Tampere is the biggest inland town of Scandinavia, but it’s sitting between two lakes on a narrow strip of land, so it has a somewhat marine air about it. Due to the abundance of water it was an important industrial center for papermills and textiles, but now most of these heavy industries have moved elsewhere: Finland’s prosperity is based on high technology, and in fact a town called Nokia is within driving distance. The industrial building have been converted to community centers for cultural activities, so Tampere’s movie, theater and jazz festivals all share the old Customs’ house, in whose storage room a well equipped, comfortable auditorium has been created; in what used to be the offices’ wing, on the ground floor a spacious club - Klubi – welcomes the guests with food and beverages, while on the first floor the offices of the festival are nicely situated. There musicians and guests mingle and relax thanks to the home made food offered simply but friendly: the festival’s cooks give a major contribution to the warm atmosphere.
The vibe of the festival is extremely relaxed yet still well focused on the music, but what strikes me most is the completely mixed audience: men and women, young and not so young, with a respectful and open attitude to the phsycally impaired. The sad view of middle aged white men (me included) tapping their foot to the music, so typical of many jazz clubs, is unknown in Tampere, and the feeling is so much better in consequence.
The opening day featured three groups which shared a fresh approach to the music, drawing on jazz tradition but freely mixing in it with club music and free improvisation: Wibutee, Erik Truffaz’s quartet and The Bad Plus were equally convincing on musical grounds, but for sheer energy, focus and expressive range I found the French trumpeter’s set the most convincing. Wibutee plays – as leader, saxophonist Hakon Kornstad had it – improvised club music, which is yet another cumbersome way of avoiding the “jazz” word but also a reasonable description of what they do. Starting with some basic ideas they build intensity until each piece lift off, or otherwise they change direction. The improvised exchanges within the frontline of sax and bass were taut and to the point. Truffaz’s set was an all-around success: the group switches from the obvious electric Miles influences to a Larry Young’s style organ trio, and then again to melodic, softly-shaded melodies where the points of reference include Don Cherry and Enrico Rava. An extended, frantic solo by Swiss bassist Marcello Giuliani drew a roaring applause from the crowd, and drummer Erbetta, also Swiss, switched effortlessy from a heavy rockish approach to a polyrhytmic propulsion influenced by Elvin and Tony Williams, in one piece – the surrealistic “Walk of the Giant Turtle” – foregoing swing completely for a rigid timekeeping on an assortment of pots and pans. The quartet was obviously benefiting from a long tour in the Czech Republic. The Bad Plus are heralded as The Next Big Thing in jazz, and it’s a difficult tag to live with; their completely acoustic take on an Aphex Twin tune was hilarious, with the drummer imitating the mechanic, segmented style of a drum machine and generally I felt a distinct influence of the Mengelberg-Bennink conception of music, and I do say this as a compliment. Madcap drummer Dave King’s energy and invention are a show by themselves.
The fourth show of the day was the set of Juhani Aaltonen trio in a nearby restaurant, with a standing room only crowd. This leading figure of the Finnnish jazz saxophone delivered a powerful statement in the difficult setting of the trio with bass and drums, no harmonic instrument to rely on. Based on the classic influence of Coltrane, Aaltonen’s sax expanded slowly in thoughtful, long melodic lines, building intensity and momentum, well supported by bassist Uffe Krokfors and drummer Tom Nekljudow. An excellent group, well-represented on ther most recent Cd on the elegant TUM imprint.
I had to skip some of the nine (9) sets on Saturday, which started early with a panel discussion about European-American relationship in Jazz. Stuart Nicholson started with some quietly provocative statements about the need for the American establishment in jazz education to freeze and control the form of the music, in order to better generate business; Howard Mandel disagreed on some of the points, but he also denounced any kind of orthodoxy and purification of the music. A short discussion followed in front of a surprisingly numerous and attentive audience, nicely chaired by the Nod Knowles, director of Bath Jazz Festival. No conclusions were reached, but there was food for thoughts for all.
The Electrics – a most appropriate name for a completely acoustic quartet – opened the musical proceedings. They are a northern European group formed by musicians well known for their wide network of collaborations, in particular Strid played with Marilyn Crispell. They manage to combine the microscopic movements of minimal european improvisation with a soft, cool sound somewhat reminiscent of Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, especially when saxophonist Sture Ericson shifts to the baritone and drummer Raymond Strid sticks to brushes. Axel Dorner’s instrument does not look like a trumpet, nor does it sound like a trumpet, and his inclusion of vocal sounds, breathing and gurgling noises expands the vocabulary of the instrument building on the tradition of Rex Stewart, Lester Bowie, Leo Smith and Bill Dixon.
The Scorch trio led by Finnish guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim was, you guessed, scorching. The popularity of the instrument truly escapes me, and the references to classic rock “power trios” were lost on my ears, which refused at some point further scorching. Uri Caine’s Bedrock Trio was to me slightly disappointing, mainly because I’d rather hear his piano playing than some electronic keyboard; I also fail to understand the import of DJ Olive’s contributions. However, Caine is nothing less than a genius and a musical explorer, so there’s always something striking in his music, and bassist Tim Lefebvre with drummer Zach Danziger laid out ever changing, mesmerizing grooves.
Billy Bang Quintet was a very welcome occasion to hear again at length guitarist Ben Nix, of Ornette fame. He has the difficult task of taking the place of the late Frank Lowe, a major and sadly missed voice of modern jazz. Violin, despite the best efforts of many excellent musicians, remains to me always a guest in jazz, almost like flute, and Bang’s solos didn’t change my mind. The best moments of the set came when the leader left ample space to Nix, aptly supported by Todd Nicholson on bass and Newman Taylor-Baker on drums.
The Healing Song is a project conceived by the creative team of Patricia Nicholson and William Parker, a true powerhouse of American creativity: it is based on a combination of dance and music, with four dancers and four musicians, going through a loosely organized narration or rather celebration of the diversity and beauty of life. It was strongly evocative, musically and visually drawing on shamanistic tradition, with whirling and circular motions accompanied by Parker on zurna and bamboo flute and Parker on frame drum. The transition to African American creative tradition was smooth and natural, marked by Parker switching to bass and Drake sitting at the trap set; the dancers led and organized by Patricia were highly effective also through vocal and recitation. I would not be honest if I didn’t mention that as a male I was aware of the deep beauty of the three women on stage, evoking the feminine spirits of Earth. Rob Brown on saxophones and Lewis Barnes on trumpet were up to the difficult challenge. The whole atmosphere was highly charged, attaining the highest levels of the Great Black Music tradition as established by Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra. A work that truly deserves presentation in festivals all over the world, kudos to Tampere for giving Maestro Parker the chance to create it. Later on, Joe McPhee and Raymond Boni played on the club stage. The set was dedicated to the late Frank Lowe, and the open melodies by McPhee were beautifully complemented by the delicate sounds of Boni’s guitar and effects. The surroundings were however quite noisy and I do not think it was an appropriate setting for the music; at the 14th hour exhaustion also settled in.
Finnish Samuli Mikkonen presented some of the best Finnish musicians in an ambitious Octet, but the music was rather static and all in all the set sounded less than the sum of its parts, even if very strong solos were delivered by saxophonist Sakari Kukko and bassist Uffe Krokfors (everybody in Finland seems to want him on bass). Louis Sclavis Quartet is, quite simply, one of the best groups in European jazz today. The French clarinetist and saxophonist seems to have found a mature balance between improvisation and structure, pure sound and melody; the group can sound uncanny Djangoesque at times, with Dane Hasse Poulsen picking the guitar and Vincent Courtois plucking his cello bass-style, while Mederic Collignon switches from perfectly playing in unison with Sclavis intricate melodic lines to vocal and body sounds that range from comic to disturbing – always without missing a beat and to the great amusement of his comrades. An exhilarating set, titled “Napoli’s Walls” as the first inspiration for the project were the frescoes painted by a French painter in the Italian town.
Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, with Swede Mats Gustafsson on baritone, started with the custom sonic assault, but after clearing the air and the ears of the audience proceeded through a series of episodes, loosely organized by the leader on a graphic score and ranging from dynamic small group improvisation through melodic, microtonal excursions by Brotzmann on tarogato (the wooden and conic shaped Hungarian clarinet) backed by slow moving chords played by the ensemble led by trombonist Jeb Bishop. The group is very strong in energy and invention, with Vandermark, McPhee and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm especially poignant in their solos.
The festival was closed by a jam session, hosted by Bjorkenheim again; his opening solo performance was much more open and varied than his “official” set, and then he was joined among others by Gustafsson, McPhee, Drake and Poulsen for a free for all that accompanied the audience in the club to the small hours of the morning, as if nobody wanted really this feast to end.