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Live Reviews

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

By Published: February 3, 2007

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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