Laima SLEPKOVAITĖ | Fifteen Years of Vilnius Jazz Young Power: A Competition Driving Lithuania’s New Generations of Jazz Artists

Fifteen years ago, the international Vilnius Jazz music festival started organising a national competition: Vilnius Jazz Young Power. This was a natural move in line with the festival’s mission and vision, which has not changed since its inception. Antanas Gustys started organising Vilnius Jazz in 1988, primarily to provide a solid platform for local musicians. After all, when Lithuanian musicians gave concerts abroad, they gave the impression that they were representatives of a large and mature jazz culture. So this culture, which already had strong ambassadors like Petras Vyšniauskas, Vytautas Labutis, Juozas Milašius, or the trio of Ganelin, Čekasin and Tarasov, had to be cultivated and nurtured, and a more solid infrastructure needed to be created for it. Vilnius Jazz has become an important part of this landscape, as it has continually initiated the birth of original new projects, encouraged emerging young musicians, and has consistently reflected the most relevant and important developments of the Lithuanian capital’s avant-garde jazz scene.

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a kind of ‘Cambrian explosion’ happened in the Lithuanian jazz sphere. When the Jazz Department of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre was established, the ‘demographic situation’ in the genre changed rapidly, the number of musicians grew, and the new generation of musicians began to form communities. They were quite isolated from the influence of the older generation. At that time, young people in many fields were very dissatisfied with the opportunities available in Lithuania: through being able to travel and participate in exchange programmes, hear recordings, and find huge streams of information online, they were able to compare the quality of studies at their freshly established departments to that of European schools with deep traditions. The internet enabled them to assess the international standing of local idols, to hear a lot of different music, to question the previously dominant mythology of Lithuanian jazz, and to discover their own unique paths.

Keeping these new talents off the stage and postponing their initiation until they fully matured would only have led to deeper frustration and a wider gap between the generations. Therefore, in one way or another, all festivals began to expand the opportunities available to young people, and Vilnius Jazz did so by organising the competition Vilnius Jazz Young Power.

The aim of this competition is to encourage young people’s creative freedom by giving them the opportunity to perform their music on the festival stage. The importance of creativity is embedded into the structure of the competition: most of the time in the programme is devoted to the presentation of original compositions, and the list of obligatory works is a far cry from the traditional canon. The list includes pieces by composers of the mature modern jazz era (Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane), music by contemporary jazz composers (including Lithuanians) and only one or two traditional standards. The competition does not impose any stylistic requirements. Despite the fact that it is organised in the context of a decidedly avant-garde festival, Vilnius Jazz Young Power remains open to all possible expressions of jazz. The only essential criteria are professionalism, originality, and creativity.

Fifteen times Vilnius Jazz Young Power has invited young people to create music and show what they can do. Fifteen sets of winners have performed on the stage of the Vilnius Jazz festival, predicting the future sounds of Lithuanian jazz... Now the future has arrived. Only a decade and a half later, it is already possible to see whether this incentive mechanism works and which competition predictions have come true or are becoming so on the Lithuanian jazz scene.

The first competition took place in 2006, and its direction became clear and crystallised immediately: diligent, studious attempts to approach the exemplars of jazz did not cross the threshold of selection, but genre-defying bands such as Magic Mushrooms and Lietaus Uždanga successfully reached the finals, as did For Free, the duo of Juozas Kuraitis and Tomas Razmus that won the Grand Prix and an invitation to play on the big stage of the festival the following year.

Juozas Kuraitis and Tomas Razmus sounded like fully formed musicians at the time—capable of improvising spontaneously, technically accomplished, creative, ready for “full-scale” concerts and even then, already considered part of the Lithuanian jazz saxophonists’ elite. Tomas Razmus has maintained the trajectory that seemed clear while he was playing on the Vilnius Jazz Young Power stage. Today he is a saxophone colossus in Kaunas, a creator and member of original avant-garde jazz projects who works with Arnas Mikalkėnas and Oak Birches, has played in the Kaunas Big Band for many years, and also teaches. For a while, Juozas Kuraitis seemed to be following a very similar path. He initially participated in avant-garde jazz projects, but, in the long run, side work at private events has become his main focus. He is now the holder of a YouTube Silver Button (over 100,000 subscribers). An excerpt from his 2006 competition performance was posted on the channel, has only six ‘likes’ (one of them from the author of this article), and is likely to surprise his regular viewers who are accustomed to hearing the clean, glossy sound of his saxophone as he performs covers of pop songs rather than two-voice improvisational fugues. The change in Kuraitis’ creative direction was met with disappointment in the jazz community. Not only was he a promising musician but also a unique and charismatic professional jazz artist, who had worked hard to achieve a high level of mastery. His ‘chair’ has remained empty on the national jazz scene.

Other finalists have also migrated to other music genres: Božena Buinicka, the leader of Lietaus Uždanga, now composes chamber music, and Elena Neniškytė, the lead singer of Magic Mushrooms, is active on the alternative music scene. So the “harvest” of the first competition has spread out over different genres (and history shows that this trend has continued) probably because this competition attracts musicians of a mercurial nature—open, searching, and changing. In any case, Tomas Razmus, violinist Tadas Dešukas, guitarist Paulius Volkovas, and several others from the ‘class of 2006’ have remained on the jazz scene and are now professionally mature and prominent musicians. The tone and direction of a new significant phenomenon of jazz culture was set.

The second competition lit the second star on the Grand Prix podium: pianist Dmitrij Golovanov won the title playing solo. Like the previously victorious duo of Juozas Kuraitis and Tomas Razmus, he was not really a discovery of Vilnius Jazz Young Power. The time for discoveries had not yet come, as the first competitions opened up the stage to those who had already been discovered, but who had not yet been properly acknowledged. At that time, it was reasonable to expect that Vilnius Jazz would soon invite Golovanov to play a solo recital in the main programme because the quality of his performance and his compositional intelligence impressed the jazz connoisseurs. So, he took part and won—predictably—while competing in the final with himself as part of a duet with Juozas Kuraitis, who was still playing jazz at that time, and with a band called Untitled, whose members have remained active in the field of music. The ‘prophecy’ of the second competition came true—Golovanov has become a pedagogue and an important composer and performer on the Lithuanian jazz scene and has just released his second solo album Heritage, which will very likely become one of the key jazz events of the year.

Another musician who plays a pivotal role in the jazz world of this genre today appeared in the orbit of the competition that same year. Leonardas Bėkša, a multi-instrumentalist known as the discovery of Vilnius Jazz Young Power, is now the Head of the Jazz Department at the Music Academy of Vytautas Magnus University and one of the few consistent experts and masters of traditional jazz.

Bėkša was recognised a year later as well and was awarded a special diploma ‘for the actualisation of tradition’. Meanwhile, the Grand Prix was given to Rūta Švipaitė and her quartet that year. We are still hoping for the return of this ensemble. For the past several years Švipaitė has been an active member of the jazz community, mostly heard as part of The Ditties trio—a very stylish ensemble inspired by female vocal bands from the ‘50s. She is currently presenting a new programme of Lithuanian early pop song arrangements and gradually forming a repertoire of original works, which also includes her own songs.

In 2009, YRINAUDA triumphed on the Vilnius Jazz Young Power stage. The quartet, like many other ensembles formed for the competition, soon became history, but its members—Dovydas Stalmokas, Paulius Volkovas, Mykolas Bazaras, and Gediminas Augustaitis—keep creating history. Dovydas Stalmokas, who was then very close to the super sax players’ league of Lithuania and particularly interested in low saxophones and bass clarinet, is now a national leader on these instruments. He is an original composer who forms unusual ensembles and forges new paths: a visionary. His latest creation is Low Blow, another unconventional formation based on a combination of low wind timbres, which also successfully performed on the stage of the Vilnius Jazz festival in 2020. The festival is already seeing results from its ‘homegrown’ musicians as the winners of the competition enter the ‘professional league’.

YRINAUDA was not the only interesting formation in the 2009 competition. The jazz youth population grew even more: participants who had already appeared onstage in 2009 returned to Vilnius Jazz Young Power in 2010 and new ones joined. There was no clear leader among them. The Grand Prix was given to the duo of Mantvydas Pratkelis and Jonas Butvydas—both musicians who have stayed in the field of jazz and music in general, consistently working and demonstrating excellent qualities. Their main competitors at that time were Bon Ton with Simona Smirnova, a vocalist, jazz kanklės[1] player, and non-jazz music composer who is now successfully creating and working in New York; Vilkšu Pa Muguru with Silvija Pankūnaitė, a genuine jazz virtuoso who scats, composes interesting music, and is often featured in pop music projects, but maintains the professional image of a jazz performer; and Yo-Yo Mo-Mo-Mo, an ensemble made up of a great set of instrumentalists. There was one person who played saxophone in all of these ensembles—Simonas Šipavičius. He won the prize for the best instrumentalist at the time, and his talents became even more evident a year later. Moreover, in 2019 he was awarded the prestigious Vilnius Jazz Award, thus being accepted into the pantheon of the most respected personalities in the jazz community.

In the history of Vilnius Jazz Young Power, the year 2011 should be written in golden letters. This was the year when the competition really did predict the future and gave a platform to an ensemble whose legacy was not only in the contributions of individual musicians but also in a sustainable and strong music group, which stood out for its unique ideas and the specific sound and direction of its developing micro-universe. It was Sheep Got Waxed—an alliance of Simonas Šipavičius, Adas Gecevičius, and Paulius Vaškas. They managed to both create an impactful and unique sound and to spread and promote it! Sheep Got Waxed began releasing albums and traveling the globe, reaching far beyond the jazz world. Both in Lithuania and abroad, the trio attracted a very diverse audience that loved alternative music, were looking for a more interesting sound, and gave in to the group’s unrestrained energy.

A year later, the competition soundly compensated for the lack of female names on the Grand Prix list by awarding it to the ensemble Singaz. Veronika Čičinskaitė-Golovanova, Vytautė Pupšytė, Jekaterina Pranevič, Raimonda Vaičiūtė, and Kristina Svolkinaitė, accompanied by a supporting group, were a combination of strong voices and excellent teachers. The ensemble later appeared on the stage of the Birštonas Jazz Festival and then dissolved, but it was an early indication of Veronika Čičinskaitė-Golovanova’s leadership abilities. She is now a member of The Ditties, conducts her own quartet, composes her own music, and has released her debut album Singer of a 1000 Faces.

The competition ‘classes’ of 2013, 2014, and 2016 later influenced the jazz scene in a very similar way: projects such as r.a.d.d., Made in 234, and TDT are no longer active in the form in which they made their appearance at the competition, but their member musicians—Arman Isojan, Domantas Razmus, Klaudijus Štuopinis, Karolis Šarkus, Donatas Petreikis, and others—continue playing and composing. Some of them are well known, others less so, but most of the contestants that stood out in the competition have met the expectations of the jury and the audience by continuing their musical activities.

In 2015, a kind of switch clicked, and ensembles that endured beyond participation in the competition began to appear. Brave Noises (2015), Katarsis4 (finalists, but not the Grand Prix winners in 2016), Džiazlaif (2017), Castor Stetson (2018), and Kanalizacija (2019) are groups that appeared at Vilnius Jazz Young Power, but for which the competition was neither the reason of their formation nor the end point of their work. All of these bands exist to this day and are rightly counted among the most interesting and relevant projects. They release albums, appear on online platforms, publicise themselves, and generally demonstrate patterns of artistic behaviour, management, and creative life that differ slightly from those of their predecessors. This most recent generation is making very effective use of new opportunities and does not shy away from its youth. These musicians believe in their work and do not delay the implementation of their ideas. The sustainability, consistency, productivity, and discipline of their ensembles indicate a very optimistic future for Lithuanian jazz.

A band called Juzt—Tuomas J. Räsänen, Nikita Kiriuchin, Kazimieras Krulikovskis, and Vainius Indriūnas—won the competition in 2020, though the win does not guarantee anything. However, the 15-year history of the competition suggests that after performing on the Vilnius Jazz Young Power stage, musicians no longer deny their creative calling—they may continue their work in different genres, start composing scores for orchestras or descend into dark metal dungeons, but this competition attracts determined musicians who are ready for a professional career. So, the crystal ball clearly shows that these young musicians will stay, will create music, and will light up the Lithuanian scene. Does Vilnius Jazz Young Power encourage, guide, and influence their artistic decisions, or simply allow them to present music that would have been made anyway?

The fact that, in these fifteen years, many bands have come together specifically for the competition can be seen as a clear sign that it encourages them. The musicians come together for the competition, create original music specifically for the competition, arrange the required work, rehearse and prepare it, and mobilise and focus on the dimensions of a festival stage, where they cannot hide behind a crowd and audio engineering glitches or rely on ‘good vibes’. Ambitions rise when faced with a stimulating task. So, the incentive part is very effective. However, the presentation is a slightly less developed side of the competition. Vilnius Jazz Young Power does not hold a big event to showcase the achievements of its winners. A Sunday daytime concert is allocated for their performances, which rarely attract an audience larger than the existing fans invited by the participants. The awards ceremony does take place in the evening in a full hall, with appropriate celebration, and the media receive informative press releases, but overall, Vilnius Jazz has allowed the competition to become more interesting as it grows naturally.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Erika Lastovskytė

[1] Kanklės is a Lithuanian plucked string instrument.