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Live Reviews

Jazz Happening in Tampere, Finland

By Published: December 18, 2007
Tampere Jazz Happening
Tampere, Finland
November 1-4, 2007

Tampere, Finland, about 2 hours north of the capital Helsinki, was established in 1775 when the country was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Because of its proximity to two lakes separated in height by 18 meters, with rapids connecting them, Tampere was initially a city built around manufacturing plants utilizing the cascading natural power source. Subsequently, much of the manufacturing has stopped, and today Tampere, as the third largest city in Finland, is known primarily for three things: the cell phone company Nokia's headquarters, the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame, and its Tampere Jazz Happening, celebrating its 26th Edition this past November.
The Jazz Happening is nothing if not ambitious, having hosted everyone from Finnish legend Edward Vesala to Carla Bley and David Murray (1983) to Marc Ribot, Andrew Hill and The Thing (last year). In 2007, reasonably full crowds were treated to the avant-garde (Sten Sandell, Trio Braam DeJoode Vatcher, Sonore), high profile percussionists (Rashied Ali, Marilyn Mazur, Jack DeJohnette) and new jazz (Matthew Shipp, Polar Bear, Nik Bärtsch's Ronin).
The structure of the festival is almost a relief for anyone who has run around Berlin or Copenhagen or Montreal for their festivals. Three venues — the converted customs house hall Pakkahuone, the smaller wooden-beamed restaurant Telakka and the nightclub space Klubi — were within a snowball's distance of each other (it did snow, though not to the extent reported last year), and the schedule allowed for listeners to catch most of this year's program without much distress as there was very little overlap.
This year's Happening could be broken up into distinct themes. There were several piano trios, ranging from the Bill Evans-inspired Acoustic Triangle from Great Britain to the modern Shipp Trio to Sandell's pan-Nordic and the Dutch Trio Braam DeJoode Vatcher free improvising groups. As mentioned above, rhythm was the thing with Mazur (about whom a recent Danish documentary film was screened at Klubi to open the festival) leading her all-female Percussion Paradise. Other highlights soon became apparent: Ali bringing his newbop quintet; and DeJohnette in a world music experiment entitled "Ripple Effect that featured the horns of John Surman in tandem with the Brazilian vocals of Marlui Miranda. New Jazz was represented by Britain's trancey Polar Bear and Switzerland's even trancier Ronin. The three wild cards were Erica Stucky's Roots of Communication, an amalgamation of accordion, vocals and alphorn, which this reviewer only caught the tail-end of, the three-horn trio Sonore with Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann and Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola's two historically-minded groups. And for those who wanted to soak up the jazz festival atmosphere though having no particular fondness for jazz, each evening ended at Klubi with groups whose aesthetic may not have been traditional (nor very aesthetic, for that matter) but was certainly energetic and crowd-pleasing.

For the sake of efficiency, what follows are brief comments on this year's Happening in chronological order, which unexpectedly ends with the highlight of the four days.

The opening film of Marilyn Mazur followed her career from Miles Davis to leading her own groups and was filled with exciting footage, including that of the Percussion Paradise, a good way to generate interest for the upcoming show. Following the screening was the populist group Black Motor from Finland with guest guitarist Jukka Orma. Dressed in swing attire, the horn trio was reminiscent of The Thing, except that whereas that band is founded in punk, Black Motor gets its inspiration from blues and California rock. Orma, a combination of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Greg Ginn, was the perfect addition.

The next evening, Friday, offered the main course of the festival and the beginning of the paying concerts (Thursday night was free). Sten Sandell's Trio with bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love effectively recreated the delicately jarring nature of their albums, Sandell hovering like a ghoul over the inside of his piano, creating eerie sound effects for the two improvisations, Nilssen-Love more restrained than I have ever heard him. A quick run across the square to Telakka found local multi-sax hero Pepa Päivinen's quartet indulging in, via bombastic drums, electric bass and Ollie-Halsallesque guitarist Timo Kämäräinen, some modern fusion. It was also encouraging to see that drunken whistlers are an international fixture. Rashied Ali's Quintet, featuring young guns Josh Evans (trumpet) and Lawrence Clark (tenor) were not as effective as during other performances when I have seen, though one must commend the fortitude of the group for playing over an hour on just three tunes. Ali's loose, almost implicit drumming is always good to hear. Hazmat Modine, a sort of Frankenstein's Monster of blues, reggae, jazz and funk, featuring underrated tuba player Joe Daley, was the party band at Klubi, a packed house with dancing, carousing and drinking (this is Finland after all).

The Saturday afternoon portion at Pakkahuone was the most modern segment of the festival: Trio Braam DeJoode Vatcher followed by Nik Bärtsch's Ronin and then Polar Bear. The Dutch Trio were one of the special moments of the Happening, improvisations that grew and developed organically, sprightly boppish themes expanding and contracting, all without a road map. Ronin's ECM album doesn't do them justice as their dark-toned etherealism and heavy groove (plus cool light show) are really designed for a live setting. Polar Bear, led by large-haired drummer Sebastian Rochford, began in a vaguely folksy mode that was unconvincing but then opened up for some longer pieces at the end of their set, one featuring a processed balloon and drum duet.

The evening portion began with Percussion Paradise which, while entertaining and certainly sincere, was aptly described as like walking into a perfume store: there was simply too much assaulting the senses from piece to piece to build momentum. Shipp's Trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown was very dense and featured the empathy that would be expected from a long-term group that knows its own proclivities; the foray into "My Funny Valentine was unexpected but appreciated. DeJohnette's project built on his long relationship with Surman but probably should have stopped with the addition of bassist/ guitarist Jerome Harris. The trio itself was fine — though DeJohnette is overly amorous with his electronic drumpads — but Surman's son Ben's electronics and Miranda's vocals were distracting and seemed tacked on; the set also could have easily been a lot shorter.

The final day at Pakkahuone began with Acoustic Triangle, which is an apt moniker for this unamplified trio. Perhaps it was too early in the afternoon or maybe the total lack of sharp edges, but this trio's pleasantries quickly became soporific. To follow this up with Sonore was like driving a run-down truck into a nursing home. The group has been growing exponentially, plumbing new depths of subtlety to go along with its moments of anguished screeching. With seven horns at their collective disposal and three of the most intense minds in the world of free improvising, the hardest part of the set was focusing on any player.

The festival ended for this reporter with Verneri Pohjola's "Sounds Then and Now Project. The night before at Telakka the trumpeter had fêted Miles Davis' classic acoustic period. For this set, Pohjola used the interesting device of live footage of '70s performances from Jukka Tolonen, Tomasz Stanko and Edward Vesala as springboards for his sextet's improvisations. Featuring Finnish legend Juhani Aaltonen, who was playing along with his younger self in Vesala's on-screen band, this was intriguing if somewhat narcissistic in concept and often fascinating in execution. For the final "piece," guests Sten Sandell and Mats Gustafsson were invited on stage. The highlight of this year's festival came when Gustafsson on baritone paired off for a first-time duet with Aaltonen on tenor, ten minutes of deliciously shrieking fury.



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