Tampere Jazz Happening
October 29-November 1, 2009
A two-hour drive northwest from Finland's capital of Helsinki and situated between breathtaking views of lakes Näsijšrvi and Pyhäjärvi (two of the near 190,000 in this modestly titled "Land of a Thousand Lakes") is the quaint city of Tampere which provides an ideal setting for its annual Tampere Jazz Happening (TJH). With three venues in close proximity, a basic stone's throw from one another (Tullikamarin Kulttuurikeskus, the historic Old Customs House seating 1,000; Tulliklubi's mostly standing room only, club atmosphere with a capacity closer to though not over 400 and Telakka, a more traditional sit-down jazz venue and the smallest of the three), Executive Director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen and Producer/Program Director Juha Matti Kauppinen have continued a well-established tradition with its deserving reputation as one of Europe's strongest jazz festivals now in its 28th year.
With an expectedly strong Finnish representation (Raoul Bjorkenheim, Juhani Aaltonen, Mikko Innanen's Innkvisitio), this year also involved a wide swath of countries: Cuba (Roberto Fonseca), England (Portico Quartet), Turkey (Taksim Trio), Sweden (Martin Küchen), India (Trilok Gurtu's exemplary global ensemble of musicians from Germany, Spain, Italy and Reunion Island near Mozambique) and the US (Mike Reed, Trio M, Dave Douglas, Dr. Lonnie Smith).
The festival rather unceremoniously started with a film screening of the "The Lost String" (2006) documentary on guitarist Marc Ribot. Though unusually programmed as the official opening event to the four-day TJH, for this visiting Manhattan-ite the movie nicely offered plenty of sights and sounds of Ribot and New York City, particularly comforting with the unfortunate news that day of the Yankees first game loss in the World Series (we know how that series wound up in the end, thank goodness!).
"Sold Out" signs before concerts were commonplace and a good sign considering the global economy. Finnish musicians took advantage of the full houses by shining that much brighter under the spotlight though accompanied by extreme (admittedly overboard on more than one occasion) smoke and light shows, particularly effective at Tulliklubi. Grunge-like in persona, music and name, local favorites Black Motor (with drummer/spokesperson/nominal leader Simo Laihonen, saxophonist Sami Sippola and bassist Ville Rauhala) immediately followed the Ribot screening on opening night, and they impressively engineered high-energy, rhythmically driving improvisations with the thick-toned trumpet of guest Verneri Pohjola whose deceiving comfort didn't let on to this being only his second performance with the band. Laihonen inserted a Milford Graves and Hamid Drake-like polyrhythmic display underneath the two-horn frontlineSippola at times Kidd Jordan and Albert Ayler-esque in his speaking in tongue extremes while Pohjola revealed Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown and Kenny Wheeler to be solid influences, making for interesting harmonies between the extremes to say the least.
The following night's late set - tenor and baritone saxophonist Timo Lassy's CD release concert (Round Two on Ricky-Tick) brought an appealing form of jazz to the dance floor. The Finnish saxman can play with the smoothness of a Hank Crawford or Houston Person, but a gruffness particularly on baritone that conveniently draws attention away from the common rhythmic monotony that had frantic fans bouncing and grooving to the foundation laid down by percussionist Abdissa "Mamba" Assefa and drummer Teppo Mäkynen (the latter a band mate of Lassy's also in the highly acclaimed Helsinki-based Five Corners Quintet).
Telakka played host exclusively to Finnish ensembles. Guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim, who just returned to Finland after seven years in New York, has been a festival mainstay, performing in the inaugural year (1982) and at least 10 others since. His co-led quartet with organist/vocalist Jukka Gustavson (also with acoustic and electric bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Mika Kallio) unabashedly injected a level of edgy intensity into the group's already evident Tony Williams Lifetime-influenced aesthetic. Bjorkenheim's style, with a soaring abandon reminiscent of both Jimi Hendrix and, appropriately enough, John McLaughlin (another third of the onetime Lifetime), complemented Gustavson's Larry Young-inspired, jazz rock playing and obvious influence. Their cover of "Once I Loved" (recorded by Lifetime on Turn It Over), Gustavson intriguingly Jackie Paris-esque in tone, was part of a medley that melded perfectly with John Coltrane's "Resolution" (part two of the iconic four-part A Love Supreme). In addition they performed original and memorable renditions of Carla Bley's "Vashkar," the blues vehicle "Sweet Little Angel" and as an encore a Bjorkenheim-fronted dismantling of Coltrane's "Big Nick."