For the 5th annual UMO Jazz Fest in Helsinki, Finland, UMO Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Fest Executive Director Annamaija Saarela faced the unenviable task of having to find a new home for the festival outside the UMO Jazz House club (in prior years it had customarily served as home base for much if not all the festival's music, not to mention its role as Helsinki's primary jazz club), which was forced to close earlier this year due to water damage. The good news: a central location was foundthe Bio Rex Theatre, with its visually stunning interior, is one of the city's oldest remaining movie theaters and a landmark of modern architecture in Helsinki (built in 1936 and exquisitely refurbished noticeably within the year). The bad news: it was much too spacious (seating over 600) for the disproportional showing of Finnish jazz enthusiasts. Ticket buyers undoubtedly would have packed the UMO Jazz House each and every set had it not been for the last minute venue change. But unfortunate and deceiving as it was, shadows of heads and large pockets of space scattered the spacious theater each night, thus making even well attended sets seem sparse.
Without such a problem on the programming front, however, this year's UMO invited much of Finland's finest, from legends like septuagenarian multi-instrumentalist Juhani "Junnu" Aaltonen (one-time founding member of the UMO Jazz Orchestra, Finland's national jazz orchestra which dates back to the '70s), and his longtime colleague in bassist Teppo Hauta-aho, to more recent local phenoms Oddarrang led by 26-year- old drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Other Nordic countries like Sweden were represented in addition to a pinch of European (and American) talent, as well.
Aaltonen is undoubtedly one of Finland's standouts, with a distinct voice on primary instruments tenor sax and flute. His affiliations with the late Finnish drumming legend Edward Vesala and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen are two of his better-known associations. Nordic Trinityone of this journalist's most anticipated concerts of this year's UMO is a fairly new leaderless trio comprising three generations of Finns: veteran Aaltonen, drummer Klaus Suonsaari (quite active on the NYC jazz scene and a longtime East Coast resident) and the youngest member, guitarist Mikko Iivanainen. Together they recorded and released their debut on Suonsaari's KSJazz label entitled Wonders Never Cease two years ago, a highly touted recording that sadly received little exposure in the States. Their energetic late set the first night of the festival made the 7- hour time difference (not to mention any jetlag), after arriving in Helsinki only hours previous, irrelevant.
Aaltonen's incessant sonic searching as a player opened eyes and invited what ears remained in the theater during that late hour to join him in his continuous quest of sound. A very spiritual playerand personthis aspect is perhaps Aaltonen's greatest strength and most Trane-like attribute. The reedman's expert display of multiphonics and an intense breath-heavy tone summoned such spirituality in his music from set's beginning to end, not only recalling Trane but the very early and heady days of Gato Barbieri. And never sacrificing musicality for the sake of pyrotechnics, he certainly can take it out there with the best of them. Aaltonen's grounding as a longtime studio musician affords him the foundation necessary to freely and competently explore sound through music, thus separating himself from a huge portion of the pack that clumsily venture without basis or any focus.
The lead voice was best suited to Aaltonen, as was heard on Suonsaari's "Offering," which evenly and patiently took in the contributions of delicate percussion and guitar atmospherics. The saxophonist's earthy approach counterbalanced his atonality, delicately painting the color of a tune's theme such as heard during the rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." Without necessarily getting caught up in the familiar changes, he instead barely glanced over the tune's familiar melody. His connection with Suonsaari was especially compelling. The drummer, situated between reedman and guitarist, angled himself towards Aaltonen and rarely lost eye contact. "Noble's Dream," a ballad countered with occasional hard-driving tempos, demonstrated the duo's empathy when Iivanainen dropped out.
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