A Finnish Feast: Hundreds of Free Songs from Earth's Least Corrupt Country

Mark Sabbatini By

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Considering its 80th birthday is next year, Finnish jazz is awfully young at heart.

Finnish-American musicians aboard the M/S Andania brought jazz to the country in 1926, according to urban myth, but a strong presence and identity didn't emerge until the 1960s. Since then versatile musicians, strong government support and high-quality education has produced a breed of original and intelligent music in traditional and modern forms.

"Internationally renowned individualists aside, Finland has also produced a wide array of team players throughout the years," notes the Finnish Music Information Centre, in a description of the country's jazz history. "This is largely due to education provided by institutes such as the Sibelius Academy Jazz Department. Another important contributor has been the UMO Jazz Orchestra. Almost every one of our jazz greats has at point or another been a member of the only government-supported local big band. Today, Finnish jazz is defined by strong soloists, crafty composers and unrelenting ensembles of varying sizes."

Early pioneers include multi-instrumentalist Seppo "Baron" Paakkunainen, pianist Heikki Sarmanto, saxophonists Juhani Aaltonen and Eero Koivistoinen, and percussionist Edward Wesala, whose careers were boosted by "modern idiom and foreign connections," according to the center. The Oulunkylä Pop/Jazz Institute (now the Helsinki Pop/Jazz Conservatory) was founded in Helsinki in 1972, UMO Jazz Orchestra in 1975 and the jazz department at the Sibelius Academy in 1983.

"Those closest to mainstream jazz (today) include the technically brilliant tongue-in-cheek ensemble Trio Töykeät, pianist and composer Jarmo Savolainen who collaborates with several international artists, and Klaus Suonsaari who lives and works in New York," according to the center. "Of those combining various styles, the best-known are RinneRadio which leans towards acid jazz, Pekka Pohjola who draws on progressive rock, and XL."

There are numerous annual jazz festivals of varying acclaim, including the community- oriented Keitelejazz festival in the small central Finland town of Äänekoski I attended in 2005 as part of my "Back Roads Beat" series about lesser-known jazz venues and artists. As is the case with most modern countries, it's possible to hear a large variety of free songs by the festival's performers and others across the country through legal downloads offered by the performers, their record labels or various music organizations.

There aren't a lot of free downloads to be found among the pioneers mentioned above. Aaltonen's rich ballad "Lullaby" from his live 2002 trio album Mother Tongue can be downloaded from the Tum Records site. The label also offers a number of other noteworthy downloads detailed below, including a composition from one of Keitelejazz's best acts. Sarmanto has no easily located downloads, although vocalist Pauliina May offers three of his works done in Spanish at his request (also detailed below). Among the new artists above, Pohjola's "Try To Remember" is available from Prog Archives.com, although it's more synth-drenched soundtrack than progressive rock.

Similarly, pickings among the featured 2005 Keitelejazz acts are slim. One can watch video clips from Dave Weckl's European tours at his website, but since they're samples they don't count here. Guitarist John Abercrombie can be heard as a sideman on vibraphonist Monty Stark's "Comrades" at his website, but downloads of him as a leader are elusive.

But hundreds and possibly thousands of freebies can be found in the links below, mostly featuring recent releases in all styles from both longtime and new performers. Those appearing at Keitelejazz are noted first, followed by more general sites that frequently feature huge download collections and some general reference sites offering further guidance.

Ilmilekki Quartet
"ICO" from March Of The Alpha Males and 11 other songs from Tum Records

The 12 lengthy MP3 songs at this site offer a commendable and diverse overview of Finland's progressive jazz scene by new and veteran musicians. The Ilmilekki Quartet, selected as Young Artist of the Year 2004 by Finland Festivals and one of the highlights at the 2005 Keitelejazz festival, squeezes a lot of intellectual modernism into their eight- minute piece, from a ballad/folk opening to Miles-style trumpet dashings to post-bop piano rumblings - then meshing it near the end. It isn't jaw-dropping, but represents an honest overview of the band's consistent high quality cohesiveness. Unlike some evolving fusion there's a purpose and it happens to make sense. There's one MP3 track for each of the 11 additional Tum Records releases at the site and, while not all appeal equally, nothing feels like a throwaway effort. "Penguin Benguine" is a quirky, squawking electric ensemble freeform rant led by keyboardist Iro Haarla and bassist Ulf Krokfors. "Into Fall" is a lower-key exchange of Asian/African workings between guitarist Raoul Björkenheim and drummer Lukas Ligeti. "Haloo - haloo!" is a loose acoustic exploration from a 1998 reunion project between pianist Eero Ojanen and bassist Teppo Hauta, who made their mark on Finland's progressive jazz scene during the 1960s and 70s. These aren't necessarily the best of the bunch - but one can probably take any given three of these freebies with similarly diverse and interesting results.

Erja Lyytinen
Three live tracks from the 2004 Pori Jazz Festival and other songs

"The Blues Lady Of Finland," who's from the small central Finland town of Kuopio, opened for Bonnie Raitt at the 2003 Puistoblues Festival and has drawn comparisons to the famed U.S. singer. The three songs here (a link to a fourth is broken) feature that modern country/blues element, and are a good showcase for Lyytinen's gritty vocals and slide guitar (the former being more accomplished and personable than the latter). "High G" features a somber tale shifting between understated and upbeat, "Long Ago" possesses an ascending quality and "Maybe" is a slower reflective blues with a long but not overly original guitar solo. The other four band members are solid, but nothing one won't hear in plenty of similar groups. Offering well-recorded live tracks is a definite plus since even common solos gets the extra energy frequently lacking in the more restrictive atmosphere of a studio. There's also four free songs performed with the band Dave's Special at and an alternate "Long Ago" at the 2004 SXSW Music Festival web site.

Pasi K. And Hurmos
Two songs and three live performance videos

The two short songs (use the "Ääninäytteitä" link) are Finnish folk, not jazz, but good examples of the genre and make it easy to picture them doing an afternoon park concert during Keitelejazz. But the videos (the "Videoita" link) are a better bet, both musically and because of the ability to watch a loose and informal group at work.


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