After a long, atypically warm fall, snow came early to Tampere this year. The massive storm that swept across Northern Europe on November 1st left a thick blanket of the stuff covering Finland from Helsinki in the south to Tampere, 180 kilometers to the north, and beyond; an accompanying precipitous drop in temperature insured the six-foot drifts would stick around for a while. Caught unaware, local drivers without winter tires spun their wheels in the streets, and the Finns, no strangers to cold, shivered mercilessly in abruptly frigid air.
Yet the 25th Annual Tampere Jazz Happening commenced on schedule the very next night, with an open drum workshop conducted by the percussionist Adam Rudolph and a screening of Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collins' documentary, My Name is Albert Ayler, an impassioned and ambitious biography of the fearsomely rebellious avant-garde sax titan.
That this lovingly programmed festival would begin with Rudolph and Ayler is a clear indication of its leanings: in Tampere, an historic 19th-century manufacturing center reinvented as a university town, Finns like their jazz inclusive, progressive, brutal and challenging. The playful Swedish-Norwegian quintet Atomic drove the point home the following night, kicking things off in the cavernous confines of the heavily spired, century- old brick Customs House that contains the Happening's main stage. As snow fell quietly outside, the group, fueled by the inspired drumming of Oslo's Paal Nisson-Love, tore through a set which typified much of what would be heard over the next three days: music that was sometimes spare, sometimes furious, always disciplined, often fascinating and ultimately exhausting.
Starting right on time (as most acts did the festival is extraordinarily well-managed), Atomic careened continuously from chaos to unity and back, hurtling through tightly-arranged pieces smashing blues, bop, modern and avant- garde elements together with never-careless abandon, and with tongue ever-ready to insert in cheek. (A snippet of "Sentimental Journey," anyone? Hey, why not?) The audience, predominantly Finnish and predominantly mid 30s-50s, sat impassively throughout (with one notable exception; more on that later), yet gave rousing ovations at the end of each number.
This, apparently, is the Tampere way: The crowd was there to listen, and saved its applause for the breaks. Yet the music suffered from it; the musicians played in a vacuum, and, left to their own devices, often shot for pyrotechnics over communication. This tendency was exacerbated by the size of the hallthough the sound was good, the musicians seemed to be very far away and striving mightily to fill the space. Taking over from Atomic, Tunisian oud-player Dhafer Youssef, backed by a trio of too- tightly leashed Finnish musicians (including the remarkable guitarist Eivind Aarset), also failed to conquer the room. Though Youssef's plaintive Sufi chanting initially captured the crowd, he lost the audience in the repetitiveness of his set and tacked-on, squiggly electronica.
New York downtown guitar fixture Marc Ribot, closing the main stage evening, fared no better. One of the festival's two headlinersAndrew Hill would play this role the following nightRibot brought to Tampere his newly formed tribute to the aforementioned Ayler, Spiritual Unity.
Eagerly anticipated, the set was a calamitous and noodling exercise in failure. Ayler's music is about as particular to its historical period (the tumultuous 60s) and its creator (the tumultuous Ayler) as it gets, and even the resurrected presence of the late icon's old bass cohort, Henry Grimes, couldn't save it. His amp turned down low, Ribot forcefully hacked away while Grimes bowed and skittered, trumpeter Roy Campbell smeared and shrieked, drummer Chad Taylor kept up an insistent beat, strange things were blown into, bells jingled and odd tubes whirled, but it had none of Ayler's peculiar passion, and the crowd began filing out of the yawning hall as the music stretched late into the night.