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Pori Jazz 2022

Pori Jazz 2022

Courtesy Olli Sulin

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Pori Jazz 2022
Kirjurinluoto Concert Park
Pori, Finland
July 14-16, 2022

If this year's 55th annual Pori Jazz festival had a "moment," it was when Immanuel Wilkins invited Shabaka Hutchings to the stage as a surprise guest for a dazzling 14-minute duet that capped the former's spellbinding set, and set the intense tone for the latter's to come shortly after. A cross-generational sax-off lacking all ego or one-upmanship, this searing, sympathetic encounter came loaded with symbolism, the 24-year-old American alto player Wilkins—feted among modern jazz's hottest names ever since debut Omega (2020, Blue Note Records) was crowned the New York Times' best jazz album of 2020—paying tribute to the relatively senior Hutchings, 38, arguably the most visible (and certainly most prolific) figure to emerge from the UK's achingly hip jazz revival of the past decade.

Most of the audience were probably unaware that Hutchings' best-known (and best) project, Sons of Kemet, was playing one of its final dates—the quartet announced its impending dissolution "for the foreseeable future" on social media just six weeks before the Pori show. The bombshell follows both the mainstream breakthrough of last year's fourth long-player, Black to the Future (2021, Impulse!)—a surprise fixture of numerous pop and rock year-end rankings— and, perhaps not coincidentally, tuba player Theon Cross's long-awaited solo debut, Intra-I (2021, New Soil).

But both Kemet and Wilkins' names jumped out among the high-voltage bill—aptly described as "mouth-watering" by one British jazz monthly—assembled for the long-delayed Pori Jazz 2022. With Charles Lloyd, Kenny Garrett, Thundercat, and Joe Lovano playing with Dave Douglas just a few of the other highlights assembled for the three- day affair, it was hard to imagine a hotter European jazz ticket so far this decade.

Blue Note in the 21st century

So, back to Friday afternoon on the Lokki stage, the intimate tucked-away, all-acoustic platform named after the Finnish term for seagull, which was scene of the stirring Wilkins/Hutchings encounter, and much of the festival's most wonderful moments (and there were many). Even before the surprise closer, Wilkins' set was already on course to be the weekend's ecstatic highlight—his quartet opening wordlessly with a mesmerizing, 40-minute sonic suite built on two of Omega's most enigmatic themes, "Grace and Mercy" and "Ferguson—An American Tradition." Both pieces sport smart, easily hummable yet devilishly oblique refrains, which spiral and unravel as off-kilter vamps for minutes at a time, swaying and churning, soaked in water and hung out to dry time and time again. There's a hint of Wayne Shorter in the way Wilkins constructs repeating melodic nuggets that always appear to be asking a question or pondering a point—making jagged leaps but with smooth contours, neither serving up the answer nor shouting in confusion. But the true star here was the group—pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry—whose intuitive interplay portrayed many more years on the road that could have been conceivably clocked, and surely rank among the best young ensembles working in the genre today. The Hutchings appearance, in short, was just the icing on the cake.

A day earlier, in the first of a distressing number of programming dilemmas, Wilkins' label mates Joel Ross and Domi & JD Beck found themselves going head-to-head in near-identical timeslots—a dichotomy that said much about Blue Note Records' groping broad-stroke bids to stay at the forefront of jazz in 2022.

Alternating between vibraphone and piano, Ross directed the steady composure of his acoustic quartet with the studious paternity of not just a band leader but a musical director, conjuring long, open forms building to frenzied rhythmic crescendos. Playing with space and texture, the mood was one of chilled intensity: solemn but uplifting, comforting but cathartic, at peace but unsure. Sadly the spell was broken repeatedly by the boom of Domi's bass keyboard from the neighbouring stage, where a very different conception of modern jazz was being played out.

The genre probably doesn't need any more poster wunderkids, but this pair of irreverent upstarts are sure to command as many headlines as the feathers they ruffle. Sitting face-to-face as if locked in a chess game, this painfully virtuosic duo's set unfolds quickly like a frenetic exchange of interlocking pieces and strategies— the keyboard sounding out big, bright melodies and synthesised bass lines while Beck's restless drumming cycles between ever-shifting breakbeats and club rhythms. The effect is dazzling, not least because they make it seem so carefree—or rather careless.

Introducing one tune as "Pussy with Balls" was a (long-running) joke, but the duets with Herbie Hancock, and Snoop Dogg on their debut album (unreleased at the time of the Pori appearance) show how far uploading improvised jams to YouTube has already taken the pair. No wonder that "internet's most hyped jazz duo" quote is starting to feel less hype and more like a prophecy. "Here's another shitty song next," says Domi, after rattling through a frenetic five-track opening that included single "Thank U," a Madlib and MF Doom medley and an unreleased tune written with Thundercat. "Actually, it's even worse, so be ready," she corrects, in one of many outbursts that make it clear precisely how few fluffs are given.

Legendary headgear

At the other end of the sonic spectrum, then, is the stoic reverence to his art offered by Charles Lloyd, who at 84 appears sage-like in his shaman-esque sound-scaping, prophetically garbed in trademark dark glasses and a beanie hat, touting a sideways-leaning saxophone. A fixture of the hippie rock festivals of the 1960s who enjoyed a second renaissance after signing to ECM Records in 1989, Lloyd never lost sight of the simple spiritualism which makes his work so universally comforting. It's an approach he has aged into remarkably, with many of his recent live recordings, both for ECM and now Blue Note, among the most compelling of his career.

As an improviser, Lloyd was always a master of understated ornamentation, with a probing delivery that suits his twilight years; sudden flurries and riffing triplets dance around the subject in nervous gasps, an uncertain conversationalist always grasping at a point, waiting for breath, but rarely reaching the conclusion he hoped for. It might sound weak or hollow from a lesser talent, but always carries the air of profound meditation on Lloyd's lips—in part because of the sympathetic cast of collaborators the legend seeks out, frequently framed by diverse settings from Indian percussionist (Zakir Hussain) to Americana group The Marvels. This latter-day fascination with pastoral, guitar-drenched moodscapes suits Lloyd especially well, on display here in Pori with a piano-less quintet instead marked with two electric guitars. One was played by featured guest Bill Frisell—an apparently unlikely encounter, presumably because the guitarist is featured on Trios: Chapel (2022, Blue Note), the first in a series of three new releases that pits Lloyd in a series of different three-way summits. The presence of this irregular star power doubtlessly shifted the band dynamic, with some amusing cases of duelling Telecasters—two twanging six-stringers politely sparring, or rather making every effort not to, copping and copying each other's lines rather than trying to outdo them.

Some 23 years Lloyd's junior, Kenny Garrett still carried the same glow (and trademark headgear) of an elder statesman—not least because a good dozen audience members claimed to have been there when Garrett appeared at the same festival some 35 years ago as part of Miles Davis's band. Garrett is also enjoying a renewed burst of critical appeal following the release of last year's Sounds from the Ancestors (Mack Avenue, 2021), a big-hearted, groove-centric collection which at times felt middling on record, but translated effortlessly to the festival stage. With bright hummable themes and an arena-sized delivery, Garrett's New Ancestors quintet drew effortlessly from jazz history, pointing at everything from bebop to John Coltrane's modal jazz, and all the way back to Africa, yet somehow the result felt modern, refreshed, and focused on a never-clumsy future.

The inherent funkiness and the strong uplifting, underlying melodies meant that even at the music's most intense moments there was still something for a more casual audience to grasp onto, while percussionist Rudy Bird's wordless chants offered the music a human soul—as hard as drummer Ronald Bruner cooked, and as high as Garrett soared, the flight always stayed grounded. Despite a dose of rapping on the mic like an uncool grandpa getting down with the kids, Garrett commanded band and crowd alike with the steady poise of a pro. While every member excelled with epic solos, it never felt like any player was comping anyone else, displaying an interplay both musically and personally inspiring. At one amazing moment when the leader played a rocking three-minute a cappella solo, the young drummer mimed along, checked his watch and got up to leave, twice, amid much more tomfoolery—displaying a bare charisma that was a joy to behold.

London calling

If Wilkins and Ross can be credited with injecting fresh verve into traditional acoustic jazz forms, there's little such reverent respect paid in London's modern jazz conceptions, represented by a trio of big-name acts top of any sensible bucket list. On record, trumpeter and vocalist Emma-Jean Thackray can veer between club-orientated singalong soul-pop and dense, Bitches Brew-esque instrumental funk fusion (if you prefer the latter, check the excellent Um Yang EP before 2021's debut album, Yellow). Backed by just drums, keys and electric bass, it was the former she brought to the electrified Op stage—on the basis of the brief snippet witnessed while playing hooky from Wilkins, anyway.

A richer rhythmic spectacle was staged by London's Kokoroko, the electrifying Afro-centric eight-piece who were ideally programmed with a Saturday night Op stage-closing show. Initially pigeon-holed as mere Afrobeat revivalists, the band has blossomed into one of the nation's most reliable party-starters, conjuring thick, funky, global grooves stacked with the same layered polyrhythmic precision as Afrika 70, but filtered through the prism of modern urban music. And it truly felt like a collective—every song introduced by a different member, building to the climax of recent singalong single "Something's Going On."

With debut long-player Could We Be More (2022, Brownswood) on the cusp of release (August 5), most of the music was unfamiliar to the audience, with just a single slow-burning tune ("Ti-de") from their name-making eponymous EP (2019, Brownswood). Clearly the group has grown multitudes since "Abusey Junction" went viral, today conjuring deeper trances and weirder hooks than their debut days. However, while misty- eyed memory may be playing a role, some may have felt the octet cooked even harder on an earlier visit to the region, ideally billed for a 1.30am club gig closing Sweden's Way Out West festival three years earlier.

Earlier the same day, Sons of Kemet were the one "acoustic" act that could, and probably should, have enjoyed exposure to this bigger electric stage—within moments of them taking to Lokki dozens of audience members were crowding in front of the normally seated space. And there was no sitting down: the uninitiated didn't know what had hit them—and perhaps, neither did the programmers. The quartet's unique line-up has always been its calling card, and the line-up of two drummers and two horns has lost none of its novelty or ferocious bite— even with an unfamiliar drummer sitting in at one of the kits after reported transport woes.

The quartet may be a group conception, but in practice it very much feels like Hutchings is captain of this ship, navigating his crew though the tumultuous waters of their own sonic churn. Playing as one eight-limbed beast, the opposing drum kits are set in motion, criss- crossing one another in a gigantic sonic storm that doesn't let up for 30-plus minutes. On top of this, Cross's tuba plays the roll of a bassist, blaring out thunderous, belly-turning riffs with a headbanger's precision. Over this swirling mass Hutchings blurts jagged torrents—pulling melodies from the ether and shooting solos off out into the cosmos. Songs aren't called out or even likely planned—at the climax of each improvisation, the band leader simply returns to the head or signals a new theme, the tuba and drums moving swiftly into step without losing the beat—conjuring one almighty movement that had us on our feet for an hour. The only break came when Hutchings pulled out a traditional flute for an unaccompanied solo which, ironically, only recalls his percussion-less debut solo album Afrikan Culture (2022, Impulse!). This quartet will rightly be mourned by a generation.

Homegrown, all right with me

Finland's own jazz legacy was shyly acknowledged by the appearance of talents young and old, the tone set with a delayed celebration of reedist Juhani Aaltonen's 85th birthday that deserved a better billing than opening the Lokki stage, when most festival goers were still looking for their accommodation or exchanging tickets to wrist bands. They missed his moody, minimalist quintet paint ethereal soundscapes of a distinctly Nordic flavour—symbolically returning to the festival 55 years after making his debut at the second incarnation in 1967.

A better turnout greeted the younger generation, with saxophonist Linda Fredriksson battling to bring the introspective experimentation of her startling debut, Juniper (2022, We Jazz) to life amid a dreary downpour which somewha sucked the soul from this most achingly human music. Apparently, they wrote the bulk of the album on an acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter style, but there was little sign of folk tradition—or often, discernible melody at all. "Neon Light [and the sky was trans]" and the epic grandma- dedicated "Nana—Tepalle" set a steady tone; "Transit in the softest forest, walking, sad, no more sad, leaving" milked it to fatigue.

Earlier the same day, electric bassist Talambo assembled a seven-piece band to present his own idiosyncratic, self-produced debut Delusions of Grandeur (2020, Eclipse Music). Opener "Man Number Nine" was a disorientating collage of sound, while "Time to Escalate" saw two guitarists build a hypnotic jaggy swirl to cushion the leader's heavily distorted bass solo, sitting somewhere between Weather Report and Sonic Youth. Amid wanton instrument swapping, closer "Pekka Buddy" saw two saxophones spurt darting asymmetrical lines over a frenetic electric funk. Stomached whole, this was a live band set which often appeared to hardly resemble the source material, and was all the better for doing so.

The biggest spotlight afforded a Finnish jazz artist went to hotshot arranger/guitarist Valtteri Laurell, whose brass-heavy Nonet had the privilege of opening—and bringing a rare dose of actual jazz to —the main stage. This quasi big band sported the kind of smart, sophisticated arrangements that perhaps betray his background working with pop artists. While the polite literacy threatened to stifle in its safeness, some fiery horn blowouts and taut vamps broke the more easy listening conventions.

You call that jazz?

"How much yatz is there really at Pori Jazz?" a Finnish friend asked me deviously a few days earlier after learning my intended destination. The answer, as the above proves, is quite a ruddy lot. But of course, a mainstream happening that attracts some 200,000 visitors over three days is balanced with a fair amount of pop and rock fare. No complaints here—it's the mass appeal of headline sets by the likes of John Legend, Lewis Capaldi, Gov't Mule, Tinashe and Simply Red that subsidises the appearance of costly legends like Lloyd and Garrett in front of a few hundred faithful fans at the all-acoustic Lokki. You get what you pay for.

But what tips the credential balance in Pori's favour, and away from my sceptical naysaying friend, is the second arena Op stage— scene of not just the electric fusions of Domi & JD Beck, Thackery, Nate Smith and Kokoroko, but plenty of more festival- appropriate, jazz-adjacent fare. Opening Saturday morning, Ghanaian frafra gospel singer Alogte Oho's Sounds of Joy were only dampened by the weekend's persistently poor weather.

The same intermittent storms added an element of windswept drama to Tuareng guitarist Mdou Moctar's rousing Thursday set. Notably, the band's traditional tribal-wear was half-obscured by incongruous sports hoodies to affront the Nordic summer chill. Building slow intensity, and potentially hindered by frozen fingers, one imagined a fish-out-of-water uncertainty as a curious audience slowly assembled, drawn in by the hypnotic desert blues drone. But the set erupted midway with "Chismiten," a sandstorm vamp set on fire with petroleum. Nicknamed the "Jimi Hendrix of Africa" for his stratospheric, plectrum-less guitar wig-outs, Moctar's razor-riffing built to a double crescendo of stage craftsmanship, the leader mime-surfing through key changes while his white left-handed Fender Stratocaster swayed to the beat. "I have an idea—why don't we light a fire and we can all sit down around it?" said the Niger-based talent cheekily. The desert blues aesthetic may have lost some novelty since reaching an international audience with Tinariwen some 15 years ago, but in Moctar's bare hands, the nomadic Tuareg traditions are coiled and set loose: as the rain fell and the polemical "Afrique Victim" was chanted, it felt like a genuine festival moment.

Other crossover moments worthy of note include Cory Wong's instrumental main stage funk juggernaut, which served a conspicuously un-guilty pleasure, while a politically charged set from aging Finnish rock legend Hector was presaged by a 45-minute jazz "reimagining" of his work, much to the apparent amusement of the artist himself (who preferred some timely Putin-bating with an apparently self-translated cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World"— rendered as "Vapaa maailma kun bailaa" ).

Whether you want to call Thundercat jazz may depend on your own sensibilities, but we should all agree on calling him a genius—and perhaps the ideal crossover headliner. The bassist/producer's genre credentials, of course, include the much-hyped role he has played with Kamasi Washington over the years, but the truth it's his contribution to maverick electronic producer Flying Lotus' work that truly marked out his singular gifts. And since 2017's career-defining Drunk—a contender for album of the decade, seriously—Stephen Bruner has enjoyed a rock star's welcome as a solo artist.

On record, Thundercat's music is short, sharp and snippy, intricate musical vignettes often little more than two minutes long, laden with a sideways inner logic and frequent bursts of humour —that all make clear his powers as a writer, producer, comedian and iconoclast. But it's only onstage that Bruner's true improvisation skills are allowed to let rip—after teasing the opening "Rabbit Ho"/"Captain Stupido" medley, the instrumental "Uh Uh" is unleashed (or was it "How Sway"?), a cheeky two-minute instrumental bass workout on record transformed into a freak show of virtuosity and poise. For all the pop sensibilities of his recorded work, Bruner spends a lot more time shredding his pimped-up bass than at the mic. Not that there weren't songs aplenty— "Funny Thing," "Dragonball Durag" and closer "Them Changes" elicited a crazed pit welcome (while "Friend Game remained conspicuously absent!). But these established grooves often serve as jumping-off points for more nerdy noodling—backed by just keys and drums, Bruner gives himself plenty of freedom to twist, stretch out and wiggle his fingers, so like Hendrix or Prince on a hot night, tight pop songs devolve into epic jams of the highest calibre.

Paying an unusual amount of attention to his environment ("this weather is just awesome," he deadpans, more than once, as the rain falls on and on)—Bruner twisted the Mile High Club-vibed continent-crossing love song "Overseas" into an ode about, er, sex on the high seas. "Man it took a long time to get over on that boat," he jokes. "It made me think ... it'd be really nice to do it on a boat." But there was a sombre moment, too, with album closer "It Is What It Is" dedicated to all the artists we've lost in recent years—from close friend Mac Miller and Robert Glasper collaborator MF Doom, to young jazz virtuoso Austin Peralta and the legendary Chick Corea— whose "Got A Match?" he gave a dizzying airing earlier in the set, sure to silence any jazzbos weary of his scholarly credentials.

The bottom line

Established in 1966 at the small seaside town from which it takes its name, Pori Jazz is rightly proud of its ambassadorial role in bringing top-notch international jazz to Nordic Europe—the incredibly granular history section of its website details the line-ups for hundreds of performances from the past five-plus decades. Cancelled in 2020 and 2021, the long-awaited 55th edition hosted 36 acts over three days and across three stages. By my sums, almost half of the bill can be classified as jazz in the (almost) strictest sense, while around two-thirds was jazz-adjacent funk, soul or global groove which falls totally in step with the international jazz festival vibe.

The only niggle? Most of these acts are spread between the intimate Lokki and second Op stage—that are always programmed simultaneously, taking the hour-long slots between the main stage headliners (when no other music is programmed—presumably to avoid sound leakage). In practice, this meant there were at least six hard decisions (run between two sets, or throw all your eggs into one basket?), and some fantastic acts I missed, all heartbreakingly interspersed with lulls in anything improvisational to hear. Now, complaining that there's too much good music to hear is of course the greatest of backhanders—and we all need those breaks to refresh ourselves—but one wonders if the programmers could have been a little bit braver with the early main stage slots at what is proudly billed as a jazz festival (and if the few risks they did take were experiments, then they surely paid off).

In any case, at ??185 (US$189) to catch at least a dozen top-notch jazz acts over three days, the festival presents a very tempting proposition—not least because of its welcoming vibe and serene location. Lokki acts are presented respectfully to hundreds of genuine enthusiasts, in the pleasant environment of a riverside park. There's green space aplenty, food and loo queues were barely encountered and the sound quality was never less than great. Indeed, the somewhat segregated nature of the stages is only a symptom of the organisers' desire to ensure the best quality audio experience. Although a niche reviewer will always argue a little more bravery could have been displayed, Pori Jazz's programming surely ranks among the best of mainstream European jazz festivals, and this edition certainly lived up to all its "mouth- watering" promise.

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