By Wif Stenger, September 2014
The Finnish Jazz Federation is hosting the European Jazz Conference from September 18 to 21, 2014. At the same time, it’s holding the Jazz Finland Festival to show off the blossoming local scene to journalists, festival organisers and label managers from as far afield as Australia, Malaysia, Japan and the US.
So what can they expect to hear? There’s no single answer.
“Most Finnish jazz musicians who are active abroad have distinctive personalities and strong profiles,” says producer Charles Gil. “So it sounds as diverse as the kaleidoscope of all these distinctive personalities. The 20 showcase concerts will present some aspects of this diversity, but there could be easily 20 more to get it more complete.”
“I’m not sure there’s any clear sound or style of Finnish jazz,” says Nina Mya, the only Finnish singer among the showcase acts at Jazz Finland Festival. “People acknowledge that musicianship here is at a very high level and we have great education. But we have so many different styles, from soul-jazz to a more Scandinavian sound. Diversity is the most interesting part of the scene.”
After decades of relative isolation, Finnish jazz is becoming more cosmopolitan. Musicians based in London, Berlin and New York are bringing fresh ideas back home.
Finland is no longer just an exporter of artists, but also a place to come to live and play – at least from other easterly parts of Europe. Domestic bands at the festival feature musicians from Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia and Greece – and the Finnish band in the festival’s Young Nordic Jazz Comets concert has a Romanian singer.
One of those importing fresh breezes from abroad is producer and concert impresario Gil. Since the mid-1990s, he has guided a musical dialogue between Finland and his native France and the rest of the continent, including booking avant-garde and experimental artists for the annual Pori Jazz Festival on the Finnish west coast.
Gil, who is speaking at the seminar, is optimistic that inviting more than 200 foreign movers and shakers to Helsinki will help local acts get more exposure and gigs.
“Equivalent events in previous years have done just that,” notes festival producer Lauri Laurila. “Jazz Finland is bigger than its predecessors and the largest export event for Finnish jazz ever. So we believe there’ll be some serious consequences for Suomijazz [Suomi is the Finnish word for ‘Finland’], in the most positive way.”
Taking a more pessimistic view is pianist Iiro Rantala, who has toured the world for 25 years, since his days with Trio Töykeät.
“I don’t believe in showcase gigs,” he says. “I believe in individual hard work in music. That will always stick out. These kinds of gatherings are more important for the organisers than the musicians.
“Anyway, ‘Finnish jazz musician’ is not a trade mark,” he adds. “You can just as well drop the ‘Finnish.’ People are either interested in the music or not. After they’re interested, they’re curious about where the musician is from.”
Rantala, who recently performed in Helsinki with Weather Report cofounder Miroslav Vitouš, plays a prefestival “warm-up show” with another Weather Report alumnus, drummer Peter Erskine, at Koko Jazz Club on September 17.
Such visits and collaborations have become more common. In recent months, Helsinki bands have released albums with veteran American musicians Dave Liebman, Wadada Leo Smith and Lenny Pickett.
“The scene has become more international, with more circulation of musicians from abroad and vice versa,” says Gil. “The musical palette has broadened, with musicians navigating between genres.”
For instance, one of the festival veterans, wild-edged guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, has lived in the US for many years, teaming up with kindred spirits from the rock, jazz and classical worlds.
Just back from a stint in New York, singer Nina Mya, 24, sees a bright new spirit in Finnish jazz.
“The scene has changed a lot since I started six years ago,” she says. “Nowadays young musicians are braver and more positive in bringing their music to the public, marketing themselves and going international.”
Rantala, though, sees room for improvement, saying, “Finns can play brilliantly but they lack in communication and marketing.”
With luck, the conference seminars will provide pointers that address Rantala’s concerns, while the showcase festival concerts will prove Mya’s positive attitude right.
Finnish jazz festivals, autumn 2014
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