44th International Pori Jazz Festival
July 10-18, 2009
Summer festivals have been a feature of the music scene probably since time immemorialWolfgang Mozart was very familiar with the concept at least, writing commissions for evening fêtes and soirées. And it has surely always been an inescapable fact that the weather can make or break the show. All festival organizers and audiences have to contend with this unfortunate fact of life, and one can only guess how Wolfgang and company managed before the invention of waterproof fabrics. It was my great fortune to make my first trip to Finland's largest, explicitly jazz focused festival, on two of the sunniest days of the very variable Nordic summer.
Despite the previous lack of large venues and the distance from major European cities (Pori is nearly 250 kilometers even from Helsinki), the festival has built up a reputation for attracting major international artists. Undeterred by its apparent isolation, over the years the likes of Charles Mingus, Cab Calloway, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock have appeared. Since the start of the new millennium, the roster has been extended to include names such as Sting, Santana and Stevie Wonder, which has succeeded in keeping the attendances for this 10-day long musical feast constantly well over 100,000.
The lack of sunblock in my logistical planning was down to expectations of a thoroughly wet sojourn on Finland's west coast, but the combination of a highly arboreal and hence shady setting, and the prevailing sea breezes, made the two day sojourn nothing less than superb. The festival is mainly spread along the southern banks of the River Kokemäki in the center of Pori, particularly along Jazz Street, a pedestrianized road running 200 meters beside the river. The two largest venues are accessed across any one of three bridges, on an island called Kirjurinluoto, situated between two branches of the river. Walking between concerts was a pleasure in the sun, though the hordes of bicycles showed that the local population were aware of the distances involved. A folding bicycle may well be among my luggage next time.
The lack of accommodation proved incidental with the official campsite affording apparently limitless flat space under the pines on the southern edge of the town. The trip into the festival area took 15 minutes by shuttle bus, and by the latter half of the festival week, it ran continuously throughout the day and into the early hours. Many local folks took the chance of earning some extra cash by renting out their apartments or houses for the week. In addition, there was simple dormitory lodging in some local schools for a modest sum, though it did not seem to be bookable by internet. The only major drawback of the event seemed to be that existential necessity of having to choose between simultaneously appearing artists.
For most visitors, this selection is less of a challenge as tickets for different venues must be booked separately with no day passes to be had. This is surely a factor of the multiplicity as well as the longevity of the event, this year being the 44th, and the last under the artistic directorship of one of the original founders, Jyrki Kangas. Even if he can be credited with much of the success for establishing and sustaining the event, he also must be held responsible for the festival's ventures into realms far removed from its original jazz intent. The most notorious of these was in 2002 the booking of ACDC from a fraudulent agent who absconded with the considerable advance payment.
Raphael Saadiq on Pori's main stage on Thursday, July 16
Kangas has frequently stated his aim to be "thinking big," and in all respects this year's program lived up to this, with the artist roster including a large proportion of acts well outside the jazz rubric. This is such an intrinsic part of the modern nature of the festival business that it barely merits a mention, except to congratulate the organizers for daring to continue the range far into the left field, including a stage (host to the Ultra-Music Nights) for acts so extreme that to classify them as music beggars the concept itself. Where else in such northern latitudes would one have the chance to see performances of such quality from international artists who normally are only found at clubs in New York, Paris or Berlin? Indeed the 'contemporary impro chamber opera' of the Free Tallin Trio with their guest double bassist Joelle Léandre, and the frenetic "dadaist" solo piano performance of Matthew Bourne, are unlikely to pass from my memory for years to come, creating new reference points for evaluating the extreme!