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The first thing a visitor to Riga, Latvia notices is the architecture: old-school structures meet the march of modernity. It is a place with deep roots, as much for its role as the largest city in the Baltic States as its seaport location - trade, industry and culture collide sweetly.

Within this setting the Rigas Ritmi ("Riga's Rhythms") jazz festival takes place. It is a modest affair compared to the activities of Europe's notable big guns - Northsea, Umbria, Molde, London and Barcelona, among others - yet it makes its mark convincingly. Having achieved its independence from Soviet rule in 1991, Riga continues to forge an identity that celebrates freedom. Jazz is a music that serves the story line well, as does the festival's other mix of musics, all with a world bent, enacted by artists from surrounding cultures. The city's standing is such that in 2014 it will be named European Capital of Culture, reinforcing its role as a hub of artistic activities.

The festival's director is a drummer named Maris Briezkalns. He alone waves high jazz's banner, in part by developing and showcasing local talent deserving of wider recognition. For this year's fest he invited a panel of jazz authorities to assess and evaluate Riga's crop of emerging artists. The assembled gatekeepers were drawn from territories as diverse as Israel, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and the US. I was among them.

Of all the new artists I met, the one who captured my imagination most was Laima Jansone, a quietly charismatic woman who plays the kokle, a traditional Latvian instrument resembling a zither. She performed with acoustic bass and drums, strumming and improvising in a three-way exchange that resonated with mesmerizing grace. Her approach underscored an inevitable melding of world elements - the hybridization and hyphenation of jazz.

Coupled with the more established performers I heard - Buika, diva vocalist from Spain; Astillero, tango modernists from Argentina; and Victor Bailey, electric bass monster from the States - the festival's aim was true. It organized a global view of jazz that expands the definition of the term.


Following my stay in Latvia I made my way to Krakow, Poland. The jazz fest there embraces a different concept. It is masterminded by Witold Wnuk, a jazz devotee who has been presenting in Poland for more than 40 years. His interests are less about the globalization of jazz than showcasing significant American and Polish artists with established jazz credentials. He favors a month-long festival, appealing to audiences that are fiercely attentive. The city boasts a large fan base (perhaps second only to Warsaw) and those supporters really love jazz.

Krakow is the center of continental Europe. Like Riga it is rich in history, including a past that links it to the Holocaust and Nazi activity during World War II. To the west, a mere 50 kilometers away, stands the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It looms large, in ways that are impossible to explicate; my visit was a return-to-roots expedition, a guarantee that I will never forget.

Though Krakow endured unspeakable terrorism during the war, it did not get bombed. As a result it is intact with buildings and squares and cobblestone streets that evince a time long gone - as if the black and white photographs of my grandparents and their parents suddenly came to life in technicolor. In fact, an affirmative energy prevails, an inextinguishable life force that surrounds all. Like in Riga, jazz fits the schematic well.

One of the fest's primary venues is a cavernous club named Piwnica Pod Baranami. It is a celebrated cellar dating back centuries; as a jazz room it has been operational since 1956. It reminded me of my beloved Village Vanguard. (Though the Vanguard is 20 years older!)  In this Krakow haunt I heard two artists who have stayed with me: Rafal Rokicki, a pianist who transformed short kernels of thought into thunderous declamations, in lock step with his trio mates; and Adam Kawonczyk, a trumpeter who spun memorable lines placed somewhere between hard bop and free jazz.

Their music complemented smartly with the programming that featured American artists in other venues: Randy Brecker, Richard Bona, Kurt Rosenwinkel, John Scofield and the Brooklyn Jazz Essentials. (In numerous conversations Brecker has said that Krakow is among the most satisfying places to play in Europe.)

The sum effect of these visits transcends the platitude that jazz is alive and well and living in Europe.
In truth, the message of jazz taking root, speaking to peoples far and wide, is layered with both nuance and overt meaning. For better than a century jazz has proven itself the sound of freedom. It remains a powerful voice.


Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

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