Lenny Pickett and some Finnish friends
Knipan, Ekenas, Finland
July 27, 2008
Readers familiar with the New York experimental or art music scene will be familiar with Lenny Pickett from his residence there for the last 25 years, and his involvement with fellow musicians such as Kenny Werner and John Hadfield. West coast veterans may remember his shimmying and jiving (and sax soloing) with the 1970s funk Tower of Power consortium alongside Emilio Castillo and Stephen Doc Kupka. And surely everyone remembers those ear bending solo inserts from his long stay with the Saturday Night Live band.
That is if you are living in the States. To European audiences his availability has been severely limited since an early 1980s tour with David Bowie's band. This elusiveness was due to the usual responsibilities of age and family rearing and recently a professorship at New York University. But these limitations have changed, and if the current project picks up more steam there's a chance of more in store, but so far this summer it has been limited to appearing on Finnish stages.
From a mid-July, meteorologically challenging performance at the mother of all Finnish festivalsthe 43rd Pori Jazz on the west coast where he had guested with the Finnish big band UMO Jazz Orchestra on a Tower of Power tributePickett downscaled for the present occasion. For the rest of his stay in the country he used his time for some solo performances, and for recreating the work he started writing when on Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour along with Stan Harrison, Steve ElsonThe Borneo Horns. Playing this music in Finland, the line-up featured three of the country's leading jazz musicians, all with many years of experience in that same big band: Jouni Jarvela and Pepa Paivinen on saxophones and Joonas Riippa on drums.
For a saxophone ingenue this concert was a baptism with water. As part of a local festival, named after a local castle with a similar name, this was the final Sunday concert and was held in the vintage, wooden harbor-side dance venue known as Knipan in the town of Ekenas. Surrounded on three sides by sea, the saxophones swooped and soared to the accompaniment of local seagulls, while graceful white yachts slid past the windows and into the adjacent docks, under the vast, open blue sky.
The music is tightly orchestrated, pitting the three saxophones in competition, in cohesion but ultimately in cahoots to tease and intrigue the listener. With Paivinen looking after the lower register on baritone, the upper echelons were obviously dominated by Pickett, wielding his mighty tenor sax, E flat clarinet and a somewhat delicate looking old reed instrument he described as a sarrusophone. Pickett's right hand man in the show was Jouni Jarvela, the alto saxophonist with UMO whose scheming had led to the agglomeration of these musicians. This music is not for freak-out fans, with all 12 of the tunes spread out on meters of transcription paper. It's intricate, very contrapuntal, compositional funk, but with a strong element of humor in the mix, as in the circus hoopla of a piece Pickett wrote while performing in a New York circus band. For most first-timers, three horns and a drummer would be heavy fare, but Pickett delivers his show with wit and panache, introducing the numbered pieces with a short story describing their inception. At his side the three Finnish musicians worked long and hard, following lines, jumping octaves, swapping leads and constantly changing roles. This was really a show on a wave.
Unfortunately, the glorious weather outside deterred mass participation, but the clear sea-air inside enabled a quality atmosphere, for the select few sat around the elegant dance area in front of the band. Actually the weather stood little chance once one had crossed the threshold into this classic venue, where the fullness of big-band sounds met the intense interactive focus of post bebop. Despite the intricacy of the composition, reflected in the unflinching concentration of the musicians, the music espoused a timeless human quality having fun with sounds, in or out of the sun.