Kristjan Randalu belongs to the most sought-after piano players of his generation, carrying the torch in both the improvised world of jazz and the traditional realm of classical music – Herbie Hancock, the piano master himself, considering him “a dazzling piano player”. Between creating his own original blend of contemporary jazz as a leader and collaborating with several generations of respected musicians, from the likes of fellow ECM recording artist Trygve Seim to saxophonist David Liebman, Randalu has brought his music to some of the world’s most renowned jazz festivals and concert halls. At the same time, he is viewed as an esteemed interpreter of a broad spectrum of contemporary and classical music, performing alongside internationally acclaimed orchestras and conductors.
Born in Estonia’s capital Tallinn to pianist parents in 1978, Randalu and his family soon moved to Germany where he began studying piano in Karlsruhe and Cologne before graduating from the Stuttgart Music University with a Master’s degree. His studies would later bring him to the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as the Manhattan School of Music, exposing him to respected teachers such as John Taylor, Django Bates and Kenny Barron, among many others.
Over the years, Randalu has performed with countless top tier musicians and collaborated with modern day vanguards in jazz and beyond, from oudist Dhafer Youssef, drum virtuoso Ari Hoenig and trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvær to the likes of Nguyên Lê, Christian McBride and Gilad Hekselman, to name but a few in a long list of household names. His 2018 recording Absence (featuring guitar marvel Ben Monder and drummer Markku Ounaskari) represents Randalu’s leader debut for the famed ECM label and was met with great acclaim – Jazzwise magazine praising the “meteorological moodiness” of the music on the album for being “at once passionate and studied”, while DownBeat magazine goes as far as calling him “a pillar of stability” and “clearly capable of breathtaking displays of technique and showmanship”.
He frequently works beside drummer Bodek Janke and bassist Petros Klampanis, while his recent outing, Mussorgsky Pictures Revisited (BMC Records), saw him recasting Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s model example of program music with saxophone legend David Liebman – clearly revealing Randalu’s deep ties to classical music in a virtuoso display that gained him mention in The New York City Jazz Record’s “Best of 2020” list.
As a composer, Randalu refers to Erkki-Sven Tüür and Tõnu Kõrvits being among his mentors, which accounts for his discerning approach to form and harmonic structure. Precise delivery and expressive playing are among his many virtues and in-demand qualities in classical settings, too – having brought him to celebrity conductors like Kristjan Järvi and Dennis Russell Davies on the one hand and esteemed ensembles of the stature of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra on the other.
With a discography of over 40 albums under his belt (including a Grammy-nominated recording) and numerous awards to his name (including “Jazz Artist of the Year” and “Jazz Composer of the year” in Estonia), Randalu’s prolific oeuvre continues to grow in breadth and quality as his unique voice is becoming internationally more and more important.
KRISTJAN RANDALU Biography
If I had to describe Kristjan Randalu in a single word I might choose "precision". I don’t mean a clinical precision where an audience might be dazzled by technique while the emotions are left unstirred. I mean an uncompromising determination to get to the heart of musical expression using a sublime technique to reach his goal. He doesn’t come across as a flamboyant showman – although he could. He doesn’t play to the crowd. Rather he exudes a poised, quietly confident and honest personality which, somehow, draws the audience in and compels them to listen. It feels like an open invitation to an "unnameable exotic land" (Jazz Times).
Where does this quiet determination come from? Randalu was born in Estonia in 1978. His family moved to Germany when he was a child, he studied there (with Paul Schwarz in Stuttgart, and with John Taylor in Cologne) and went on to study in London (The Royal Academy of Music and Django Bates) and in New York (a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music). But I’m looking at some photos of a cherished creative space, away from the noise and pace of the city, somewhere he simply calls “a place in the woods”. Snow piled high, winter sun finding its way through the trees, and inside the wooden cabin, a piano. The most important task is bringing home wood for the fire. That’s a long way from soundscape of New York City, the thrill of performing in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for example! And, yes, it’s back in Estonia.
While the peace and solitude affords him the space to play and compose, it also gives him the opportunity to sift through, to reflect on, and be inspired by, his many high profile concerts, tours and collaborations. There are programmes from the Berlin Konzerthaus, from North Sea Jazz, from festivals in London, Paris, Montreux, Istanbul and Oslo, memories of tours to Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, Boston, Turkey, Korea, Egypt and Israel. He talks to me about some of the musicians who inspire him, or musicians he’s worked with such as the saxophonist Dave Liebman for his energy and intensity, drummer Ari Hoenig’s polyrhythmic musical world and his constant interaction in improvisation, guitarist Ben Monder’s sense of structure, his quest for unique and individual creative solutions. Randalu’s studied composition with Daniel Schnyder and Jaan Rääts. He can count Erkki-Sven Tüür and Tõnu Kõrvits among his mentors. Add more names to his list of musical partners: Eivind Aarset, Mark Guiliana, Dieter Ilg, Marilyn Mazur, Vince Mendoza, Nils Petter Molvaer, Nguyên Lê, Claudio Puntin, Trygve Seim, Dhafer Youssef, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the New Chamber Orchestra of Berlin, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies, Paavo Järvi, Kristjan Järvi and Maria Schneider. Kristjan Randalu is undoubtedly a key figure in contemporary music admired both as a soloist and composer and also for the unique contributions he brings as a team player.
Estonia has shown the world it has many musical riches to offer in contemporary music, experimental, classical, jazz and traditional music. Somehow Randalu has taken much of this palette on board, not just from his homeland, but also from all the international musical spheres where he’s worked, and then found his own way in, creating in his work something very individual, something very strong and passionate, always focussed and demanding much of himself.
So often in his music the worlds of jazz and classical music unite, for example his piece Nach dem Anfang vom Ende (After the beginning of the end) for piano and chamber orchestra, a classical orchestral score whose framework allows the soloist the freedom to improvise. His duo partnership over 20 years with the percussionist Bodek Janke shows a real wit and humour as in his arrangement of the Largo from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, but it never loses respect for or a sensibility of the original.
Although he says that, as a child, he tried to rebel against the typical classical piano lessons routine and practice, (viewing learning the drums as a possible escape route), he has a real affinity and respect for a number of classical composers: Prokofiev for his strength and ruthless energy, the captivating darkness of Shostakovich, Liszt’s relentless exploration of the piano’s limitations. Bach (of course) and, the biggest challenge, says Randalu, Mozart, who demands clarity and transparency of every note.
For so many people classical music becomes an entry into perhaps a parallel universe, another world hidden in the same instrument. This, says Kristjan, was true for him too, the contradiction of being exposed to pop and rock music while playing only classical repertoire, needing to form a band, to compose and play his own music. And, move over Bach, there’s another world of listening out there too: Randalu was cottoning on to Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, loving the precision they brought to fusion; Keith Jarrett’s creative flow, finding the strength and determination in the seemingly effortless music of Oscar Peterson, and falling for the lyricism of Bill Evans.
Randalu sets high standards for himself, but has an infectious passion for music which delights audiences and fellow musicians. It’s no surprise then that in the course of his career he has picked up awards and prizes including one which celebrates his close ties with Germany: the Jazz Award of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2007. In 2011 he received the Elion Jazz Award, in 2014 Music Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia and in 2018 the prize for the Jazz Composer of the Year in Estonia. He features on numerous recordings, as soloist and collaborator, which include a Grammy nomination in 2006 and Jazz Album of the Year at the 2012 Estonian Music Awards.
Those Mozartian challenges of clarity and transparency remain qualities Randalu demands of himself, and nowhere is this more evident than in his returning so often to the Estonian songs he remembers from childhood. He may dazzle, entertain and show his command of a wide musical language, but in these children’s songs he shows his creative soul through notes perfectly executed, colours exquisitely painted, engaging the audience in something very simple and yet very necessary. Perfection, pleasure…. and precision.