Jazz with a capital 'J'

  • 2006-12-06
  • By Joel Alas
TALLINN - I'm sitting on a cushion on the floor, like dozens of folk around me. It's dark and moody, and most people are hushed as they lean in close and listen intently. In the middle of our semi-circle, under the rays of a fierce spotlight and against a backdrop of a velvet red curtain, are three musicians playing the most extraordinary jazz I've heard since my arrival in Tallinn.

The sax player Raivo Tafenau is completely unhinged, riding up and down the scales like he's on a rollercoaster. Bass players always suffer as the quiet classmate, although this one 's Peter Barshay - is winning his own with some tricky fingerwork.
But it's the drummer who's clearly in charge. That kind of syncopation, man, it takes some work just to listen to it, let alone play it. He's really working up a sweat, too, you can see it glistening on his head. That's Brian Melvin there, an American who plays in Estonia often enough to be naturalized.

It's a Friday night in the basement of Teater No99. Every Friday night now, this place is hopping. The theater is upstairs, better known for its edgy productions. But some bright spark decided that the stairwell and basement downstairs could be put to good use as a jazz bar. The good folk over at the Estonian Jazz Alliance provide the artists, and do a great job of it too.
I'm talking about jazz with a capital "J," real jazz, the genuine stuff. Not that boring, predictable and commercialized form of jazz that some cafes occasionally offer on Sunday afternoons in the hope of selling some extra wine and cheese. I call that "mum jazz" 's dumbed down so bored housewives can enjoy it.

No, there's no mum jazz here 's no "Take Five," no "In The Mood," none of those cringe-worthy standards. Tonight the trio is a little obsessed with Coltrane, and rightly so. I think they've played five Coltrane numbers, including an obscure B-side called "Love" which is a beautiful quiet little piece. They surprise us all by performing an Indian raag, using a pre-recorded loop of a sitar in the background.

The beer here is decently-priced, as is the entry fee. It's full but not too packed, easy enough to still sidle into a good viewing position on the floor. Groups of young people are snuggling on the stairs, and I feel a bit intrusive entering and leaving.
For the most part, the crowd is well-behaved 's perhaps too much so. There's no clapping in the middle of songs after a sizzling solo, as is normal at most jazz venues, and shouts of appreciation seem frowned upon. But this is Estonia, where it's difficult to get an emotional raise out of people when it comes to music.

This style of edgy jazz 's real jazz 's has got people talking. I'm all for it, I think it's hot. My friends here tonight don't agree.
"Too all-over-the-place," critiques my friend, "I like it a bit cleaner."
Clean can be good sometimes, I agree, but all I've heard since I arrived in Tallinn is clean jazz. Are Estonian musicians afraid to experiment, to go a bit crazy? Here they've got a venue and an audience who'll let them shake it all out. How could Miles Davis have moved from something as constrained as "Blue" to the voodoo-crazed hallucinations on "Bitches Brew" if not for a performance space such as this?

The jazz club has been rocking out the basement for a few months. The concerts took a summer vacation, but they've been back on since autumn kicked in, and slowly word is getting around. It's happening here on a Friday or nowhere at all.
There's an upcoming concert on Dec. 8 at 21:00. A group called the Pirn Quartet, featuring Andre Maaker on guitar, Martti Tarn on bass, Dmitri Nokolajevski on drums and Nikita Grushev Pirn on alto sax and trumpet.
I can't promise they'll be as hot as the Melvin-Barshay-Tafenau trio, but if it's at No99 it's sure to be good.

Teater No99 Jazz Club
Friday nights
in the basement bar
Sakala 3, Kesklinn
Info: www.estjazz.ee