| 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.
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 eventsthe Espoo Big Band, along with their conductor and festival inaugurator Martti Lappalainentook 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 successmistress 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!