Latvian Radio Big Band Lithe And Regal In Riga

State-funded powerhouse at the Spikeri Concert Hall

Latvian Radio Big Band (photo by Kaspars Balamovskis)
Latvian Radio Big Band (photo by Kaspars Balamovskis)

Next to the Daugava river in Riga, an old warehouse has been transformed into one of the city’s most innovative new music spaces. And for two nights, the Spikeri Concert Hall was transformed again, into a giant live room recording studio for a session from the Latvian Radio Big Band.

It was an intimate performance in many ways. Not only was the audience small – the 100 tickets for each show were in such demand that they were allocated by lottery – but the band themselves played entirely without amplification. Listening to the instruments without the adulteration of a sound system was a really liberating experience, and one that brought the audience much closer to the music in an emotional sense. In such close quarters, the feel of the massed horns takes on a physical quality as well as a musical one, though with the occasional downside of the soloists becoming drowned in sound in some of the more hectic moments.

The Big Band was as tight as you’d expect from a state-funded ensemble – not that that makes it any less impressive. The band’s line-up represents a distillation of the country’s varied jazz scene, with the sax section especially acting as a who’s-who of Latvia’s premier players. There were also special guests in the form of Gints Pabērzs on soprano sax, Lithuanian trombonist Jievaras Jasinskis and Atis Andersons, whose Hammond playing was a delight throughout, his solos adding a classic bluesy hue to proceedings.

The programme of the evening was a set composed by the Big Band’s musical director, tenor saxophonist Kārlis Vanags, entitled Identitātes (Identities). The most striking element was Vanags’ use of contrast. While there were nods to big band’s swing origins, it was the unexpected juxtapositions that pricked the ears the most. In some places, shrill horn blasts pepper sumptuous sustained piano glissandi; in others, wordless vocals seamlessly blend into full-spread trumpet chords. In ‘Jaunā Dzīvība’ (New Life), quiet clouds of layered polyrhythmic sound provided an impressionist backdrop to Rihards Goba’s Santana-like guitar solo. And then, out of nowhere, we’re treated to a simple, elegant solo piano piece in the shape of ‘Iekšējā Balss’ (Inner Voice). The concert ended on one of those big bold pieces that’s just perfect for a 1970s cop movie, complete with wah guitar and a grooving organ trio section to top it off. With the repertoire constantly chopping and changing and catching the listener off-guard, Vanags’ compositional through-line meant that the concert had a conceptual unity that elevated it from a fun big band gig to an accomplished artistic showcase.

The performance was to provide a live recording to become the band’s forthcoming album, to be released on up-and-coming Latvian jazz label Jersika Records. It was live in every sense, too: the whole concert was mixed onto two-track tape as it was performed for a fully analogue experience; with no editing possible after the fact, there’s no hiding place. And they rose to it: it was mercifully free of tedious retakes. Having performed (and recorded) the same concert two nights in a row, there was no need to hang on the audience’s patience by playing the same pieces over and over.

Along with the intimate venue, it all created a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for all involved – perfect for a live recording – and together with the top-notch performances and forward-thinking composition and concept, this was a very special show. Keep your eyes out for the album’s release in the late spring.


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