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Back Roads Beat

The 2005 Keitelejazz Festival in nekoski, Finland

By Published: September 2, 2005
Not many festival directors recommend "competing" events in another town. Or are surprised by a foreigner bypassing the advice and showing up on opening night.



At least one so distinguishable due to a lack of colorfully spiked hair.



But small-town bluntness and surprise appearances by outsiders represent well the quirkiness and quality of the Keitelejazz Jazz Festival in Äänekoski, a town of 14,000 in central Finland. One of the town's main cultural events, it seemingly aims to be all things for its mostly local listeners during its four-day run.



Opening night featured punk/rock under a scenic outdoor riverside tent. Successive nights progressed through adult-oriented rock, blues and - finally, on the last night - a trio of jazz acts including Dave Weckl, Louis Sclavis and John Abercrombie.



Still, they weren't the only options. Opening night also offered what even promoters called "old jazz for old folks" and Sclavis' closing night act included a liberal dose of French rap. Those seeking a taste of the emerging Finnish jazz scene heard one of the country's best new bands during a relatively sparsely attended final day show.



The emphasis on jazz toward the end of the festival is why Pentti Ronkanen, the event's artistic director, recommended spending some of the other days at the Raahen Rantajatsit (translation: Jazz on the Beach; I never made it there) festival about a three-hour drive away. He said the second-to-last Keitelejazz night normally also focuses on jazz, but became more blues oriented when the festival booked one of his favorite musicians, Irish singer Mary Coughlan.



"When we have chosen one band we start to choose others who will work with that band," he said.



The festival sold about 6,000 tickets to various concerts last year. Ronkanen estimates total attendance at all free and paid events is under 10,000. Hundreds of people come from Helsinki and other Finland towns, but there's little interest in trying to draw a bigger crowd.



"We have no plans to make it any bigger," he said. "We like it like this. We don't have to hire workers."



Äänekoski is largely dependent on logging and related industries, although officials say environmental awareness and more modern technology are increasingly areas of focus. The official city Web site also calls it a town of sports and culture ("who has not of our basketball team our success in track and field, especially our javelin throwers?") where fishing and exploring the lake-filled hilly forests are common. On an unfortunate note, it is also the site of Finland's worst road accident, with 22 people killed and 15 injured on March 19, 2004, when a bus carrying mostly students to a skiing holiday collected with a semi-truck that slipped on black ice.



One flier promotes the city as ranking among the most technically advanced (presumably in Finland), but it isn't immediately apparent. Public Internet access is almost nonexistent, offered only at the library and an aging computer at a tiny fast food joint. The town's finest hotel (name translates to "Hotel Elegant") is a antique building with lots of snaking hallways, stairs, basic rooms and no elevator - the modern touches are a TV with a few channels and a minibar. But the town also features rich cultural touches, including a impressive collection of jazz publications and music by both Finnish and international performers.



Ronkanen, who let me use the Internet hookup at his home in a gesture typical of the generosity found among locals, acknowledges Äänekoski is a relatively rural stop for visiting musicians. But he said for many the change of pace is a plus.



"We have no Hiltons, no four-star hotels," he said. But a group of this year's featured jazz musicians spent a small boat tour jumping from the roof into the lake and "I think it's good for the concert if we have them relaxing like that."



Spiked hair or swingin' seniors?



A serious generation gap dilemma presented itself opening night.



Options included old-fashioned standards by the Tapio Leino Swing Band in the modest dining room of the Hotelli Hirvi (a.k.a. the Elegant) or a trio of punk bands under the outdoor tent. Both are roughly a generation distant from me.



Duty and personal taste suggested swing, but going against instincts and trying to blend in with the sizable spiked hair crowd was seriously appealing - until it became clear the intermittent but heavy rain was going to be a threat all night. Maybe that's for the best - general scuttlebutt during the following days was parents probably got the most enjoyment knowing their kids were happy rockers.



At saxophonist Tapio Leino's concert there was something refreshing in the self- deprecating humor among players and listeners about a night of "geezer" jazz. Leino's sextet was competent, and some of the players a bit more, on songs never getting more adventurous than "Georgia On My Mind" and "The Lady Is A Tramp." But Leino, who formed the band 12 years ago and plays gigs roughly every other week, scoreed on an essential point - playing for fun, not to impress audiences in the region whose interest in jazz is limited.



"It is not necessary they play jazz," he said, referring to creating a setting for listeners. "What is important is they can get together and drink and have a good time."



Leino's playing unsurprisingly rated among the group's best, with a husky growl and good pacing giving extra heft to mostly conventional and safe solos. Drummer Kai-Petri Gustafsson also ranked among the "betters," notably for keeping an ear on fellow players and supporting them. Vocalists Ritva Oksanen and Pirkko Rahkila-Rissanen were OK as one or the other performed on most songs, although there were some misses harmonizing with other band members. But the best support and interaction probably came from pianist Eero Vuorinen, who put some outside-the-lines color in both his chords and running right hand solo lines, hardly a surprise since Leino first played with him in 1957.



As a kid, Leino learned songs like "Take The 'A' Train" listening to American music on the radio, similar to many of Finland's jazz pioneers, since "50 years ago there was no possibility to get any sheet music." He said he tries to model his style and sound after Earl Bostic, a rhythm and blues player who peaked during the 1950s.



"John Coltrane learned to play in his band," Leino said. "He had the baddest voice in saxophones that I know."



The festival featured midnight concerts at the town's Irish pub by various groups, including a Russian blues band on opening night and a rock foursome playing Police covers later during the week. I'll confess here I missed all of them, a bad habit of mine given my tendency to try to get up early so I can get writing done. Given that mentality, hitting geezer night may have fit me better than I'd care to admit.



Bits o' jazz here and there



Finding jazz during the festival's middle days was a hit and mostly miss affair.



Downtown Äänekoski is a few blocks of small stores along the main street, with the library and town hall at one end. Walking down a steep hill leads to the concert tent by the river, but just outside the library is the small central park where free concerts played from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. during the final three days of the festival.



The mixture was much the same as the main festival acts - lots of variety with jazz in the minority. The second day acts were all rock, including a group featuring the kids of festival director Vilja Ruokolainen. The extreme hair was still much in evidence, although today it seemed like a few more adults were also sporting the look - if only temporarily using wigs. The bands were loud enough to keep an ear on at the library (which really does have a great in-country jazz collection; thoughts some noteworthy recordings will accompany a separate feature on Finnish artists offering free music downloads) and perusing the used bins at a couple of nearby thrift stores. There was little in the way of jazz to be found on CD, although LP hunters doubtless would have been thrilled to find a number of classic titles on vinyl.



Ronkanen, who is in charge of the library's music department and edits the publication Suomijazz (online version in English at www.suomijazz.com/english.htm, said planning for the festival begins in the fall, with performers available through European booking agencies making up nearly all of the non-regional lineup. That means an American artist like Weckl may be available because of other appearances he is making on the continent, but someone like Nine Simon - maybe the festival's only exception from previous years - is not.



A few internationally known names such as Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Betty Carter and Jean Luc Ponty stand out in past lineups, but most are Scandinavian acts ranging from the relatively high profile Stockholm/Helsinki Funk All Stars to dozens of names known mostly to the locals in their hometowns.



There's an effort to match artists and audiences, such as recognizing early evening shows are more likely to attract more focused listeners, Ronkanen said.



"John Abercrombie deserves a concentrated audience with no noise," he said. "The last band (Weckl) will be a bit different - people will be more relaxed."



There's the usual logistical challenges associated with small festivals such as artist hospitality requests that are difficult or unable to be fulfilled. There's also inevitable conflicts among audience members under a single tent with lots of beer and frankfurters (served without buns in this part of the world before low-carb became a fad) since "there's always somebody not understanding people want to listen."



Friday afternoon's concerts finally broke the rock mold and set the mood for the evening ahead. A jazz group from the 150-student Kavstinen College Of Music 30 miles away was followed by two blues bands, including a Russian band that may have turned in the most lively non-jazz (and non-thrash) performance of the week.



The Lumme-Jazz octet, like many student ensembles, played mostly familiar standards with varying talent. Instructor Jukka Lumme, who coordinated the arrangements and led things on alto sax, proved a good teacher by keeping songs moving smoothly while still giving students room to be free within their abilities - more like a group of teens jamming than a carefully scripted school effort. The final result was probably less accomplished than typical for such a group, but with a looser jazz spirit communicated between both the players and audience.



"It's fun, but really sometimes it's quite hard because the chords are so challenging," said Mikko-Ilari Ojala, 18, also playing alto sax.



He said the college doesn't emphasize jazz, but Lumme formed the band by asking if any students were interested. His primary musical tastes lie elsewhere, perhaps not surprising given the limited opportunities to hear jazz.



"If you're really, really lucky you may find a jazz club in some bar, but it's really rare," he said.



Jimi's Blues Band did a pretty good straightforward R&B set, but the Russian band Da Capo wrapped up the afternoon in loud and high-adrenaline style. The horn-heavy group didn't do one unique or adventuresome thing - just played loud and loose rocking blues with that energy that makes even songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Tequila" fun to listen and jam to.



Friday night's blues were almost quaint in comparison.



The opening concert by Erja Lyytinen, "The Blues Lady Of Finland," was a solid if not spectacular show of mid-to lower-tempo blues often tinged with pop or West Coast cool. Her mid-range vocals were sharp and for the most part level on songs like "I've Got Something To Tell You" and "Change Of Season," but showed good ability to embellish on higher and lower ends at appropriate moments. Her guitar solos were largely of the well- played blues scale variant, with extra flourishes and chordings establishing some final tension. Pianist/keyboardist Toni Kortepohja and guitarist Davide Floreno were notable among the players, with Kortephoja's electric tones painting a good acoustic landscape at times, although a number of the band's solos seemed to be of the riff-and-repeat type.



The subsequent concert by Coughlan, the Irish vocalist, arguably might have been the most import of the festival because of its role in shifting the night's emphasis. From what I heard it was stronger and slightly more subdued than Lyytinen's group, highlighted by Coughlan's deep and emotive vocals on some folk-blues originals.



Sadly, however, I missed much of the concert making a beer run.



Not the typical type, since I don't drink. It involved a mad dash to the hotel for towels and anything else absorbent after someone spilled their drink onto the table with my computer and backpack holding all my possessions for my several months on the road. (My apologies to that person if they're reading this for the brief but profane outburst; it wasn't their fault and such things happen in beer tents - if someone's dumb enough to use a laptop they accept that risk.)



So I caught Coughlan's first few and last few songs, and would rate her concert above average for the genre. Ronkanen gave her strong praise and since he knows her work better than me that'll have to do for critical assessment.



The evening's finale saw a return to Finnish artists, but hardly the blues.



Värttinä, a nine-member world-pop group led by three female vocalists, is described by Ronkanen as "very well-known, very Finnish and very original." The brightly dressed blonde vocal trio of Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen and Johanna Virtanen certainly seems to represent popular European modernism - one was an wearing an iPod for reasons I can't image. It's one of those groups about movement as well as music, with good and lesser moments of each during the show.



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.



Pohjola said he started playing classical music at age 15, but shifted to jazz because "I wanted to do things in more personal ways." He said Finland may not have a huge number of jazz musicians or listeners compared to other music styles, but that doesn't mean diversity is lacking.



"The scene is not big, but it is wide stylewise," he said.



The Keitelejazz performance was different than the clubs and nighttime festival appearances the quartet typically plays, with the small and upscale sun-filled room contributing to a different acoustic setting. Pohjola said he enjoys playing without microphones since it allows more intimate communication with the audience, but there are challenges.



"Because it's daytime it's more conscious," he said. "You're thinking more about your playing, and that's both good and bad."



All in all, it was ideal for establishing a mindset for Abercrombie's show.



The guitarist and drummer Joey Baron danced around each other a bit on the opening "Dansir" (the opening track from his 2004 Class Trip album with the group) before bassist Marc Johnson and violin Mark Feldman joined in on a tightly interactive body that set the overall mood. Styles were constantly mixed on compositions mostly of extended length, with five songs anchoring the hour-plus show. Feldman was in a zone from the opener, burning rapidly through repeating phrases with lots deviating touches, throwing in off-kilter pitches and concepts sporadically for added spice. Abercrombie mixed his note-driven phrasing up well while still being easy to follow, but didn't quite inspire to the same level.



Baron's non-stop head swinging and body language, on the other hand, clearly indicated he was having the most fun all night - maybe too much at times as his intensity hit levels that stepped on co-players, especially when setting more of a consistent beat than adjusting to others' solos. On the other hand, he offered one of the more creatively accessible solos I've heard on "Open Land," setting up a simple African cadence with his floor hi-hat and gradually elaborating and expanding it with the rest of his kit.



If clarinetist Louis Sclavis was meant to be the evening's main attraction, it's safe saying his seven-member Big Napoli ensemble commendably represented Keitelejazz's eclectic diversity.



The performance was part of the French Nordic Jazz Transit exchange, a project involving festival and cultural organizations in the two regions. Sclavis' complex and improvisation- heavy compositions fit in well with the intelligent yet modernistic flair of Scandinavian jazz from groups such as the above-mentioned Ilmiliekki Quartet. But the band's makeup ensured an expansion of the concept, the most obvious example being French rapper Dgiz.



An early piece evolved from an intense chamber-like introduction to a sythesizer/ percussion world beat and finally to rock resembling "Graceland" before Dgiz took over by finishing the song to a reggae/hip-hop beat. The piece represented a clear refusal by the group collectively and individually to be locked into roles all evening, as the subsets of interacting and the instruments they played shifted constantly. Keyboardist Paul Brousseu, for example, contributed on pocket trumpet, vocals and a wind-driven synthesizer; Mederic Collignon played trumpet, manipulated electronics and chipped in vocals. Sounds from Italian ballads to hard rock emerged, although sometimes the range felt more like a show of diversity than cohesively linked composing.



Sclavis stayed in a high-intensity mode most of the night, playing dense and note-heavy passages on everything from funk to modern mainstream. Dgiz was a notable audience hit with various vocal acrobatics from wordless jungle-like tongue-trilling to rap at something resembling an auctioneer's pace.



Charles Gil, a promoter for the French Nordic Jazz Transit, said afterward the show is relatively new - it was Sclavis' sixth performance of it - and it was good to see it go over well so far from home with a non-urban crowd.



"I was very astonished they were into the mood even if they didn't understand it," Gil said. "You don't need to bring something standard. I like to bring things that are very improvisational."



"It's a way to say art can exist in the middle of the people," he said. "It doesn't have to be elitist."



As for Weckl and Ronkanen's statement about a more "relaxed" crowd, let's just say one needs to limit the definition of seemingly totally contradictory concepts.



A throng of mostly younger men crowded the front of the stage well before showtime, watching the assembly of the drummer's supersize-me kit. He got a hero-worshipper's welcome just for coming out to do a brief sound check.



How was the show? Well, the bummer is I missed all but the opening couple of songs because I had leave after the opening song to make an overnight drive to catch an early morning flight to France. The stuff I heard was OK, not great, with the worst part being a lack of extended soloing by Weckl in the early going. I suspect that didn't last long.



It's been a few weeks since Keitelejazz ended and invariably when I mention Finland to other players and listeners they bring up several festivals - Helsinki, Pori, Imatra and Tampere, among others - without a single mention of Äänekoski. It's hardly accurate to say this is a failing, despite the city's claim the festival is among the country's most notable, given the clear mission of satisfying locals. But for a dedicated jazz fan this almost certainly makes doing part of it as a side trip preferable to making it an end destination - true to Ronkanen's recommendation. There's enough quality in the highlights for someone looking for a respite from the typical festival crush to come away with the feeling of a couple of peaceful days well-spent.



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