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Live Reviews

The Tampere Jazz Happening, Helsinki, Nov. 2-5, 2006

By Published: February 3, 2007

This is cross-pollination made visible, and its how jazz-- or any art--advances.

After a long, atypically warm fall, snow came early to Tampere this year. The massive storm that swept across Northern Europe on November 1st left a thick blanket of the stuff covering Finland from Helsinki in the south to Tampere, 180 kilometers to the north, and beyond; an accompanying precipitous drop in temperature insured the six-foot drifts would stick around for a while. Caught unaware, local drivers without winter tires spun their wheels in the streets, and the Finns, no strangers to cold, shivered mercilessly in abruptly frigid air.

Yet the 25th Annual Tampere Jazz Happening commenced on schedule the very next night, with an open drum workshop conducted by the percussionist Adam Rudolph and a screening of Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collins' documentary, My Name is Albert Ayler, an impassioned and ambitious biography of the fearsomely rebellious avant-garde sax titan.

That this lovingly programmed festival would begin with Rudolph and Ayler is a clear indication of its leanings: in Tampere, an historic 19th-century manufacturing center reinvented as a university town, Finns like their jazz inclusive, progressive, brutal and challenging. The playful Swedish-Norwegian quintet Atomic drove the point home the following night, kicking things off in the cavernous confines of the heavily spired, century- old brick Customs House that contains the Happening's main stage. As snow fell quietly outside, the group, fueled by the inspired drumming of Oslo's Paal Nisson-Love, tore through a set which typified much of what would be heard over the next three days: music that was sometimes spare, sometimes furious, always disciplined, often fascinating and ultimately exhausting.

Starting right on time (as most acts did — the festival is extraordinarily well-managed), Atomic careened continuously from chaos to unity and back, hurtling through tightly-arranged pieces smashing blues, bop, modern and avant- garde elements together with never-careless abandon, and with tongue ever-ready to insert in cheek. (A snippet of "Sentimental Journey," anyone? Hey, why not?) The audience, predominantly Finnish and predominantly mid 30s-50s, sat impassively throughout (with one notable exception; more on that later), yet gave rousing ovations at the end of each number.

This, apparently, is the Tampere way: The crowd was there to listen, and saved its applause for the breaks. Yet the music suffered from it; the musicians played in a vacuum, and, left to their own devices, often shot for pyrotechnics over communication. This tendency was exacerbated by the size of the hall—though the sound was good, the musicians seemed to be very far away and striving mightily to fill the space. Taking over from Atomic, Tunisian oud-player Dhafer Youssef, backed by a trio of too- tightly leashed Finnish musicians (including the remarkable guitarist Eivind Aarset), also failed to conquer the room. Though Youssef's plaintive Sufi chanting initially captured the crowd, he lost the audience in the repetitiveness of his set and tacked-on, squiggly electronica.

New York downtown guitar fixture Marc Ribot, closing the main stage evening, fared no better. One of the festival's two headliners—Andrew Hill would play this role the following night—Ribot brought to Tampere his newly formed tribute to the aforementioned Ayler, Spiritual Unity.

Eagerly anticipated, the set was a calamitous and noodling exercise in failure. Ayler's music is about as particular to its historical period (the tumultuous 60s) and its creator (the tumultuous Ayler) as it gets, and even the resurrected presence of the late icon's old bass cohort, Henry Grimes, couldn't save it. His amp turned down low, Ribot forcefully hacked away while Grimes bowed and skittered, trumpeter Roy Campbell smeared and shrieked, drummer Chad Taylor kept up an insistent beat, strange things were blown into, bells jingled and odd tubes whirled, but it had none of Ayler's peculiar passion, and the crowd began filing out of the yawning hall as the music stretched late into the night.

Things were sunnier in the festival's intimate secondary venue, the Tikkala restaurant, where sets also ran throughout the evening. A low-ceilinged, century-old converted brick storehouse set just 100 yards away from the Old Customs House, Tikkala is one of the warmest, most inviting settings imaginable in which to hear music. Here, amidst huge splitting wood beams, brick-arched windows, a long, busy bar, mismatched chairs and worn plank floors, the pale, platinum-haired Finnish pianist Joona Toivanen's trio deftly explored elegant, impressionistic long-from compositions with patience and grace before a small, rapt audience.

A graduate of Helsinki's Finnish conservatory, Toivanen, 25, is still in school (at the Royal Music Academy of Stockholm), but he's one to watch; amidst the obvious Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans influences, an original musical mind is emerging. (You can find the trio's fine third album, Frost, on the Blue Note label.) Later, the New York-based Finnish expatriate guitarist Raoul Björkenheim also brightened things up with a characteristically freewheeling set. Backed by good-humored master bassist Uffe Krokfors, adaptable drummer Markuu Ounaskari and wearing his love of Jimi Hendrix unapologetically on his sleeve, Björkenheim spun off jazz licks over rock syncopation; the show pretended to be no more than it was, which was loose and alive and fun.

Bassist Krokfors turned in another good performance Saturday afternoon in the Old Customs House, contributing a gorgeous bowed solo in a high-powered free Nordic quartet with pianist/harpist Iro Haarla, melodic drummer Jon Christensen and the grand old man of Finnish saxophone, Junnu Aaltonen, who bleated away with over-bearing power. (Even the Tampere crowd seemed stunned at the assault.) Following them, classically trained pianist François Raulin and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenal (both based in Paris) showed telepathic rapport as they turned in a swinging, rapturously lyrical performance that overcame the instrumental limitations of the Burko Fasoan djembe player Adama Dramé, who filled out the trio. Then, unfettered free jazz revisited in the form of the Norwegian-Swedish trio The Thing, whose torrential wall of noise went mostly unbroken until they returned for a mysteriously subdued, strangely brief encore.

In the evening, Adam Rudolph created mesmerizing music with his Moving Pictures Quartet, employing all manner of drums, gourds, shakers, whistles and hand claps (as well as the occasional impromptu, half-drunk bottle of water). It was a delicate, deeply textured, jubilant and, at times, unnervingly beautiful performance, and as it progressed the hall itself seemed to grow smaller. Rudolph's interplay with drummer Hamid Drake was a thing of wonder, and trombonist Joseph Bowie and reedist Ralph Jones contributed invaluably to the gorgeously poetic mix.

Legendary post-bop pianist Andrew Hill closed the Saturday main stage with his New Quintet, combining his familar American rhythm section (bassist John Hebert, drummer Eric McPherson) with a front line of two impressive British young turks: saxophonist Jason Yarde and trumpeter Byron Wallen. It was a good set, with the Lee Morgan-ish Wallen smearing his notes and the fluid Yarde going free but never losing his hard-bop footing, both navigating the spiky, off-kilter lines of Hill's dark melancholy with relative ease, while McPherson floated the whole thing on a plush cushion of cross-rhythms.

But the set belonged to Hill himself, who, despite appearing frail, built several short solos that seemed to capture an entire life's experience with utterly astonishing conciseness. Lush chords rolled into plaintive dissonance, bittersweet acceptance mutated into open-ended questions, stories came and went; with each solo Hill finished it felt as if a novel had been closed. It was a bravura performance and the crowd responded to it, breaking their mid- song silence for the first time with cheers and applause.

The festival concluded Sunday with performances in the large hall from the Senegalese-Guinean Kora Jazz Trio and American funk/jazz/trip-hop collective Burnt Sugar, but the highlight far and away was the early evening appearance of Helsinki's fabulous Umo Jazz Orchestra. Formed in 1975, funded by the city of Helsinki, the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the Ministry of Education and comprised of many of Finland's premier, conservatory-trained players, this thoroughly modern big band is thrilling to hear live.

Umo's sound, reminiscent of Gil Evans', is gargantuan and sumptuous, and for once the size of Custom House seemed utterly insignificant. The set consisted of four long- form compositions: two rather cinematic pieces by Iro Haarla, who joined the orchestra on piano to perform them; and two pieces commissioned for the Polish trumpet giant Tomasz Stanko. On the latter, the impressive young Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola handled Stanko's parts with tremendous verve. A lesser talent would have been swallowed up in the big band's wake; Pohjola glided on the the crack orchestra's huge surges, his high- reaching trumpet perpetually poised on the crest of the wave.

Afterwards, the Festival finished as it does every year, with an open-ended jam session packed into the Tikkala restaurant. Guitarist Raoul Björkenheim lead the proceedings, and it went on for hours; at times twenty-some African, European and American players filled the small stage at once. No one, it seemed, was eager for the Happening to end.

For an American critic, a festival like the Tampere Jazz Happening raises a host of questions, chief among them: "Why don't we have this? Jazz is often described as America's one true indigenous art form, and here in the States we tend to regard it as ours by birthright. Yet jazz has been in Finland—a country well off most Americans' maps— since at least the late 20s. (If you want recorded evidence, the Pop and Jazz Archive in Helsinki has compiled a fantastic four-CD set of recorded Finnish jazz from 1929 to 1960.) And the Tampere festival is full of world-class European artists who've never set foot on American soil, and to whom American record distributors are oblivious. (Note to Blue Note: sign François Raulin now.)

So, is America simply one more outpost for the music—and a provincial one, at that? Or is jazz still primarily ours? If so, what American festival similarly celebrates the most difficult listening aspects of the music—and does so without a giant corporate sponsor in sight? (Sorry, "JVC's VisionFest".) Among the most jarring elements for an American visitor to the Tampere festival is the lack of advertising. Not a single corporate banner hung in the festival hall—and this just down the road from Nokia, to boot.

What separates Tampere from its American counterparts is, of course, the level of government support given to the arts in Europe. The Happening gets a third of its budget from the state, a third from the city itself, and is expected to recoup only the last third of its cost though ticket sales. Thus, freed of obligations to big business, the festival can concentrate on what it wants: largely avant-garde improvisation, which is risky music by nature (there's every likelihood it won't work) and a genre with little (read "no ) commercial appeal. And it can draw on a host of home-grown artists trained, with state assistance, at world class institutions like Helsinki's Sibelius Academy (possibly the top jazz program in Europe, if not the world).

The result is something of an oxymoron: a festival that pushes the boundaries of the music yet seems a warmly communal throwback to an earlier time. Musicians from around the world came to Tampere for their own set, then hung around—on the Festival's dime—for days, listening to their fellows and fraternizing with the public and critics. This is cross-pollination made visible, and it's how jazz— or any art—advances. Yet ruthless commercial pressure makes this unfathomable in the United States.

And so, here in jazz's birthplace we must ask ourselves: "Is our way the best way for our music?" "Is this how America's one true art form should be treated?" And, most important: "Is this how it has to be?

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