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