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Live Review

Flow Festival 2023

Flow Festival 2023

Courtesy Konstantin Kondrukhov


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Flow Festival
Suvilahti, Helsinki, Finland
August 11-13, 2023

The stark quantity and sheer quality of improvised and instrumental music on offer at Finland's Flow Festival only starts to make sense when you dig into its roots. Once loudly crowned by Vogue as "the Nordics countries' coolest festival"—a fact the event's PR team are not in a hurry to let you forget—the Helsinki hipster fest was, it turns out, originally founded 19 years ago as a jazz and soul happening. At the helm was and is a certain Tuomas Kallio, the forward-thinking producer behind The Five Corners Quintet, a sample-based fictional five-piece which eventually evolved into a real-life Finnish jazz supergroup. (At least two alumni were present and accounted for at this year's Flow.)

Now, "genre-bleed" festivals may be increasingly common; but the consistent commitment to wiggier sounds witnessed at Flow—where daily attendance hits 30,000 and the bulk of the budget is spent tempting big-name pop and indie acts like Lorde and Blur to Finland—is the most welcome surprise. Hosted in the sprawl of an abandoned power station's grounds, of Flow's five "main" live music stages, two are dedicated almost exclusively to jazz, experimental music and global grooves (a further four spaces are devoted to DJs). Now, any multi-stage festival is a simultaneously exciting/frustrating whirlpool of chance discoveries, missed moments and audio adventures not taken, but at Flow it feels possible for different strands of music fan to realise their own reality in parallel bubbles—indeed a hip-hop fan, house head, ageing rocker or, yes, jazzbo could live our their best three days without ever straying into an unfamiliar musical climate.

A 360° perspective

Look only to first-day highlight Nala Sinephro, whose thrilling, improvised ambient soundscaping provided a jolting, welcome antidote to the Britpop histrionics of Suede and the pounding Afrobeats of Wizkid on the mainstage. The Caribbean-Belgian harpist/keyboardist/producer made hypnotic waves with Space 1.8 (2021, Warp Records), a meandering, meditative set which received the ultimate indie honour of a Pitchfork end-of-year ranking. The LP was a beautiful, beguiling and introspective late-night affair that one might not imagine would translate so compellingly to a live environment—but at Flow its expansive drones and secular spiritualism was summoned in 3D by a nuanced quintet, with two additional synth/electronic players (plus horn and drums) playing respectful rings round the leader .

The venue for this nocturnal Friday set was the Balloon 360° stage, a self-contained sonic universe which, situated at the furthest end of the festival area, took on the vibe of an insiders' retreat. The circular arena was styled like a mini-Roman amphitheatre, with rows of stadium-style seating, plus ample space to rubberneck (or dance) closer to the action. It was the ideal venue to witness DOMi + JD Beck, the consistently confounding, infuriatingly iconoclastic keys-and-drum duo who make a point of performing facing each other—doubtless a habit formed during their early days as freewheeling YouTube wunderkids. Coupled with their snotty irreverence, this precocious seating arrangement can feel like an audience turn-off—but suited the "in the round staging" ideally, with every audience member offered a trackside view of the sonic mania unfolding. The best vantage? Undoubtedly behind Domi Louna's toilet seat—yesh, yes, she (still) performs on a porta-potty for a piano stool—watching her fingers blaze up and down the keys, while a pink boot danced over organ-style bass pedals. Interestingly, despite a year on the road, reams of sheet music still line her instrument—a sign that all this irreverent horseplay isn't as easy as they make it look. "I've never been more vulnerable in life," admits the 23-year-old French musician, a few songs in.

Her band mate is just 20, and while much childish banter still remains—nearly every song is seemingly introduced as the set's "worst"—it feels a notably slicker, more mature outing than the duo's appearance at Pori Jazz a year earlier. In the meantime, debut album Not Tight (2022, Blue Note) emerged to enthusiastic reviews—sometimes tempered with a lingering sense that it failed to quite capture the controlled chaos of the pair's viral-famous improv freakouts. This, then, is the final post-modern twist—the LP's songs, bottled for consumption and then set free again. Instrumental workouts like "Whatup" and "Sniff" are thrilling pinch-me, hype-justifying musical workouts, while early single "Smile" and the restless tempo changes of "Duke" (a tribute both to Duke Ellington, and, er using the bathroom) portray a canny gift for crafting memorable modern R&B grooves perhaps only lacking a vocal hook. Two of the record's (many) celeb vocal features are reproduced with apologetic aplomb—"Bowling," originally sung by early supporter Thundercat and Herbie Hancock vocoder moment "Moon"—but it's the cheeky throwaway "U Don't Have to Rob Me," voiced in-house on record and on stage, which lands hardest. Doubtless haters still remain, but reverently virtuosic, back-to-back swoops through Weather Report's "Havona" and Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species" should really silence any remaining echoes of dissent. This pair means business.

Helsinki Rocks

There was an intriguing intergenerational clash of homegrown artists on display at Flow 2023. Finnish keyboardist Olli Ahvenlahti presented a somewhat premature 50th anniversary celebration of his celebrated '70s crossover hit The Poet (1976, Love Records) while simultaneously previewing a forthcoming sequel. Proudly touting the same Fender Rhodes from those halcyon dates, the 74-year-old led a quintet who all looked significantly younger than the instrument in question (I checked: standout soloist Jukka Eskola was born in 1978). The band's politely uninspired, willfully nostalgic funk-blues vamping makes fine fare for a bright summer Sunday afternoon, with new tunes "Paint it Blue," "Red Wood Story" and the chilled "Let's Take a Walk" all sitting comfortably next to old favourite "Grandma's Rocking Chair." Original vinyl copies of The Poetmay now sell for more than US$200, one can't help feeling this music was a simulacrum of its American peers back in the day, and this late-career attempt to relive the moment only invites unwelcome scrutiny of its flimsy legs.

Skipping forward a few generations, the New York-based Kaisa's Machine is after more elusive, ephemeral sonic fruit. Leader/bassist Kaisa Mäensivu claims to have taken lessons with the mighty Ron Carter, and her conservatory-honed compositional ambitions are evident in the knotty time signatures found on EP Taking Shape(Greenleaf Music, 2023). The name is apt—this quintet is far more realised than the stripped back trio of the same name we caught a half-decade back. "Sink or Swim" could be a mission statement, it's frenetic stop-start structure, angular guitar riff and elegant bowed bass concocted to offer shades of light and dark, while "Gravity" is a an urgent vamp recently singled out (alongside Taylor Swift!) as a track of the week by The New York Times. Husband Joe Peri is a clear asset on drums, especially evident when the group strips back to a trio for the delicate "Shadow Mind," offering the leader a rare extended bass solo. If Carter's influence was to be heard, it was in the winding intro to subsequent "Floating Light." Feisty, funky "East Dessert Closer" brought the set to a clipping close.

Sitting between these two generationally is percussionist/producer Teppo Mäkynen, a celebrated multi-hyphenate veteran known for numerous projects including his ambient/acoustic trio 3TM, freewheeling duets with saxophonist Timo Lassy, and spots in supergroups Nuspirit Helsinki and, yes, Five Corners. Lately, however, Mäkynen revived his early DJ alias Teddy Rok for Atonal Drums (2022, We Jazz), an uncompromising self-produced release which was realised onstage at Flow alongside keyboardist/sonic architect Nikita Rafaelov—a young keyboardist the scene-elder apparently met playing basketball. It's an intuitive combo overflowing with empathy, pounding and pondering between heft and weightlessness, noise and form, rhythm and freedom—at first listen more organic, human and relatable than the album that inspired it.

Destination: Out!

Mäkynen's show took place indoors at The Other Sound, an all-seated, pitch-black theatre programming avant-garde and experimental sounds (and a dash of dance!) which ranged from synapse-firing profundity to the infuriatingly middling—often in the same set. Most thrillingly, Finland's own Meriheini Luoto brought a spine-tingling intensity to frantic, frazzled, looped violin concoctions. Elsewhere, Berlin-based composer Maya Shenfield conjured textured electronic sonic sculptures that emerged like glaciers from a calm blue ocean. Arushi Jain's electro-raga schtick droned intently and without compromise, somewhat undermined by a self-conscious sense of performance.

Yet the most arresting—and important—improvisation of the entire festival arguably happened on the mainstage, when Linda Fredriksson made a surprise appearance midway through Finnish pop/rock headliner Olavi Uusivirta's 40th birthday/20th anniversary set—delivering a searing, jagged, free jazz solo over several minutes which made zero concessions to its commercially minded environs.

Globalised grooves

In truth, Flow feels most fulfilling when its icy instincts for all things cool meld with an overflowing compassion for groove, most evident in the list of heavyweight international names on display. Algote Oho and his Sounds of Joy delivered exactly what's advertised on the tin. Context, as ever, is everything—just compare the Ghanaian gospel singer's early afternoon set to a rainy, empty field at Pori Jazz a year earlier to this year's 11pm Saturday night performance to a crazed amphitheatre at Flow. Touring O Yinne! (2023, Philophon) hard, the eight-piece band played with a sense of purpose and road-tested aplomb which testifies to their growing reputation in Europe. While the band appears to be moving ever-farther away from the traditional stylings of the leaders' Frafra gospel roots, the infectious joy (pun intended) of this party-starting outfit onstage is irrefutable.

In a similar piece of canny programming, reggae icon Horace Andy was, of course, an ideal foil for a sundown Sunday slot, while Esa's Afro-Synth Band, led by South African producer Esa Williams, closed Friday night with a joyous hoe-down of vintage synth-heavy Afro-disco bangers. Similar synths and a shameless retro magpie approach drive hometown hero Arp Frique, whose four-piece Family reappropriates joyous Afro-funk for the teeming European masses. Indeed, omnivorous, post-genre groove magpies are the name of the day—and inevitably work wonders at any festival where the sun is shining. Neapolitan production duo (and former Tony Allen collaborators) Nu Genea presented a live band to realise their chilled yacht-disco Bar Mediterraneo (2022, Carpsello Records) LP on the larger Black Tent, a larger tent also invaded by Amsterdam-based Mauskovic Dance Band, whose grabbag, club-ready cocktail of Afro-Caribbean rhythms can't fail to provoke body spasms. Back at 360°, more respectful homage was paid by Helsinki-based psych-cumbia outfit Ne Galaktiset—my niche vinyl find of the weekend. So if we came for jazz, we left with a syncopated swagger in our step—even the often-formulaic DJ stages betrayed a worldly awareness of record curio-collecting trends, with the label heads of We Jazz Records, Funky Habibi and Awesome Tapes from Africa all called on to riffle through their crates for exotic funky finds (or in the case of the latter, actual cassette tapes).

Go with the Flow?

Flow has done a fine job of reading the room while directing the conversation—of sating a broader demographic without forgetting the inner muso. And as ticket prices continue to spiral for big-name tours, the event offers a timely reminder to its audience of the joys of discovery—the uncompromising programming of its multi-stage format offering ample opportunities for even the most jaded ears to be wowed. However, this was the final event to be staged in the open canvas of Helsinki's repurposed Suvilahti industrial area, Flow's home since 2007. Let's hope wherever it finds itself in 2024, it's able to keep up its current eclecticism—because we will be back for more.

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