The Lithuanian jazz scene dances to the same tune. Although the national grand narrative of jazz is associated with the trio of Ganelin, Tarasov and Čekasin, as well as wind players and pianists, who have shaped the tradtion of improvisational music, the exclusive pantheon of female singers is far from being empty. Let’s give it a visit.
The first person we meet is Marina Granovskaya and – although our radars are currently tuned to follow the vibrations of women’s voices – we cannot miss Steponas Januška popping up amongst the ladies. They were given this incredibly big task of adapting the jazz vocal technique and laying the foundation for the local tradition. While listening to Granovskaya an exclamation mark pops out of the ears – ‘oh, this is how it’s done!’ – her powerful voice carries the message that the mysterious culture of jazz singing is not that unavailable. She fled Lithuania in 1990 and we were left with only a bunch of recordings witnessing a bright talent and an early synthesis of jazz and the local estrade music techniques.
Steponas Januška didn’t go anywhere, he kept on researching the vocal performance in jazz in Klaipėda, Lithuania, and having developed a deep knowledge of traditional vocal techniques, became a pedagogue who keeps on nurturing good and great women vocalists in the branch of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Klaipėda. When the Department of Estrade Singing in Vilnius was closed, Klaipėda became the main training ground for entertainment music vocalists. Students from this school have mostly enriched many other genres – this is a natural and normal side effect which is good for both the entertainment and jazz industries. But the tradition was born, a reliable and stable source of knowledge.
Notably, the first ‘nugget’ of its kind, a voice so very big, unique, and authentic, was found someplace else – a flutist, a student at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre at the time, released her constant restlessness into sound and the world heard Neda Malūnavičiūtė. Alongside her, Arina Borunova – the queen of blues – surprised audiences with the power of her jazz vocal. She is a rare guest in the world of improvisation these days, but she has surely changed the perception of what a voice and its energetic charge can do in the performance of the jazz standards.
She didn’t take the route of attempting to comprehend classic American jazz vocals. What she has in her arsenal is an entirely intuitive and unique technique. Her open throated sound is familial to the free Lithuanian folkloric singing that pervades ploughed fields. That is the natural sound of our nation. At the same time, it is a universal sound, so Neda moves across genres without the slightest discomfort or any tangible shift. She is full of theatrical expression, and the instrumental jazz education and experience taken from Vladimir Čekasin empowers her to a fascinating and creative improvisation.
And who could have ever thought that Giedrė Kilčiauskienė, the complete opposite to Neda, would also think of Neda as a role model and openly declare her admiration. Giedrė’s strengths are very different. Neda is so tremendously large – with her temper, fireworks, getting carried away and madness… The main resonator of Giedrė’s voice is the brain; her singing is very intellectual in the sense of sound formation and technique (there is a lot of reason, control, mastery, nuances extracted and controlled by with deep understanding of the voice anatomy), as well as in the musical contents she chooses and creates. In emphasising the intellectual aspect, I don’t mean to imply some kind of self-contained mathematics. On the contrary, her superpower is a healthy attitude towards life, a sense of humour, and the ability to versify small everyday truths into the charming, worldly poetry. She is not mimicking anyone and her voice is ‘built’ only in as much as is necessary for its functionality. Giedrė sings in her natural timbre, which is soft, sweet, matt, unique and makes no attempt at decoration with mannerisms, whether she sings jazz, electronic music or something else.
Giedrė, in turn, is a pedagogue, and a very important part of a massive vocal ‘explosion,’ which happened at the turn of the century catalysed by the opening of jazz vocal study programmes at the Vilnius University of Applied Science and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. The smaller part of that ‘explosion’ remained on the jazz scene, but there was a noticeable increase of the professionals in this field, and the school expanded and matured directly before our eyes in just a few years. Already the first few classes brought to the local stage professionals such as Kristina Žaldokaitė, Girmantė Vaitkutė, Rūta Švipaitė, Vytautė Pupšytė and more currently active or less active jazz musicians. The deficit in high quality vocals melted like an ice cube dropped in hot coffee.And the stars light up way more often.
Another strong singing composer is Laura Budreckytė. She is virtuosic in a very different way, she pays quite a lot of attention to sonoral voice effect, playing with the voice, which, by the way, is reminiscent of the instrumental sound manipulation of the Vilnius jazz school. She is currently working with a band called CinAmono, which is a perfect creative lab for her, a mini-theatre turning each of her songs into a bright, almost visual sound narrative. Laura’s instrument is transparent, crystal clear, colourful and multifaceted. It enables her to easily create contrasting atmospheres and tell different stories, from funny fables to ephemeral poetic scenes, love lyrics or dramatic, developed pieces with a philosophical charge.
A different Viktorija, one who lives in a far-away country, Viktorija Gečytė, has tried to run away from her musical destiny, but didn’t succeed and today is actively performing in Paris, where she currently lives, and elsewhere. She became even more widely recognised last year when she was awarded third prize at the Sassy Awards – one of the largest jazz vocal competitions in the world.
There is an unwritten rule on the Lithuanian jazz scene: write your own music and try to play it differently from how jazz is played in the USA, because to do that would be a copy, a forgery or even a caricature. This rule doesn’t apply in Viktorija’s case. All the swing standards, beautiful ballads, blues – it was made for her. She has the blue blood, she is a member of the royal jazz family. Viktorija lived in the USA for some time, but that wasn’t the place where she learned how to swing. The sense is inborn and she got it together with the deep, clean and large voice, beauty and taste. With courageous work on that she grew to become a real improviser, a professional mature artist capable of unlocking centenerial songs and evoking excitement about them – simply, graciously, purely with the charms of her voice…
This is what one of the steps of the Lithuanian jazz vocal ‘pantheon’ looks like… Many interesting voices are heard alongside each other, but this time we have discussed only those brightest ones that are really active on the jazz scene currently. They are very different and don’t reveal any tendencies at first sight, but there is one very clear common feature between them: all these women create music as valuable and as rich as the instrumentalists of our country. They all improvise, and they do it damn well. They are technically mature, know the alphabet and the syntax of jazz very deeply, they are charismatic and have something to say. They do create important music. And they shatter the outworn attitude of ‘oh, a singer’.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Erika Lastovskytė