and the New Wind Orchestra
by Howard Lawes
Kristjan Randalu was born in the Baltic republic of Estonia when it was part of the USSR. His parents were both professional pianists and music was a way of life for both the Randalus in particular and the Estonian people in general. If anyone were to doubt the importance of music to the people of Estonia they should perhaps check out an event called Laulupidu which takes place every five years, the last one being in 2019. This festival of song is the largest choral event in the world and is classified by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The first festival in 1869 formed part of an awakening of Estonian national pride and a commitment to self-government although Estonia didn't become truly and finally independent until 1991. We can experience a taste of the festival from 2019 here.
Picture courtesy of Kristjan Randalu
The picture above shows 3-year-old Kristjan walking with his father on their way to Pühajärve school where Kristjan's father, Kalle used to practice playing the piano in the summer months. Kristjan remembers the warm Estonian summers, the smell of hot asphalt on the road, meadows, small farms with barns, and rowing a boat on the lake with the family. Talking to Kristjan Randalu by telephone he also mentioned songs that he remembers being sung by children on television shows. Kalle Randalu's practice paid off because in 1981 he won the Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau, Germany. In 1982 he won 4th prize in the Tschaikowsky Competition in Moscow, and in 1985 he won the first prize in the ARD (German National Broadcasting) Competition in Munich, Germany. Following the birth of Kristjan's sister, Liisa, the Randalu family left Estonia and moved to Germany where Kalle joined the Staatliche Hochschule for Musik (Conservatory of Music) in Karlsruhe as a teacher, subsequently becoming a Professor. It was almost inevitable that both Kristjan and Liisa, living in such a musical home, would also become musicians.
With independence in 1991, Estonia embarked on a new era but it took some time for the cultural life of the country to become re-established and in the meantime, a significant number of Estonian musicians worked overseas. The Randalus stayed In Germany and Kristjan Randalu had to learn to speak German, make new friends, and study predominantly classical music, but at the age of thirteen he heard Chick Corea's Inside Out and discovered jazz. Subsequently, he won a jazz piano competition with the prize being tuition from the outstanding British jazz pianist John Taylor in Cologne. Although he might have preferred to go to university in Cologne he actually joined HMDK Stuttgart in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a pre-eminent conservatoire that includes a long-established Institute for Jazz and Pop among a wide range of faculties.
Following graduation in 2003, with a Master's degree in Jazz, Kristjan spent time in London at the Royal Academy of Music; in America at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles. He enjoyed learning from jazz icons such as Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Geoffery Keezer and Kenny Barron. In 2007, while living and working in New York and Europe, Kristjan Randalu was awarded the prestigious Baden-eWurttemberg Jazz Award, awarded every year since 1985 by an independent jury and given to artists who are no older than 35 years and who have made a significant contribution to the Baden-Wuerttemberg jazz scene. In due course he moved back to Europe, first living in Berlin and Barcelona but eventually returning to Estonia with his wife where he has a country house well away from the distractions of modern city life.
In 2011 Kristjan was in London again for a musical event at Kings Place called ‘Eesti Fest’, an event linked to Tallinn's (with Finnish city Turku) designation as European Capital of Culture. The event in London was curated by BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington. Kristjan Randalu's performance on solo piano was reviewed for London Jazz News with the reviewer being fascinated by Randalu's personality and heritage and remarking that "there is clearly a steadily growing and individual voice here. I'd be fascinated to hear him next in a context requiring interaction with other musicians, and see the sparks really fly". With Kristjan’s new album Sisu, the reviewer's wish has come true as Randalu performs with the New Wind Jazz Orchestra.
Here is the video trailer for the album.
In 2012 Kristjan won the award for Jazz Album of the Year at the Estonian Annual Music Awards for the album Kooskõla (2012) together with singer and guitarist Vaiko Eplik. This followed the Elion Jazz Award in 2011 and was followed by a Music Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia in 2014, then in 2018 the prize for the Jazz Composer of the Year in Estonia following the release of the album Absence on ECM records. Sisu, Kristjan's first album as leader features guitarist Ben Monder and Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari and reviewers have noted the inspiration from both the weather (one of the tracks is entitled Partly Clouded) and his Estonian heritage, but it is the plaintive lament of the title track which is perhaps the most evocative.
Listen to the title track here.
Sisu (meaning ‘content’ or ‘substance’ in Estonian and ‘inner strength’ in Finnish) is something of a quantum leap for Kristjan Randalu, leading a big band for the first time. The big band in question is called the New Wind Jazz Orchestra and is formed by young Estonian jazz musicians seeking to establish themselves as a premier big band in Estonia. The personnel are Aleksander Paal, Allan Kaljaste (alto sax), Markus Eermann, Tobias Tammearu (tenor sax), Martin Kuusk (bbaritone sax), Ingvar Leerimaa, Artur Kiik, Andrus Karjel (trombone), Johannes Kiik (bass trombone), Vallo Mänd, Allan Järve, Jason Hunter, Samuel Jalakas (trumpet), Mihkel Mälgand (bass) and Karl-Juhan Laanesaar (drums). Ingrid Jensen (trumpet) and Ben Monder (guitar) are guest soloists on tracks 1 and 3 respectively. The band is conducted by Wolf Kerschek while the album has been mixed by Klaus Genuit and produced by Kristjan Randalu, Lauri Kadalipp and Wolf Kerschek. Being the first time that Kristjan Randalu has produced a big jazz band recording he pays tribute to the enormous help and assistance he has received from his fellow producers and to the skill of the mixing and mastering engineers.
The tracks on the album, unless otherwise stated, are all composed and re-arranged for big band by Kristjan who chose most of the tracks on the album from his back catalogue, re-arranging them for a big band. The music is certainly a varied selection featuring compositions from when he returned to Europe until the last day of 2019. Youtube shows some performances by the New Wind Jazz Orchestra as early as 2020 but the pandemic did take its toll and the album wasn't actually recorded until August 2021. In fact, the pandemic provided Kristjan Randalu with extra time to perfect his arrangements and get organised for the recording studio. The earliest music featured on the album, first recorded for the album Enter Denter, is inspired by children's songs, originally from a TV programme called Entel-Tentel that Kristjan remembers from his childhood. Spielchen und Rechenschaft, from the same album, was part of an innovative orchestral piece combining classical music with an un-scored piano part in the jazz idiom. Two other tracks that were originally songs are included, perhaps as a nod toward the Estonian love of song while Lünk and Valse Hésitante, originally composed as a double concerto for his father (piano) and sister (viola) in a modern, classical style are beautifully re-arranged for big band.
When it comes down to it the important thing for the listener is how good the music is, but jazz has always been passionate and thoughtful and so the context and back-story here have greater significance. European jazz musicians have become adept at adjusting a great African-American art form with inspiration from their own history and culture and in this album Kristjan Randalu shows just how it's done. Kristjan has already demonstrated his talent for both jazz and classical composition and musicianship and now can be added arrangement for large ensemble. Randalu has purposely avoided including swing and blues in his arrangements thus bringing the jazz orchestra repertoire right up to date. The New Wind Jazz Orchestra chose Kristjan Randalu to provide them with varied and challenging music, they have certainly got what they asked for and they have more than risen to the challenge of performing it to a very high standard.
Kristian Randalu’s website is here. Information about the album Sisu is here and there is more about the New Wind Jazz Orchestra here.