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Tampere Jazz Happening 2008

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The town of Tampere in Finland grew up as a place of industry—it was called the Manchester of the North—and that sense of incredibly dedicated industry is present in its annual Jazz Happening. The event is just one of many festivals presented in this town of some 200,000 people and is part of a triumvirate of music festivals—the others being the Biennale, for modern contemporary composition, and the Vocal Music Festival, for choral and ensemble singing.
The 27th Annual Jazz Happening demonstrated the vitality and diversity of adventurous music and the warmth and spirit of Finland. Producers Minnakaisa Kuivalainen and Juhamatti Kauppinen and a large host of other employees, volunteers and city officials are to be highly commended for an extraordinary event. In essentially three venues, jazz and new music performances and films played to packed houses. Not once in any of them was there any difficulty with the sound and even the most 'difficult' musics found their audiences.
The formal proceedings actually were prefaced by a warmup night at Telakka on October 29th. The Jouni Hokkanen Quintet played music that somehow was both challengingly cool and invitingly hot.
The Happening kicked off on October 30th at Klubi, basically a rock club, with some short films, including Daniel Kraus' Musician, a documentary portrait of Ken Vandermark and what it means for him to be a committed artist. The films were followed by Astro Can Caravan, a nine-piece Finnish ensemble that combined the interstellar carnival atmosphere—complete with robes and hats—of Sun Ra with a darker brooding melodic sense that might be found in a heavy metal concert. The results were deadpan, musically dense and highly entertaining.

The first full night of music had some true gems indeed. The evening was introduced at Tullikamarin (Old Customs House Hall) with a moment of memorial tribute to Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson, of EST, who had died in June of this year. The host then referred to what was to come as being about "color and power" and about the vitality of women. That was deftly proven in a free improvisation by saxophonist Lotte Anker, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and electronics artist Ikue Mori.

A festival highlight came next at the same venue—a performance of the newest "chapter" of an ambitious musical narrative by saxophonist/composer Matana Roberts, "Coin Coin: Mississippi Moonchile". Her work is multi-layered with fragments of jazz, gospel, classical, Irish and more in a beautifully woven piece that pays tribute to Ms. Roberts' lineage. She was backed by a powerful band—Jason Palmer (trumpet), Hill Greene (bass), Shoko Nagai (piano), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Jeremiah Griffin (vocals). Just after the band went off stage, the sound system played a Mingus work and it all felt of a piece.

The evening also included Telarc artist Hiromi and her Sonicbloom Trio and a smoking, groove-based set from Finnish guitarist Niklas Winter and his quintet. Things closed out at 1 am with another trio set—this one by pianist Iiro Rantala. The difference here was that the bass part was played by young Felix Zenger on beatbox! And this was not gimmicky—it was fresh and appealing.

Saturday was full—afternoon and evening—and included: a lovely chamber-like performance by Karikko, with musicians from Finland, France and Norway; Circulasione Totale Orchestra, an international, free-improvising big band led by Norwegian reedman Frode Gjerstad and featuring Americans Bobby Bradford and Kevin Norton amongst others and the dynamic keyboardist Omar Sosa and his Afreecanos Quartet playing powerful Latin jazz.

The power and colors continued for the final day (begun for this writer with the staggering heat and cold of a Finnish sauna) in some truly striking ways. Pianist/composer Sid Hille led his Platypus Ensemble accompanied by a string quartet in smartly composed music inspired by, among others, Clare Fischer. Then came another one of those ear- and mind-changing events: an hour of powerful noise by Steamboat Switzerland, a trio of organ and electronics, bass and drums. The music seemed chaotic and unrestrained but was actually nearly through-composed, as was made clear by the quantities of sheet music that the members played from and then flung to the floor! The afternoon closed with the master saxophonist/clarinetist Michel Portal and his elegant, intelligent, vital quartet music. After a film about Finnish jazz legend Otto Donner, the Happening came to an end with a funk-inspired hour from Dana Leong's Milk and Jade. The party groove was a perfect way to end inspired days of music.

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