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No snarls here
18 Apr 2017 Otepää Slim
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The concept of a most pleasant recent recording arose when the Estonian software development company Aktors was brainstorming how to mark the outfit’s 10 years in business as of 2016. Aktors chose to celebrate this birthday with a musical collaboration. They approached some of Estonia’s leading jazz musicians, leading to the release last year of a quite interesting CD where two totally disparate musical genres were wedded to successful effect.

The recording Estonian Jazz Meets Opera reached the slimster and the first reaction was: can this work? Jazz is up this hepcat’s alley, opera much less; though he do like the buxom divas, to be honest. Having lived long enough to develop tolerance for almost any musical style except rap, emo and house, opera is sometimes on the slender one’s car radio, especially when the incomparable Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner hosts his show “Backstage” on Sirius or CBC. Usually, however, for relaxation it is jazz, at home, horizontal on the divine divan.

Cultural osmosis means that most everyone recognizes the melody of Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” from the opera Rigoletto. Love that title – woman is fickle! Hence that was the first cut on the CD that was chosen for a test-listen, to see if the Ain Agan-led project had wings. Agan, for those living in a cave, is one of Estonia’s leading guitarists, record producers and composers. He was chosen by Aktors to bring this idea to fruition. Good idea to ask one of the founders of Estonia’s Dream Big Band, whose playing matches their name.

Well, guess what? It works. Definitely jazz, most assuredly Verdi’s melody. Perky finger-snapping stuff. Don’t do much of that at the Met, do they? Next choice: the famous “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Bang-on again. Can’t deny that it is Bizet’s classic, and it most certainly is good jazz. Mozart’s Overture from La nozze di Figaro? Three home runs in a row.

Much of this has to do with the amazing musicians Agan has brought together. Truly talented improvisers mesh here exquisitely. Clarinetist Meelis Vind is a long-time favourite as is bassist Mihkel Mälgand. Tenor sax man Lembit Saarsalu shines not only playing, but in his arrangements of Bizet and Verdi. Pianist Joel-Rasmus Remmel arranged the bulk of this hybrid curiosity with panache and flair. Alto saxophonist Aleksander Paal is responsible for setting the Mozart and Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan and Isolde into modern mode. Serious opera, folks, serious jazz!

The tight band is rounded out by Allan Järve on trumpet and flugelhorn, capably backed by drummer Ahto Abner.

Many of the cuts were unfamiliar, by Estonian composers. One suspects that they were not all true opera selections, as the mellowest selection on the disc is actually for solo classical piano, Schumann’s “Träumerei”. And was the result even jazz? But why be picky? This is an original idea, carried out with more than aplomb, and technically the sound is clean and pure.

That is the beauty of music. When a marriage of original ideas works the aural pleasure, no matter the genres blended, is undeniable. That is why we sing, play, improvise and listen, to let our hair down and simply be.

Aktors note this in their (unaccredited) liner notes, drawing attention to the cover art of the CD sleeve, by Kaidi Kaasik. The design was inspired by the tangle of cables characteristic of the IT world as well as by the virvarr, hustle-bustle of the modern world. Estonian Jazz Meets Opera was created in – and with - the hope of that while enjoying this interesting merger of two distinct musical forms of expression the listener could truly go unplugged, straighten out tangles. This project certainly achieves that goal. Bravo, as they say at the Opera House, a rousing hand from the jazz audience.