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 Ã„änekoski 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.
"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.
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 "Ã„äninäytteitä" 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.
Video of "Aijo"
This female trio-led group is pop, not jazz, but since they were a featured Keitelejazz act and probably best appreciated by sight as well as sound this video is worth mentioning. It's a step above typical Euro pop thanks to some traditional folk instrumentation elements countering lyrics that get rather primitive and savage in tone at times (a plus). Better than most for a quick sample of the popular Finnish music scene.
Seven free albums, plus other songs and animated karaoke
I am not generally a fan of the huge wasteland of free electronic/experimental albums floating around the net because they tend to be giveaways for good reason. But this indie Helsinki band has a "what the heck is this" quality in a positive sense. Long moody ambiance, quick and humorous sonic battles, modern ethnic and more are jumbled in here. Some is more jarring than pleasing, so a pick-and-choose approach may be necessary. A nice touch is most of the albums are available by the song or in a .zip format, allowing surfers to audition a piece and then download the whole collection if it's to their liking. Also, while I don't recommend many videos, their 80MB animated "Karaoke" is a hip and humorous six-minute Star-Wars-Cantina-Meets-Akbar-And-Jeff diversion worth streaming once, if not necessarily downloading.
Three songs by pianist/composer Heikki Sarmanto
Sarmanto, one of Finland's jazz pioneers, asked May to record some of his compositions in Spanish, backed by the Finnish Tapiola Sinfonietta ensemble, according to May's web site. These songs are of the melancholy showtune/folk variety, with May's low vocals coming in delicate and even. A decent listen for those into strings and Streisand - no sarcasm intended - but nothing that makes these compositions feel groundbreaking.
Three songs from Mist Season
This Hämeenlinna quintet, formed in 2004, plays contemporary fusion with New Age overtones reminiscent of Special EFX and Hiroshima. These tracks from their self-titled CD are described with phrases like "true to a Pyrrhonian recipe" (on "Skeptoscopic Detector") and "footprints around the camp fire turn pale as the astral Indians travel through time to meet their destiny" ("Cosmic Wardance"). The arrangements are lush and acoustics pleasing on a surface level, the kind of popular and safe compositions that lack challenge and depth. If success is measured by its likely appeal to listeners into the genre and concepts of the songs, then it hits the mark.
More than 200 free jazz tracks, plus more in other genres, at mp3lizard.com
The quality is uneven at this site for unsigned artists looking to promote their work, but there's no question about its value as a source for Finnish jazz of every stripe. There's a bit of guesswork as the site lists band names (clicking on them connects to their direct sites - a plus), songs available and - sometimes - ratings from users that may or may not have merit. There's so much here it's impossible to offer more than a sampling of his and misses. Among the good: Tapani Suomela And Friends offers 33 Dixie and standards from spirituals to silly ("I Scream,You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream") with strong liveliness in vocals and instrumentation. Lesser material includes a generous, but tepid collection of about 40 pop-jazz/New Age songs from keyboardist/multiinstrumentalist Teemu Vehkala.
122 jazz songs, plus more in other genres, at mikseri.net
This site is a bit tricky to navigate since it's in Finnish and offers more than music, but clicking on the above link will produce a list of all songs available for downloading or streaming in the jazz category.
Songs from Mesta.net
This site offers about 30 free songs from eight different Finnish jazz groups, plus many others from other genres. The site is in Finnish, but relatively easy to navigate as the styles such as jazz and hip-hop are defined in English, and links to the songs are clear (after clicking wait a moment when what looks like a possible error screen appears - the song will load automatically). Highlights include four ethnic guitar-led trio songs by Antemeridiem similar in style to Al Di Meola, four vocal hybrids by Tappi that blend traditional, Finnish folk and freeform fusion, and the playful techno ambiance of Trilobiitti on songs like "Allright."