The 2005 Keitelejazz Festival in nekoski, Finland

Mark Sabbatini By

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Not many festival directors recommend "competing" events in another town. Or are surprised by a foreigner bypassing the advice and showing up on opening night.

At least one so distinguishable due to a lack of colorfully spiked hair.

But small-town bluntness and surprise appearances by outsiders represent well the quirkiness and quality of the Keitelejazz Jazz Festival in Äänekoski, a town of 14,000 in central Finland. One of the town's main cultural events, it seemingly aims to be all things for its mostly local listeners during its four-day run.

Opening night featured punk/rock under a scenic outdoor riverside tent. Successive nights progressed through adult-oriented rock, blues and - finally, on the last night - a trio of jazz acts including Dave Weckl, Louis Sclavis and John Abercrombie.

Still, they weren't the only options. Opening night also offered what even promoters called "old jazz for old folks" and Sclavis' closing night act included a liberal dose of French rap. Those seeking a taste of the emerging Finnish jazz scene heard one of the country's best new bands during a relatively sparsely attended final day show.

The emphasis on jazz toward the end of the festival is why Pentti Ronkanen, the event's artistic director, recommended spending some of the other days at the Raahen Rantajatsit (translation: Jazz on the Beach; I never made it there) festival about a three-hour drive away. He said the second-to-last Keitelejazz night normally also focuses on jazz, but became more blues oriented when the festival booked one of his favorite musicians, Irish singer Mary Coughlan.

"When we have chosen one band we start to choose others who will work with that band," he said.

The festival sold about 6,000 tickets to various concerts last year. Ronkanen estimates total attendance at all free and paid events is under 10,000. Hundreds of people come from Helsinki and other Finland towns, but there's little interest in trying to draw a bigger crowd.

"We have no plans to make it any bigger," he said. "We like it like this. We don't have to hire workers."

Äänekoski is largely dependent on logging and related industries, although officials say environmental awareness and more modern technology are increasingly areas of focus. The official city Web site also calls it a town of sports and culture ("who has not of our basketball team our success in track and field, especially our javelin throwers?") where fishing and exploring the lake-filled hilly forests are common. On an unfortunate note, it is also the site of Finland's worst road accident, with 22 people killed and 15 injured on March 19, 2004, when a bus carrying mostly students to a skiing holiday collected with a semi-truck that slipped on black ice.

One flier promotes the city as ranking among the most technically advanced (presumably in Finland), but it isn't immediately apparent. Public Internet access is almost nonexistent, offered only at the library and an aging computer at a tiny fast food joint. The town's finest hotel (name translates to "Hotel Elegant") is a antique building with lots of snaking hallways, stairs, basic rooms and no elevator - the modern touches are a TV with a few channels and a minibar. But the town also features rich cultural touches, including a impressive collection of jazz publications and music by both Finnish and international performers.

Ronkanen, who let me use the Internet hookup at his home in a gesture typical of the generosity found among locals, acknowledges Äänekoski is a relatively rural stop for visiting musicians. But he said for many the change of pace is a plus.

"We have no Hiltons, no four-star hotels," he said. But a group of this year's featured jazz musicians spent a small boat tour jumping from the roof into the lake and "I think it's good for the concert if we have them relaxing like that."

Spiked hair or swingin' seniors?

A serious generation gap dilemma presented itself opening night.

Options included old-fashioned standards by the Tapio Leino Swing Band in the modest dining room of the Hotelli Hirvi (a.k.a. the Elegant) or a trio of punk bands under the outdoor tent. Both are roughly a generation distant from me.

Duty and personal taste suggested swing, but going against instincts and trying to blend in with the sizable spiked hair crowd was seriously appealing - until it became clear the intermittent but heavy rain was going to be a threat all night. Maybe that's for the best - general scuttlebutt during the following days was parents probably got the most enjoyment knowing their kids were happy rockers.


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