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Blast of Finnish jazz staves off winter

By Wif Stenger, October 2012

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasFinnish jazz festivals, Tampere Jazz Happening, DIG Festival, Kansi Auki Piano Jazz Festival, Helsinki, Finland, London, Black Motor, Ravi Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Verneri Pohjola, Iiro RantalaVerneri Pohjola (trumpet) guest-stars at a recent Tampere gig with Black Motor, which includes Ville Rauhala (bass) and Sami Sippola (sax). Pohjola and Black Motor appear separately at the London Jazz Festival.

In Finland and England, exhilarating constellations of Finnish jazz talent pump up four November festivals.

A cluster of ornate, century-old, red-brick buildings hosts some of the newest sounds during the 30th-anniversary edition of Tampere Jazz Happening from November 1 to 4, 2012.

Since 1982, the festival has featured a who’s-who of the experimental edge of American, European and African improvised music, as well as more mainstream players such as guitarist John Scofield, who returns this year after two decades.

One of the leading lights of this festival is John Coltrane. At least half a dozen of his collaborators have appeared here, as has his son Ravi Coltrane – twice. Another guiding spirit is legendary Finnish drummer and composer Edward Vesala (1945–99), whose bands spawned many future avant-garde trailblazers.

In 2011, more than 10,000 people gathered in Tampere to hear 140 musicians from 15 countries, with some events broadcast on BBC Radio 3. These included a show and interview with Finnish-American guitarist Raoul Björkenheim. A Vesala alumnus, he performed at the first Happening back in 1982 and has visited at least ten times since, often hosting the final jam session. This year he’ll attend as a listener after wrapping up a tour with his band Ecstasy.

“Tampere Jazz Happening has always been the place to hear the best music, with improvisation being the main theme,” says Björkenheim. “Some of my most memorable listening experiences have happened there. The vibe is very chill, spontaneous, reflecting the character of the music itself.”

As for this year’s lineup, Björkenheim says, “Black Motor with saxophonist Mikko Innanen is on my must-see list, as is German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet.”

Worldly blend of musicians

Photo: Anna TahkolaFinnish jazz festivals, Tampere Jazz Happening, DIG Festival, Kansi Auki Piano Jazz Festival, Helsinki, Finland, London, Black Motor, Ravi Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Verneri Pohjola, Iiro Rantala
The band called Mopo (which actually means “moped”) features the astonishing baritone saxophone of Linda Fredriksson.

Also looking forward to Brötzmann’s band is Black Motor drummer Simo Laihonen. Though Black Motor may sound like the name of a heavy metal band, they play mostly free jazz. The Tampere locals have already played the Jazz Happening twice, most recently with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola.

“Our members have also participated a few times in the outdoor acoustic jam session that opens the festival,” he says. So what keeps them coming back?

“The festival has kept its small size and high-quality programming with varied styles,” says Laihonen. “It’s the biggest festival in Finland for improvised music and free jazz. They also always include some world music – a lot of Jamaican and African – and good local bands.”

“This year there are lots of fresh Finnish acts like Rakka, which has the same bassist as Black Motor.” Laihonen himself is playing back-to-back shows with Black Motor and reedman Jorma Tapio, a mainstay of Vesala’s band. Prefer jazz on the more playful side? Check out the trio Mopo, featuring the astonishing baritone saxophone of Linda Fredriksson. They’re on the same bill with Rakka and Fredator, led by drummer Jussi Fredriksson (no relation), who has been known to perform wearing a reptile costume complete with tail. These domestic acts play in the restaurant Telakka, a cosy venue that suffers from overcrowding.

There’s cosmopolitan flavour with musicians from Lebanon, Japan and Serbia as well as this year’s biggest name, Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. He recently swept the Downbeat Critics Poll, including the best artist and best album categories. Iyer has combined South Asian sounds with his own straight-ahead jazz, influenced by giants such as Cecil Taylor – another Coltrane sideman and Tampere guest.

Helsinki and London call

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasFinnish jazz festivals, Tampere Jazz Happening, DIG Festival, Kansi Auki Piano Jazz Festival, Helsinki, Finland, London, Black Motor, Ravi Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Verneri Pohjola, Iiro Rantala
Drummer Sami Laihonen plays Tampere Jazz Happening with Black Motor before he and the rest of the band head to London.

Immediately after Tampere, the focus shifts to the Helsinki Music Centre for the Sibelius Academy’s more staid DIG Festival from November 5 to 7. It stars saxman Wayne Shorter, who shaped jazz history with Miles Davis and Weather Report. The rest of the line-up is domestic, including a Tampere repeat, Innanen, this time with a digital duo project. There’s also the new Jukka Eskola Orquestra Bossa, featuring two-fifths of the Five Corners Quintet plus warm-toned guitarist Peter Engberg and a string quartet.

Two days later there’s Finnish Jazz at the London Jazz Festival from November 9 to 17, compiled by the Tampere festival’s former director.

Here, too, you can hear Black Motor and Rakka, as well as Verneri Pohjola. His brother Ilmari Pohjola appears with the six-man Oddarrang, who are featured on BBC Radio 3 on November 10.

Like John Coltrane’s widow Alice, Iro Haarla is a keyboardist, harpist and composer who has extended the music of her trailblazing late husband while adding something distinctly her own. In Haarla’s case the husband was Edward Vesala. Besides leading her own band in London, Haarla also plays a set with veteran saxophonist and flautist Juhani Aaltonen, yet another Vesala cohort.

Appearing at the main London Jazz Fest is pianist Iiro Rantala, whose new album takes on Bach, Gershwin, Weill and Monk. He’s better known at home for his TV show and soundtracks to successful kiddie movies. He also serves as the artistic director of Kansi Auki Piano Jazz Festival, featuring musicians from Finland, Armenia, Austria, Poland and Sweden, not to mention lectures entitled “Quality Food,” “Quality Time” and “Quality Being,” from November 15 to 18 in Helsinki.

See also on thisisFINLAND:

Finnish soul-jazz supergroup rules


Tampere Jazz Happening, November 1–4
DIG Festival, Helsinki Music Centre, November 5–7
Helsinki Music Centre
London Jazz Festival, November 9–18
Kansi Auki Piano Jazz Festival, Helsinki, November 15–18


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