April Jazz Espoo 2009; Day 1 - 2

Anthony Shaw BY

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This year...the Festival has again offered visitors a broad sweep of young contemporary Finnish artists alongside a roster of classic American and African performers
Day 1-2 | Day 3-5
April Jazz Espoo
International Jazz Festival
Tapiola, Espoo, Finland

April 22-26, 2009

No one would sensibly claim that Tapiola in Espoo, Finland is the location of the cutting edge of contemporary jazz, but this "little" major festival has seen many pioneering artists during its 22 years, including Freddie Hubbard, Pat Metheny, Ray Charles and more. This year, the 22nd of April Jazz, the festival has again offered visitors a broad sweep of young contemporary Finnish artists alongside a roster of classic American and African performers. Given the length and depth of the Scandinavian winter, one might consider this forum for regional and international artists the first of the slew of outdoor Nordic gatherings which, despite the gnawing economic worries, are already on deck for the summer.

As all such festivals, April Jazz is heavily supported by the community, whose own roots here are little longer than the festival itself. Tapiola Garden Center is part of the Finnish capital area, though strictly speaking it's outside the city limits. Planned in the 1950s to cope with the post-war expansion of the capital, the suburb of Espoo to the west of the "old town" was chosen for its proximity, and more particularly its extensive opportunities for development (read unpopulated forest tracts). Seven centers were chosen around which construction was planned, with the first location being Tapiola, next to the waters of the Baltic Sea and sitting right on the border with Helsinki. Municipal facilities were shared between Espoo's centers, but some sign of the local mindset is revealed when one considers that among the many uniform concrete offices and housing blocks the biggest building, and the first major new project to be completed, was the Tapiola Cultural Center. This grand concrete and glass palace has, from its original outset and for the entire five days, served as the operational headquarters of April Jazz Festival 2009.

Day 1

This day featured two local female artists, both of whom work on the fringes of the jazz arena and whose names have been in Finnish headlines for a number of years, as well as an American diva with a voice of even wider repute. Emma Salokoski made her name in Scandinavia at the start of the millennium as the vocalist with nu-soul band Quintessence but for almost as long has also performed with an group of her own.

Now with five members and two very successful CDs behind them, the band plays a mix of bossa-influenced originals as well as re-workings of Finnish folk tunes and other evergreens. Opening the whole festival in the magnificent birch and pine-clad Festival Hall, the Ensemble played a set of songs culled from both albums. Erja Lyytinen may not be in the same league as Jennifer Batten, actually seeing Bonnie Raitt and her slide as more of a mentor, but as an artist with two albums to her credit, she already is well down the road as a professional guitar-singer-songwriter.

The set of her own and classic blues tunes went down well with the local crowd. After Lyytinen came soul singer Angie Stone, an artist with a clutch of hip-hop and R&B albums behind her, as well as a traditional 8-piece band on the night. With a voice often favorably compared to Aretha Franklin, Stone prowled the open stage performing her material, especially aimed at and appreciated by the female section of the audience. The acoustics in the tented arena were less favorable, but failed to dampen the enjoyment of most listeners.

Later in the adjacent Hall the hosts of all April Jazz events—the Espoo Big Band, along with their conductor and festival inaugurator Martti Lappalainen—took to the small stage of the Louhi Room along with Kevin Mahogany. Well-known to American and worldwide audiences, Mahogany had performed earlier in Espoo and, with his relaxed style and dewey tones, had the local crowd well under his control, performing songs of Michael leGrand, Sinatra as well as his own compositions.

In keeping with Nordic tradition of public-sponsored cultural attractions the other major stage of the Festival is located in the same building as the library in another of the local centers. Known as Sello, this venue is more accustomed to hosting classical concerts, and was less ideally suited to music such as that on the album release by a stalwart of the Finnish jazz/fusion scene, reedist Tapio Rinne. Pole Stars is the 21st album he has produced under the rubric RinneRadio, a rolling assemblage of musicians which, over the band`s 20 years, has comprised many leading young Finnish jazz musicians. The current line-up of Verneri Lume on electronics and Juuso Hannukainen on various drums was supplemented for this concert, which included Teho Majamäki on percussive devices and vibes, and the singer whose contribution to the album was central to its success—mistress of the Lappish yoik singing style, Ulla Pirttijärvi.

Of all the day's concerts this one was surely the most down-home, the composer and all his party having long been involved in all shades of musical endeavor within the Finnish scene, from Pirttijärvi's a cappella folk performances to Majamäki's rock background, and Rinne's own techno-ambient roots. The evening's performance leaned more heavily on those electronic roots than tdoes the new CD, and the two new songs performed represented the peak of the show for me. Rinne's earthy bass and soprano clarinets echoed the same timbres of the swooping, bubbling Saami vowels, while the band's powerful rhythmic arsenal often drowned the delicacy of the acoustic elements.

What they couldn't diminish was the haunting hypnotic influence of the backstage projections created by graphicist Merja Nieminen. The opening black and white dotted line seemed to show simple graphic-equalizer responses to Rinne's solo clarinet, before evolving into constantly changing, random multi-colored scenarios. Later in the show the yoiks and the graphics behind were a perfect combination of dull, dark blue sky with just a hint of the glimmering aurora borealis occasionally breaking through. It's nearly and additional 1000 miles to the polar circle, but this night in Helsinki's suburb the Northern Lights were visible to some fortunate inhabitants!

Day 2

Thursday`s main event was undoubtedly the band billed as "the top Latin-Jazz and Salsa band in Europe," based in Switzerland: Mercadonegro. Initially formed in Europe and comprising three musicians respectively from Cuba, Columbia and Peru, the band coalesced in support of violinist Alfredo de la Fe. Of late the 10-strong ensemble has been entertaining local audiences with evenings of slinky riffs and much-loved grooves.

The most intriguing event of the day was the debut performance by local guitarist— and man of many musical faces—Marzi Nyman. Like many Finnish popular musicians, he has benefited from the depth and generosity of the country's musical education resources, having studied at the prestigious Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. His career started off very much in the pop world, with the hugely popular local female duo Nylon Beat. From here he progressed towards the serious world of jazz and progressive sounds like those of Frank Zappa's music and performed with the UMO orchestra. In the main hall of the Culture Center he performed the debut of his work, tackling the union of electric guitar and orchestra, the part taken by the local Tapiola Sinfionetta under Jani Teleranta. The local press gave the piece its endorsement, describing it as a modular but adequately unified piece, putting it on a par with the program's second crossover piece.

This was Focus, Eddie Sauter's sublime orchestral work for Stan Getz, played by the orchestra with Jukka Perko taking Getz's role. Jukka Perko`s career began in a massive way in 1987 when Dizzy Gillespie recruited him at the Pori Jazz festival. Since that time he has played in multiple groupings, most particularly with Finnish vibraphonist Severi Pyysalo playing as The Poppoo, and in 2000 initiating the first ever Blue Note Finland recording, covering local mainstream singer Olavi Virta`s work in a hard-bop style of his own.

As in most major jazz festivals, mainstream music was also covered in Tapiola, as witnessed by small groups of teenage girls hanging out near the tent in the chilling evening air. Their resolute enthusiasm was spurred by a major act from the Finnish summer festival scene, a 5-piece group fronted by two twitchy females, Paula Vesala and Mira Luoti, and collectively known as PMMP. As polar opposites to the sounds from within the adjacent Culture Center, here the bass lines were straight and incessant, the drum patterns steady, but contrary to one local critic's assessment, I would favor this show above many a world-weary jazz pro.

Here were five young musicians with material of their own, partly composed by Vesala, singing anthems of the angers of angst no doubt felt by many in their young audience. At least that is how it started in 2002—now much of their crowd is jacketed and fashionable, although the songs and the theatrics still tell the same stories. The act is both polished and frenetic, and still talks to an element in many not-so-young adults, just as the seven month's pregnant Luoti, dressed in diaphanous chemise and tights, clearly demonstrated that motherhood is no one-way ticket to serenity or conventionality.

However, most interesting for followers of the nu-jazz scene in Finland was the evening's appearance of Verneri Pohjola`s newest ensemble, Aurora. Pohjola has been a leading light among this scene for most of this millennium, playing alongside Emma Salokoski in Quintessence, and then becoming prominent in the flagship of the genre, the Ilmiliekki Quartet. This band shot to fame in 2002 as winners of the Young Nordic Jazz Comet Award, which led to their producing two well-received CDs on TUM records, March of the Alpha Males and Take It with Me.

With his old bassist Antti Lotjönen behind him, the new constellation has the trumpeter alongside four prominent musicians playing exclusively his own compositions. The music has many similar thematic threads—flowing lines, gradual developments and sparse rhythmics—though maybe a greater sense of spaciousness. The pianist here is Aki Rissanen, whose background is even further left-field than Pohjola's multi-talented former companion Tuomo Prättälä (see Day 3 for details). The inclusion of UMO's own reed specialist Pepa Päivinen on baritone sax and bass clarinet also gives Pohjola more support in his lead role. Their version of Pohjola's "Askisto" from Ilmiliekki's second album echoed this latter development in its lean minimalist textures. This was music to prepare listeners for the nippy air and clear northern sky awaiting the audience outside.

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