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Back Roads Beat

The 2005 Keitelejazz Festival in Äänekoski, Finland

By Published: September 2, 2005
The vocals were fun-spirited and well-harmonized, but with too much digital processing that was a distraction rather than an enhancement. As is often the case, dialing the all-out beats and tempo down a notch made for some of the more artistic moments, including an a cappella and elaborate dance routine involving scarf waving on a traditional folk piece. Ronkanen said such songs came from a region where the culture was a blend of eastern Finland and Russian influences, standing apart from much of the country.

"Earlier they had to play their own language," he said. "They had their own dialect. They had lots of funny words. We didn't understand them."

Other songs ranged from what I noted as "Afro-Cuban derivative beats" to flat-out four- beat discotech rock, but rose a step above typical pop fodder thanks to a good range of eclectic instrumentation infusing Scandinavian folk flavor into mix.

Given my lack of perspective, the following insight (albeit a bit flattering, perhaps) comes from an audience member identifying him/herself as Kukkaistyttö in a message to the band posted at their Web site:

"I've never really listened to Värttinä, but I loved the show, such good musicians and performers! The crowd and venue must've been a lot smaller than what the group have been used to performing on, though...Props for Jaakko (Lukkarinen), the drummer, for an amazing solo (and for being so damn cute). Good drummers on stage this year, as Dave Weckl performed the next evening! It seemed to me a lot of people left before the end of the show, perhaps due to the really cold summer night. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was still so nice and a lot of people warmed up by dancing at the front."

A jam-packed finale

Jazz may have been sparse during the first few days, but covered a lot of ground during the final hours.

Beginning with a repeat appearance by Tapio Leino's traditional band and ending with Weckl's ultra-modern fusion from a just-released album were perfect bookends for a day when everything else was heard in-between. Standards with ethnic folk twists, progressive standards and elaborate long-form compositions with heavy freeform/experimental flavors all got their moments and most scored in positive territory.

Downtown took on extra life as pickup basketball games around temporary hoops, an antique cars display, vendors selling giant pancakes and an accordion ensemble playing folk tunes contributed to a street fair atmosphere. Ronkanen said Saturday is the busiest day of the festival, although the "extras" aren't an official part. Among them was a sing- along family concert in the main concert tent which, at least from its name (Jazzteltta), appeared to incorporate jazz elements, but since it was one of the rare times two concerts were playing at once I missed it.

Leino's noontime set of standards on the city park stage was followed by Pasi K. And Hurmos, a world/folk sextet edging into classic rock (Pasi Kuivalanien's lead vocals sounding like a Finnish "Johnny B. Goode") and jazz (a twisted "Take The 'A' Train with a start-stop Rhumba cadence and Hannu Oskala's lead accordion). It was more an adventure in sound than raw musical talent, with noteworthy color from mandolin player Riku Kettunen and guitarist Valtteri Bruun, serving also as the day's most "Finnish" experience.

Some of the festival's best music, especially for those seeking cutting-edge Scandinavian jazz, came during the equivalent of a boxing undercard match - an early evening performance in the town hall building before a relatively small audience.

The Ilmiliekki Quartet formed in 2002, won the Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition that year and was selected Young Artist of the Year 2004 by Finland Festivals. The Keitelejazz concert was a mix of evolving originals and arrangements without many boundaries, going from soundtrack lyricism to clashing off-beat nu-jazz. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola's lead voice did a mix-and-match of everything - long notes and short bursts; harmonious and discordant; classic and modernistic phrasing - with a similar quality to the tension-and-release passages from others.

Pianist Tuomo Prattaln generally opened pieces with a light and accessible touch, but frequently collaborated with drummer Olavi Lounivuouri building up densely chorded rumbling passages under Pohjola's solos. Prattaln also added a few avant-garde sonic flourishes, reaching inside the piano to generate some plucks and squeaks directly from the strings on one original near the end. Lounivuouri's playing was heavy on cymbals and snares, often on brushes to accomplish maximum density without overwhelming the room's acoustic limitations. Bassist Antti Lothjonen offered solid and focused support, but had noticeable moments such as the playful thudding undertone he interjected into their closing composition. The most subdued piece, oddly enough, may have been the minimally delicate treatment of Ornette Coleman's "What Reason Could I Give" as the encore.

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