on the basis of certain points of intersection where musical dialogue is possible.

Especially popular and intriguing is the combination of jazz and unique Lithuanian archaic polyphonic singing sutartinės, but connections between jazz and other folk music forms are actively explored as well., a joint project of Vilnius Jazz Quartet (consisting of prime jazz musicians Vytautas Labutis, Oleg Molokojedov, Eugenijus Kanevičius and Gediminas Laurinavičius) and folk music collective Sutaras, is a particularly successful example of this kind of collaborations. Perhaps unwilling to let it remain a mere one-off endeavour, the same Sutaras have recently crafted a similarly subtle and imaginative fusion of modern jazz and Lithuanian folk music in collaboration with another high-profile collective, the Dainius Pulauskas Group.

Some musicians, Skirmantas Sasnauskas being the most vivid example, demonstrate virtuosity in playing both jazz and traditional instruments, thus setting their foot in both territories with equal success. In Sasnauskas’ compositions, jazz and ethno elements become virtually inseparable and organically connected.

Not only Lithuanian ethnic music is fused with jazz in Lithuania, however. Anatolij Lomonosov, the chief advocate of the classical music of Northern India, has extensively collaborated with Lithuanian jazz stars – Vytautas Labutis, Leonid Shinkarenko, Gediminas Laurinavičius and Arkady Gotesman – working on projects that fused his sitar playing with modal jazz and jazz percussion. Vladimir Chekasin uses numerous allusions to Oriental (especially Japanese) traditional music in his recent projects. The New ARTrio (Andrė Pabarčiūtė, Tomas Dobrovolskis and Raimondas Sviackevičius) have performed their project titled The Trip, or Inner Emigration together with Sainkho Namtchylak, the world famous performer of experimental and ethnic vocal music from Tuva.

Improvisation taken to the extreme

In the context of experimental and electroacoustic music, jazz-like free improvisation can reach incredible levels of intensity and dynamism, to the point of verging upon noise and walls of distorted sound. Experimental improvisatory guitar work of Juozas Milašius and Raimundas Eimontas, formally educated musicians that are currently associated primarily with the avant-garde improvisatory music and sound art scenes, still pays a nod to jazz, but it is heavily mutated and distorted jazz comparable to the more intense moments of John Zorn. It is interesting that Milašius has collaborated with many prominent Lithuanian jazzmen – Chekasin, Labutis and Tarasov, for instance, which further points to the jazz-related origin of his complicated musical material.

The music of Lithuania’s most famous avant-rock group, Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu, has a somewhat similar connection to free jazz. Its album Greetings to Falkenhann sounds like jazz from outer space, with saxophone and organ melodies given a heavily psychedelic twist. A possible point of reference might be Sun Ra and his mystical ‘cosmic’ orchestra.

Beat poetry revisited?

In the 1950’s, the Beat Era of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, experimental Beat poetry was tightly connected to bebop. Interestingly enough, the recent years saw something similar to a revival of this special connection between the poetic and musical rhythms in Lithuania. In 2006, Kerry Shawn Keys, the American poet currently residing in Lithuania, has released an album of his readings backed up by Vladimir Tarasov’s free jazz percussion. A similar project, Metimas (The Throw), was realized by two well-known experimentalists – poet Rolandas Rastauskas and percussionist Arkady Gotesman. In this literary/musical collaborations, the two colliding dimensions further expose the hidden characteristics of each other: intuitive percussion accentuates the rhythm of the reciting voice, while the latter discloses the subtle poetics of percussion instruments.

Jazz for the dancefloor

It seems that bands playing a mix of jazz, funk, disco, rock and electronica in various proportions are most appreciated by the urban clubbing youth. The good thing is that these bands – Pieno Lazeriai (Phazz-a-delic released them as Milky Lasers), Brassbastardz, Saulės Kliošas, Magic Mushrooms and Bitės – can actually play their infectious and stylish jazzy stuff live, which makes their concerts extremely popular, as more and more young Lithuanians want their dance music be played live rather than by a DJ. Surely, the brand of jazz played in these fusion and crossover projects is relatively light, but the mix of styles that these bands produce is nonetheless intriguing and original enough to be competitive in the global scene of acid jazz and jazz funk music.

Besides these live acts, Lithuania has a host of electronic dance music (jazzy house, nu-jazz, downbeat, etc.) producers who sample a great deal of jazz rhythms and melodic lines for their compositions. The most adventurous of them are perhaps Rüt Rüt, an audiovisual collective whose musical output can be described as recycled jazz. They also collaborate with live jazz performers and even took part in the Kaunas Jazz festival, one of the most prestigious Lithuanian jazz events. Paulius Sluškonis, former member of Rüt Rüt, works in a similar key, fusing recycled jazz patterns with electronic layers. Others include Andy Lau, RyRalio and Santi Touch, who not only use jazzy melodies in their tracks, but also occasionally spin records with live improvised sax accompaniment, taking DJ’ing one step further.

Talking all that jazz

The evolution of jazz in Lithuania is increasingly supported and promoted by the ‘infrastructure’ around it – most notably, the jazz festivals. Festivals welcome more and more innovative crossover and polystylistic projects, thus encouraging the development of new forms and presenting them to the public. The music critics, in their turn, also pay considerable attention to projects that take jazz to next musical and non-musical levels, meeting such attempts with curiosity and appreciation. If such sincere interest and open-mindedness continues, tomorrow’s jazz will take on even more exciting and unpredictable forms, never ceasing to reinvent itself.

© Jurij Dobriakov

Lithuanian Music Link No. 14