Pori Jazz and its Ultra Music scene
July 1725, 2010
Pori Jazz trucks onthis was its 45th year of action, still housed on the banks of the River Kokemäki and with links spread to all corners of this normally rather sleepy town on Finland's west coast. This year it ran concurrently with the Molde Festival in southern Norway, with which it shares similar history and a new profilea long established festival of contemporary music now offering a vast selection of acts, many of which haven't even a tenuous claim to be labeled jazz. As in past years the main action took place at the big arena site, and in the evening at the LP45 stage, both across bridges on a sizable island just opposite the majestic town hall. Here, in front of crowds of up to 8,000 fans, the likes of old-timers John Fogerty, and Jeff Beck, and mega-stars Massive Attack, Toto and NERD performed. At the smaller venues such as the city theatre, the old cotton factory and a downtown brewery, more local and European artists appeared, such as the newly created Tomasz Stanko Quintet, the Gotan Project, Finland's own Jaska Lukkarinen Trio, and singer Emma Salokoski with Ilmiliekki.
The festival has moved with the times, and hence kept its financial head above water. For the best part of ten days this rather isolated town (nearly 300 kilometers from capital Helsinki) wakes up to the huge influx of visitors from all over the country. Given some good weather the center of town is full with families and old-timers, teenagers tiptoeing on newly acquired stilettos, and assorted gangs of folks spread out on the grass, picnicking along the riverbank. Despite the huge increase in size over the 45 years, the holiday atmosphere prevails, and music is in the air from all corners and almost at all hours around the clock.
The preponderance of visitors are attracted to the big venues and the major acts, but Pori has also done its share of promotion "outside the box," none less than the three Ultra Music Nights, held in the creaky wooden hall of the old cotton factory on the north bank of the Kokemäki. This year's roster was similar to last year's in its mix of international free jazz and avante-garde stars, with instrumentalists from across the board, from the tortured guitars of France's Marc Ducret and Finland's Raoul Bjorkenheim to the flowing vibraphone of The Claudia Quintet's Matt Moran. This little corner of cutting edge culture has been run for 9 years now by Frenchman Charles Gil, recently knighted by his government for his efforts to forward the profile of French avante-garde and improvisational music in the Nordic countries. Gil's efforts are particularly concentrated on Finland, where he is now resident, but his remit includes spreading the gospel of the A-G throughout the region without exclusive favor of French artists. It's nice to see free jazz getting some real respect.
The first evening involved French, Norwegian and Finnish bands, all three led by trumpeters. This was quite an education in the different roles that this essentially traditional instrument can play in contemporary improvisational jazz. First up was the French duo of Jean-Luc Cappozzo on trumpet & Eric Brochard on double bass, both players with extensive records behind them for service in the field of modern and free jazz in their home country. Cappozzo has been involved in the improvisational scene in Lyons for years, while Brochard has played many styles of music from classical to theatre, as well as cooperation with Edward Perraud, Sylvain Kassap and Tim Berne. Improvisational art though is close to both men's hearts and with Brochard frequently using a special arched, slack bow as dexterously as any glass-harp player to produce numerous overtones. Cappozzo could play the field of decoration and also the occasional melodic lead. The trumpet was often so unobtrusive that its role as lead brass instrument might have been forgotten except when the mouthpiece was replaced by a double reed, and the instrument manipulated in short melodic blasts more like a clarinet or bassoon. Mounting, complex tensions and slow release were frequent during this performance, with Cappozzo often gesturing his creative intentions with his free arm. The often melodic dialogue between the two even recalled the hilarious yet hallowed French circus tradition; many a wry smile passed many an amused face.
The second band of the evening was the duo of Per Jorgenson and Terje Isungset from Norway, who were playing in a summer context and hence without the Isungset's seasonal utilization of the great natural material of his native Norwayice. Typically this adds great visual appeal to his music, reinforcing the eerie trance-like atmosphere which the show induces. The music may be improvised, but the structures are well established after years of collaboration. Jörgenson has been involved in Jon Balke's different ensembles, and has also recorded with composer Michael Mantler on The School of Understanding (ECM, 2001) and the Swedish bassist Anders Jormin on Jord (Dragon, 1995). His open ended experimental style has surely had an influence on the younger trumpeters in his country, like Arve Henriksen and Mathias Eick, though more in his exploratory attitude than in any technical realm. In fact on the basis of this performance, it was his vocalizing, as well as percussion and general joy of performing that proved his greater creative strengths. At one point, having earned some applaud from the audience, he turned the appreciation back to the crowd encouraging them to continue in order that he could use this as rhythmic input in his own playing.
Turning an audience's excessive reverence into a performing tool is a welcome approach to the hushed scrutiny that exudes around many experimental stages. Terje Isungset too has also been influential in his innovative approach to percussion, incorporating in his music the sounds of everything from tapped or scraped stones and ram horns to a variety of suspended dried branches. More importantly he reveals an apparent pleasure in the demands that the intensity of their interaction requires, turning at times to the audience when Jörgenson seemed to overstretch the bounds of credibility, and utilizing their bemusement. The duo's power is in their ability to lead the listeners into a highly abstract acoustic world and communicate their own efforts to navigate the creative hurdles they meet.
Playing in the darkness of the timbered workshop, Finland's Sun Trio were also deprived of the natural element that their name implies. The band features the rhythm section of the Finnish nu-jazz pioneers Ilmiliekki, in combination again with a lead trumpeter, this time drummer Olavi Louhivuori's brother Kalevi. The solidity of their foundation allows the trumpet to investigate more distant soundscapes, as on their penultimate piece Organisaatio from their album Time is Now (CAM, 2009). The use of processing and wah-wah makes for an exciting blend that Miles Davis in his later years would have been proud of. After the intimacy of the previous performers, the languid but very intense style of the drums and the trumpet's flowing lead gave the audience more direction. Antti Lötjönen also has a far more insistent role in this line-up, playing lines often closer to a rock rhythm bassist and giving the other two musicians greater scope. Kalevi Louhivuori's palette is varied and powerful, inviting comparisons with Ilmiliekki's Verneri Pohjola and not being overshadowed.
Friday's Ultra Music featured music by quintets, with bands from the USA, France/Denmark and Finland. First up were The Claudia Quintet, which through Jon Hollenbeck's role and especially his early compositions can be traced back to pioneers of American electronic composition like Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The band is described as "eclectic post-jazz," and now it has little connection to its roots in Hollenbeck's Refuseniks in New York of the early 1990s. Since those days the composer has worked with many names both in New York and in Europe, particularly in Germany, with Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer, and the Bamberg Choir. With this line up he incorporates scored and improvised music featuring three different solo instruments, including fellow ex-Refusenik Ted Reichman on accordion.
In fact it was the new lead instruments which dominated their frontline in Pori. The vibraphone is an instrument which hard to constrain in a support role. Matt Moran meets this requirement very adequately, but given the opportunity to flourish the mallets become a blur of movement as he skips from one end of the instrument to the other. Hollenbeck's music is often light and quirky, bringing to mind Britain's former Penguin Cafe Orchestra, maybe crossed with Henry Cow. Before any accusations of implied bestiality, Hollenbeck must be complimented for the humor he incorporates into the tightly sculptured pieces largely based on the interplay between varying rhythms and cycles. Clarinet and tenor saxophone leads offered by Chris Speed bridged the gap between the pulsations of Moran and Hollenbeck's staccato drumming and the contrasting legato that the pieces incorporated. With a selection of tunes from their 15 year recording career, the band laid a colorful foundation for an evening of widely differing and exploratory quintet music.
Marc Ducret has a long history with a career of nearly 40 years. Having started out as a self-taught classical guitarist in the 1970s, Ducret has played in Europe with Tim Berne and Tom Rainey in Big Satan while launching his own line-ups in France. Especially well received in recent years has been his trio including bassist Bruno Chevillon and drummer Eric Echampard. Relocating to Denmark in 2008 has led to their replacement in this summer's line-up by Danes , Kasper Tranberg on trumpet and Peter Bruun on drums, while keeping his links with countrymen Matthias Mahler on trombone and Fred Gastard on bass saxophone. With this aggregation, Ducret is again out to explore.
And what territory he chooses. While his previous work with Tim Berne has been described as "mesmerizing, ominous and intricate," the current pieces are that much more so, incorporating two more musicians in the mix. Mahler and Tranberg were firmly rooted across stage from Ducret, and took much of the onslaught that he offered up. Using the normal extended range of muting and overblowing, the brass section tangled with Ducret's frenetic, very rhythmic guitar, while he used every nook and niche of his instrument to coax the flurry of sound that comprises his composition. The four pieces played were a truly challenging journey to uncharted fields of guitar-driven territory, where melody is fleetingly acknowledged and rhythmic interaction defines the terrain. Critical to this were the uncharacteristic format and approach of the rhythm section. Bruun's role is almost superfluous given the intensity of Ducret's rhythmic output, so he played his part light and low-key until opportunity arose for percussive solo. Gastard on the other hand was never out of the frame, perpetually bobbing and bopping with his very percussive, clipped bass lines. It's a sign of a very sturdy stamina, despite a modest physique, that he matched Ducret's torrential outflow of music and energy with his own intricate bass lines virtually uninterrupted throughout the 65 minutes. If this is "out jazz," as Wikipedia categorizes Ducret's work with Berne, it's hard to conceive what "far-out jazz" might comprise.
Pepa Päivinen has been a fixture in the firmament of Finnish jazz ever since graduating in the profession via such local luminaries as Edward Vesala and Juhani Aaltonen, as well as playing with Anthony Braxton. His band in Pori features other graduates of those heady years: Raoul Björkenheim on guitar and Mikko Hassinen on drums, along with young experimentalist Juho Laitinen on cello and Ville Huolman on bass. Päivinen has been writing for most of his career, with his compositions released on the most recent CD Northpipe playing with his regular guitarist Timo Kämäräinen. The set they played was something of a relief after the intensity of Ducret, with the guitar playing also a more integrated role in the program. That said, much of the soloing fell on Björkenheim, sometimes in tandem with his leader, often without. Päivinen 's compositions are nothing like as complex or insistent as Ducret's, with its humor more subtle and muted. In retrospect featuring this aspect more prominently might have made the contrast between the two bands more balanced.
Saturday's concerts featured another international mixture: Two Men Galaxy from Finland, Caravaggio from France and Huntsville from Norway. This was definitely the heaviest of the three evenings of contemporary sounds in the old Workshop, even if the first performers are more known for the delicacy of their approach. Joonas Riippa is a regular drumming partner for visiting luminaries (Mats Gustaffson, Lenny Picket) and a member of leading Finnish ensembles (Mikko Innanen's Plop and Verneri Pohjola's new Quartet), his delicacy of touch with his skins making him a popular choice for experimentalists. His partner here, Seppo Kantonen, started a career with Finnish rock pioneer Pekka Pohjola when the latter was working with highly orchestrated scores, towards the end of his career. He too performs frequently with other Finnish artists, including Mikko Innanen and the big band UMO, and he is involved with the Albero project.
In Pori this duo had the unenviable task of introducing an evening dominated by rhythmic performers with extensive arrays of effects to hand. Equipped with the dominating Hammond organ, a small effects box and a drum-kit, these two set about creating their Galaxy. With music contributed by both artists, Kantonen was the leader of many short, quirky pieces, where a melody might be created, deconstructed and reassembled in short bursts. Working with some loops on his bass hand, Kantonen led with the swirling Hammond tone, while Riippa did his best to add color and variation via his especially staccato style drumming. Not only does he physically accompany his music (head swaying, gestures flowing etc) but of all younger Finnish drummers, Riippa controls volume and intensity as much as pace. Using only hands or fingers in place of sticks is quite common among drummers these days, but blowing on cymbals or waving at the skins seems equally to be part of Riippa's technique too. The result in this minimalist line-up was that despite sometimes being sparse in quantity, the performance left a lot of space for the audience fill with its own creativity. Given also the contrast of Riippa's extravagant gesture and Kantonen's very sedentary physicality and musicality, this duo were a rewarding introduction to an evening of even wilder histrionics.
Caravaggio is an association of French musicians who have also long been involved in contemporary experimental jazz. It comprises the Marc Ducret Trio colleagues Eric Echampard and Bruno Chevillon, with Benjamin de la Fuente on processed violin and Samuel Sighicelli on sampler, piano and effects. Categorized by the festival organizers as "industrial jazz," this music can be considered closer to progressive rock than to classic jazz, but is still highly improvised and experimental. Considering that the impulse for more eccentric musical forms often originates with the bassist (Phil Lesh and Roger Waters both come to mind), it should be no surprise that the largest effects board (approx 6 square feet of pedals, controls and connectors) should belong to Chevillon. So with his instrument only sporadically performing its traditional bass role, and the others too all utilized well beyond their traditional capacity, their players are all credited on disc with "electrical effects." Samuel Sighicelli's arsenal includes sampler and piano, although at this gig his use of more traditional organ sounds was predominant, building a soundscape very reminiscent of Waters' former colleague Rick Wright.
This music is of course much more contemporary than Pink Floyd, although barring the lack of vocals, the tools as well as the dynamics are remarkably similar to the original, experimental Floyd. The willowy bassist, using two conventional guitars as well as a solid state upright, drove the structure from stage left, while opposite Sighicelli and violinist Benjamin de la Fuente held sway. Although the predominant sound is electronic, de la Fuente's technique is very classical, as is his background and education. As co-founder and second lead instrument of the band his role was as prominent as Chevillon, highlighted when both plucked or bowed their instruments in a competing duet. However this band is essentially a partnership of equals, with Echampard's drums very prominent in the mix and his contribution to the structures critical too. Each member explored his respective palette creating a show where the artists truly played with sound, again raising smiles as often as tapping fingers. With a light show and more dancers, one might have even been back in the UFO in London, where the spirit of fun pervaded that of experimentation.
Huntsville are also known for pushing the boundaries of the jazz genre outside the usual categories, having recently released a disc with two members of American rock band Wilcoguitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glen Kotche (Eco, Arches and Eras). Their pieces are long extemporizations, structured but not predetermined, with loops constantly building interweaving patterns. The trio is led by the rhythmic guitar and banjo of Ivar Grydeland and has played together since 2006.
The contribution of Ingar Zach is equally dominant, as he operates both a small drum-set as well as a modulator and a drum machine, controlling the beat which persists relentlessly throughout the music. On disc their long work is called Eras, which in Finnish actually would mean Piece or Section, and this would perfectly describe the rather featureless character of the music. This is because the whole time it is slowly evolving, with each transition seamlessly segued into the next, producing a 60 minute throbbing, hypnotic raga, with Grydeland's processed strums leading the way. On disc it can be played continuously, with the end blending effortlessly into the opening, making it a perfect accompaniment for departure from the festival through the short Nordic night, where sundown blends into a slight dimming of the sky before it starts to lighten again in the east. It also characterizes the essentially Nordic character of these Ultra Music Nights, as well as the overall feel of the Pori Jazz Festival: first class international music served under broad Nordic skies.