Finland's April Jazz Festival 2010

Anthony Shaw By

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April Jazz Festival
Espoo/Tapiola, Finland
April 28-May 2, 2010

The wind in these northern climes can hit heavy, even during the sunny days of late April. This year an east wind drove down from the Arctic Ocean and any opportunity to get into the sun needed to be taken—but it's a sign of the progression of the season that out of the shadows, the sun resolutely warmed the body and the soul. The same is typically said for the annual April Jazz festival held late in the month on the edge of Helsinki, across a bridge or two into the adjoining city of Espoo, mainly in the architecturally portentous "garden city" suburb of Tapiola.

Three weeks ago the streets here were still smothered in the heaviest snow that the country has seen in three generations. There were still murky gray remnants piled against north-facing walls adjoining the main venue and administrative center, the Espoo Cultural Center in Tapiola, just half mile from the chilly waters of the Baltic. The arrival of the clutch of colorful foreign artists, like the swans and wading birds currently flowing across the Gulf of Finland to these shores, was a sure sign of the annual revival of spirits that this nation needs after seven months of fairly grueling winter.

April—the month of musical migrants to Finland

If spring in these parts means music, April Jazz has catered for this need now for 23 years, bringing together a roster of artists both international and regional. Headliners from the US this year included Roy Haynes with his Fountain of Youth (following a stunning opening act by 13-year old Israeli prodigy Gadi Lehavi on piano), the Stanley Jordan Trio and George Duke. While these and other prominent European acts featured on the larger stages, one inside the elegant 1960s style concrete and birch hall and the other in the capacious 300 seater marquee tent, two small venues catered for more local artists. Both the Sello Hall in nearby center of Leppävaara and the Louhi Room in the Tapiola Center offer first class publicly supported stages, where more obscure fare can be supported by the latest audio-visual spectacles. Thus, while the likes of the UK's Band of New Heavies, Belgium's Zap Mother or Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers paraded the expansive tented arena, the two smaller stages featured more unfamiliar talents.

My interest was more local artists, primarily from the home country and Scandinavia. The first evening featured Lina Nyberg and her band from Stockholm. A classmate of Esbjorn Svensson and other luminaries of the Swedish scene, maybe one should expect innovation and experimentation from her, and this she supplied in quantity with an evening of her own quirky compositions and banter. Her polished, witty style is matched by her well balanced quartet featuring the male powerhouse of Josef Kellerdahl and Peter Danemo on bass and drums, and the equally quirky, delicate piano work of Cecilia Persson. Nyberg's writing style is something of a cross between glee club and post punk songstress, described elsewhere as "avant cabaret jazz." She obviously relishes the opportunities her ten year professional career has provided to explore environments as well as relationships, with songs from Yokohama to Jamaica, from isolation to motherhood. Nyberg's voice was an equally strong asset to the evening's show, often lugubrious and mature, but then light and frivolous as she burst into a murmuring or mangled scat break. Her repertoire featured mainly her own compositions with songs of all types and running the gamut of emotions, giving plenty of space to exhibit the band's free jazz inclinations. Here was yet another example of Scandinavians taking the language and idioms of the Americas and making them their own, with style.

The same evening, in the other small hall in Tapiola, Jukka Perko took the stage with an array of contemporary Finnish stars to recreate his tribute to the Finnish experience in Africa. The germ for the work sprouted when he spent some months living in Benin. Premièred at the 2009 Viapori Jazz Festival 34216 , this six part composition had a strong rhythmic style and featured two powerful percussionists Teppo Mäkynen and Jaska Lukkarinen, as well has space for the other musicians to stretch their professional skills. In addition to Perko's saxophone the line-up was Antti Kujanpää on piano and Ilmiliekki partners Verneri Pohjola on trumpet and Antti Lötjönen on bass. As at its première, the dramatic back-drop visuals by Jenni Valorinta were based on the classical local artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela's work on the continent in the late nineteenth century, matched by the musicians accompanying themselves with vivid orange and green polystyrene staffs (aka swimming aides!) in the final, highly percussive, sung chorus.

If all the colors of the rainbow are needed to banish your spring blues and grays then try Jimi Tenor and Kabu Kabu—I mean as much their attire as their music. With three percussionists straddling the stage you expect a rousing from any tendencies to hibernation, but with a wardrobe straight out of the Rocky Horror Show (the range including Tenor's sequined, floor length gown, a caped trombonist and one drummer in full Ghanaian national costume) the prevalence of dark glasses on stage might better have been shared with the audience! Originally a student of classical flute, Osmo Tapio Lehto opted to reinvent himself by incorporating the name of his childhood hero Jimmy Osmond combined with that of his preferred instrument, and burst onto the club scene of the early 1980s with his band The Shamans. Always more of a solo artist, Tenor's frequent relocations in Europe and the US have resulted in a regular if somewhat cultish following eager to savor his many solo releases during the '90s. During these years he collaborated with many names—the Flat Earth Society from Belgium, and not least Afro-beat drum pioneer Tony Allen.

This century saw Tenor playing with the 8-man Kabu Kabu; originally from Berlin, the band features four Finns, two Ghanaians, one Cuban and a German. The music was a soul flavored funk, with Tenor adding flourishes of electronica from his retro-looking Korg synthesizers, and short solos from flute and sax, while the percussionists and the 3-man brass section maintained a powerful interaction and rapport. Without strong vocal domination, the music was more suited to a club environment, and the intimacy of the smaller stage in the Tapiola Cultural Center came very close to bringing the appreciative but typically reserved Finnish audience to their dancing feet.

Earlier the same evening, the bigger stages featured artists whose names brought a larger audience out despite the grisly equinoctial weather that the season is equally likely to offer. Stanley Jordan demonstrated his guitar virtuosity in the Cultural Center, while in the marquee the African soul-styled Zap Mama followed a stalwart of the Finnish jazz artist Lenni-Kalle Taipale. After his breakthrough at Porijazz in 1997, through his media-friendly approach and regular TV appearances this local-boy-made-good can be said to have been responsible for pioneering almost single-handedly the introduction of mainstream jazz to the Finnish public in the 1990s.

The evening of the last day of April in Finland was one not to be taken lightly. The celebration of May Day started some days before when one started to see the vivid red, green, or yellow party dungarees of the undergraduate population on the streets selling student magazines, and generally getting into party mode for the equivalent of a Scandinavian Mardi-gras. Originally a celebration of the industrial workers, culminating in mass marches and speeches in the morning of the Day itself, the student population as well as their non-academic peers have succeeded in turning the evening before into a frenzy of street festivity celebrating the passing of the winter and the somewhat suspect arrival of spring. Catering to such tastes were Dwayne Dopsie and his Zydeco Hellraisers and Swedish Timba-style Calle Real in the marquee, while inside the Center the local Espoo Big Band had invited a string of guests to perform pieces written or inspired by the singer Joni Mitchell. Two female singers stood out for mention here as leaders of the younger generation of female Finnish artists bringing foreign influences to bear in their own work in Finnish: Emma Salokoski and Johanna Iivanainen.

Salokoski made her name performing in the late 1990s with the Finnish nu-soul styled Quintessence, before establishing her own nu-bossa Ensemble for performances around Scandinavia. While her vocal presence may not assert itself as a dominant stage feature, Salokoski as consistently worked with the county's finest musicians in line-ups where the vocalist is more on a par with her instrumentalists. Her disc of Swedish evergreens released in summer 2009 Vi Sålde Våra Hemman was created in partnership with the ever-influential Ilmiliekki band in which her husband Olavi Louhivuori also plays drums. This venture into the English speaking arena with Mitchell's lyrics is little more than could be expected of a singer already well established performing in both languages of her home country. Likewise her compatriot Johanna Iivanainen has also worked earlier with many of Finland's leading jazz artists in recent years both on records and in joint projects, most prominently Eero Koivistoinen. In the illustrious company of the local Espoo Big Band and its conductor Petri Juutilainen, along with guest saxophonist Manuel Dunkel, these two stars of the up and coming Finnish female jazz world raised their collective tributes to Ms. Mitchell.

May Day, May Day

To soothe sore heads or invigorate flagging party spirits, the May Day holiday in Tapiola featured an all-afternoon brunch involving all manner of musicians. With the majority of the country engaged in public or private partying, typically defying the elements with party tables set up in parks and gardens, often under umbrellas and awnings, April Jazz's in-tent shirtsleeve brunch program was a rolling affair. The main artist was the former local enfant terrible guitarist Marzi Nyman accompanied by the likes of Dwayne Dopsie, and other local luminaries like multi-percussionist Markus Poussa.

Winding up the fourth festival day was a veteran of Finnish popular and progressive artist rosters, Anna-Mari Kähärä. Known locally for her recent interest in using the lyrics of British and American poets (from William Blake and Robert Louis Stevenson to Charles Bukowski), Kähärä has a long pedigree of composition and performance. A native of central Finland, Kähärä has been active center stage of Finnish jazz and modern music creation since 1983 when she helped found and furbish material for the female trio How Many Sisters (a respectful parody on the name of a successful 1950s Finnish trio, the Harmony Sisters). Kähärä has worked with film and theatrical scores, performed as a member of the archetypal Finnish ethno-jazz quartet ZetaBoo (her accordion and vocals alongside coruscating guitar of Jarmo Saari), and written songs in particular for the internationally successful a capella sextet Rajaton (Boundless).

In 2005 Kähärä released her long awaited first solo album, featuring Saari alonside crossover classical violinist Pekka Kuusisto, the ever-incandescent Marzi Nyman and percussionist Poussa. The record was well received in its homeland, selling out in Finland and generating some interest abroad. The danger of such an ensemble of gifted individuals is that they fail to gel as a single musical entity; however with Kähärä now playing the pivotal role as solo vocalist the breadth of style more reflects the quixotic character of her own persona. Her songs incorporate the multiple influences on musicians in this country located on the very edge of political Europe, where the musical traditions of pre-industrial shamanism still exist alongside a culture of highly sophisticated classicism, experimental and mainstream. Kähärä's brand of music is a modern female professional's reaction to these deeply embedded Finnish styles, combined with her personal investigation of themes and contradictions close to her heart—a treat for the musically inquisitive, and the concerts a delightful challenge for all involved! The show on Saturday evening lived up to expectations with significant offerings of new material, including settings of poems by Edward Thomas and John Masefield, Snow and Sea Fever respectively. The talents of her band members blended well on the extended pieces, with Kähärä abandoning her piano and controlling the show from behind her microphone. For her encore she added her own respects to Joni Mitchell, singing the classic "Woodstock," followed by "So this is Love" by Dougans and Cobain.

Sunday was the second, unofficial day of the Finnish Spring Party, but the focus of the festival had by this time reverted to the true community spirit, with the tent stage taken over by students of the local music school Ebeli. With the high number of currently successful Finnish professionals originating in this locality, the quality of the performances by the new generations was no great surprise. The school's own Ebelin Choir set the standard with a stirring a capella song, followed by multiple line-ups of future stars. The coincidence of the stately departure of the black window-tinted Beatthestreet bus, slowly bearing away the big names of the event, with the arrival on stage of these fresh faces of Finnish youth seemed a sure sign that the spirit and quality of this well supported local festivity is guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

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