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Tampere is the biggest inland town of Scandinavia, but it’s sitting between two lakes on a narrow strip of land, so it has a somewhat marine air about it. Due to the abundance of water it was an important industrial center for papermills and textiles, but now most of these heavy industries have moved elsewhere: Finland’s prosperity is based on high technology, and in fact a town called Nokia is within driving distance. The industrial building have been converted to community centers for cultural activities, so Tampere’s movie, theater and jazz festivals all share the old Customs’ house, in whose storage room a well equipped, comfortable auditorium has been created; in what used to be the offices’ wing, on the ground floor a spacious club - Klubi – welcomes the guests with food and beverages, while on the first floor the offices of the festival are nicely situated. There musicians and guests mingle and relax thanks to the home made food offered simply but friendly: the festival’s cooks give a major contribution to the warm atmosphere.
The vibe of the festival is extremely relaxed yet still well focused on the music, but what strikes me most is the completely mixed audience: men and women, young and not so young, with a respectful and open attitude to the phsycally impaired. The sad view of middle aged white men (me included) tapping their foot to the music, so typical of many jazz clubs, is unknown in Tampere, and the feeling is so much better in consequence.
The opening day featured three groups which shared a fresh approach to the music, drawing on jazz tradition but freely mixing in it with club music and free improvisation: Wibutee, Erik Truffaz’s quartet and The Bad Plus were equally convincing on musical grounds, but for sheer energy, focus and expressive range I found the French trumpeter’s set the most convincing. Wibutee plays – as leader, saxophonist Hakon Kornstad had it – improvised club music, which is yet another cumbersome way of avoiding the “jazz” word but also a reasonable description of what they do. Starting with some basic ideas they build intensity until each piece lift off, or otherwise they change direction. The improvised exchanges within the frontline of sax and bass were taut and to the point. Truffaz’s set was an all-around success: the group switches from the obvious electric Miles influences to a Larry Young’s style organ trio, and then again to melodic, softly-shaded melodies where the points of reference include Don Cherry and Enrico Rava. An extended, frantic solo by Swiss bassist Marcello Giuliani drew a roaring applause from the crowd, and drummer Erbetta, also Swiss, switched effortlessy from a heavy rockish approach to a polyrhytmic propulsion influenced by Elvin and Tony Williams, in one piece – the surrealistic “Walk of the Giant Turtle” – foregoing swing completely for a rigid timekeeping on an assortment of pots and pans. The quartet was obviously benefiting from a long tour in the Czech Republic. The Bad Plus are heralded as The Next Big Thing in jazz, and it’s a difficult tag to live with; their completely acoustic take on an Aphex Twin tune was hilarious, with the drummer imitating the mechanic, segmented style of a drum machine and generally I felt a distinct influence of the Mengelberg-Bennink conception of music, and I do say this as a compliment. Madcap drummer Dave King’s energy and invention are a show by themselves.
The fourth show of the day was the set of Juhani Aaltonen trio in a nearby restaurant, with a standing room only crowd. This leading figure of the Finnnish jazz saxophone delivered a powerful statement in the difficult setting of the trio with bass and drums, no harmonic instrument to rely on. Based on the classic influence of Coltrane, Aaltonen’s sax expanded slowly in thoughtful, long melodic lines, building intensity and momentum, well supported by bassist Uffe Krokfors and drummer Tom Nekljudow. An excellent group, well-represented on ther most recent Cd on the elegant TUM imprint.
I had to skip some of the nine (9) sets on Saturday, which started early with a panel discussion about European-American relationship in Jazz. Stuart Nicholson started with some quietly provocative statements about the need for the American establishment in jazz education to freeze and control the form of the music, in order to better generate business; Howard Mandel disagreed on some of the points, but he also denounced any kind of orthodoxy and purification of the music. A short discussion followed in front of a surprisingly numerous and attentive audience, nicely chaired by the Nod Knowles, director of Bath Jazz Festival. No conclusions were reached, but there was food for thoughts for all.