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Helsinki Jazz Festival Moves to the Islands

Anthony Shaw By

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Viapori Jazz
Suomenlinna Islands, Helsinki, Finland
August 26-29, 2009

In 1855 the British Navy did their very best to obliterate this fortress of seven linked islands just off the entrance to the harbor of Helsinki. The two-day bombardment is said to have sent almost 200 tons of iron raining down to subjugate the Russian naval forces based there. The Baltic Fleet left the area after two days, and despite triumphant claims in the contemporary press, whether they succeeded in subjugating this "Gibraltar of the North" is an open question. But this summer, with the entire audience queuing for the 15-minute ferry ride back into the center of Helsinki, shimmering across the water in the violet end of summer sunset, the success of organizers of this year's Viapori Jazz concerts was not in doubt.


Visitors to the islands normally include a number of foreign faces, this being one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Every end of summer (August in this northern clime) the magnificent stone ramparts and grassy subterranean storage bunkers offer a backdrop to a clutch of up-and-coming Finnish artists, but with rarely a foreign name appearing on the list. This year's roster included a mix of mainly younger local jazz musicians, the most famous of which on the world scale is probably accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, renowned for his performances with Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto in KTU. In essence, this is a local jazz festival, part of the huge Helsinki Festival, which itself brings many vaunted world artists from all fields to town in the last weeks of August. Since 2001, when local residents started the project, Viapori Jazz has attracted the best Finnish artists such as Juhani Aaltonen, and Pekka Pohjola. Unlike other Finnish festivals, and without losing any credibility as a serious operation, the organizers are able to draw on the wealth of local talent that Finland now has to offer.


Jukka Perko shot to international stardom at the Pori Jazz Festival in 1987 when we was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to join his band on the main stage, after he had been heard jamming on a side venue the previous day. Having led his own band now for nearly 20 years, he was working this time both as Artistic Director for the festival as well as opener for the first show. He was joined in the vaulted old bakery hall of the nineteenth-century Russian army barracks surrounded by an array of Finnish jazz glitterati. These included Kalevi Louhivuori on trumpet, Antti Lötjönen on bass, Jaska Lukkarinen and Teppo Mäkinen on drums and Antti Kujanpää on piano. The show was specially created for this festival, combining the six pieces with a back projection of graphics taken from the sketches and paintings of Finland's national-romantic painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Perko himself spent time in Benin and was equally inspired to write by his experiences there. The new work is called Akseli in Africa, featuring powerful and at times local rhythms and even including a melody transcribed in the painter's notebook.

Thursday night saw the new local line-up of Kimmo Pohjonen with old collaborator Sami Kuoppamäki on drums and Timo Kämäräinen, a guitarist with a predominantly rock portfolio except for his extensive work with the long-standing Finnish big band UMO Orchestra. Playing for only the second time as K3, Pohjonen leads this assertive male trio in an instrumental exploration of electric landscapes, occasionally delicate and sublime, but typically thunderous and overwhelming. The most effective piece seemed to be when Kämäräinen left behind his Stratocaster and used an acoustic axe accompanied Pohjonen as a duo, leaving space for the audience to digest the subtleties of their sound.

Friday was the turn of old colleagues from Ilmiliekki to reassemble behind the voice of Timo Kiiskinen to perform songs by the legendary Chet Baker. With their drummer replaced by guitarist Tuomo Dahlblom, Pohjola, Prättälä and Lötjönen played Baker's old hits with a new twist. As the singer pointed out, he was not trying to recreate Baker's singular style, but offer an interpretation based around his own translation of the lyrics into Finnish. The subtleties of this may be lost on an English-speaking audience, but not the effort to adapt the humors and tragedies of Baker's songs, deftly accompanied by these regulars of the Finnish jazz scene. The late show this evening saw local musician-as-performance artist Zarkus Poussa performing a program of songs with his own accompaniment of guitar percussion and his own personalized orchestrations.

Saturday was bravura day with three major concerts, all starring bright young things of the new, and sometimes nu, jazz scene in the capital area. First was Iiro Rantala's New Trio, featuring the pianist from Trio Töykeät flanked on stage by Finnish guitar hero of the new millennium Marzi Nyman, and newcomer Felix Zenger adding percussive oral shuffles and sounds with his vocalized "beatbox." Rantala himself, in the guise of former trio pianist, is a veteran of more traditional cutting-edge musics, but his highly percussive, frenetic style seems to suit this near disco style of current crossover.

Later in the afternoon Werneri Pohjola and former Ilmiliekki colleague Tuomo Prättälä joined together in the old church—Europe's only one also serving duty as a lighthouse—to perform a duet with Music for Listeners— Kuuloväiselle. This was an exploration of pure acoustic sounds in the suitably austere, white, former orthodox church on the island, a meditative occasion on the cusp of spiritual experience. Later in the evening the festival was wound up in contemporary style by a new nine-piece ensemble gathered in the Bakery under the name Yona. The band comprises Yona Louhivuori leading the vocals, her husband Kalevi Louhivuori on trumpet, flugelhorn and keyboards, and a raft of seven other prominent young Finnish instrumentalists, including a quartet of strings. This young chanteuse writes and sings in her mother tongue and in an ethereal style, somewhat reminiscent of Aimee Mann, thus bringing this essentially local festival to an end on a note of youthful, delicate and authentic Finnish style.

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