The third TUMFest of contemporary and experimental music was held January 26-28 mainly in the familiar surroundings of the rococo Savoy Theatre in downtown Helsinki, a cozy venue sheltering artists and audience from the typically extreme winter conditions outside; a second venue on Sunday was the renowned Church in the Rock, an environment partly carved out of the local red granite and, as its Finnish name implies, provocatively suggestive of pagan ritualTemppeliaukio Church. As in earlier festivals, the line-up included a mix of artists local and international, all with recent or up-coming releases with host record company, TUM, a label increasingly known for its recordings of free and avante-garde jazz, as well as its beautifully crafted cover art.
The first evening's program featured the younger and arguably more adventurous artists, in particular Kalle Kalima with K-18, and saxophonist Mats Gustaffson playing solo. Kalima set the tone for Friday evening with a series of 5 pieces inspired by different scenes in Stanley Kubrick's work, together representing a cinematic collage of urgency and intensity to be musically explored by his band members.
The four-piece ensemble featured Veli Kujala on modified, quarter-tone capable accordion, Mikko Innanen on saxophones and some percussion, and veteran classical and improvisational composer and educationalist Teppo Hauta-aho on acoustic bass and towel flapping! Drawn from films such as Full Metal Jacket, The Shining and Clockwork Orange, the excerpts permitted the band to create primarily guitar-inspired soundscapes, with dueling alto sax and accordion producing suitably eerie ambiences. Hauta-aho's antics provided some light relief from the extreme concentration of the other soloists who, despite this being their first public performance, kept the audience on the edges of their seats.
Mats Gustafsson in turn drove the audience back into their chairs with an onslaught of sound and silence, the like of which I have never experienced before even when confronted by an electric band. Picking up the free/improvisational baton from fellow Swede Peter Brötzmann, and an acknowledged student of Anthony Braxton, Gustafsson has played with many luminaries, including Derek Bailey, Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton. This evening he performed on solo baritone saxophone, apart from an opening number on slide saxophone (apparently a strange pre-war Swedish invention). The pieces ranged from the calm and sparse to the cacophonous and seemingly chaotic, leaving this listener exhausted but inspired to learn more about this curious instrument and its assertive and somewhat bizarre sound.
Last on Friday night, and in gentle contrast to the exuberance of Gustafsson, was the Mbira Trio, featuring composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and Min Xiao-Fen on pipa (Japanese guitar) and female vocalising. This was another adventure down experimental avenues or, more accurately, along tracks which led the listener to similar destinations as Gustafsson's, but by a different route. Trumpet led the way, supported by the steady drumming of akLaff. Challenge materialised from across the stage in the form of the amplified pipa, strutting and choking the melody line with single and multiple string runs and counter-rhythms. When the sound seemed to settle down, Xiao-Fen took to the vocal microphone to explore another expressive avenue, inevitably bringing memories of Yoko Ono's vocalisations. Another inspiring and intriguing performance.
The largest presence on the Saturday stage was surely the final act of guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, playing his own new composition The Sky is Ruby, with the local UMO Big Band's 16 members. Before this piece were two very tight performances by two very contrasting bands. First up was Ilmiliekki, the young Finnish acoustic quartet, which recently played Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola , NYC (see review). Including tracks mainly from their second album Take It With Me, TUM Records 2006, the band offered a set of neatly-arranged pieces led by their two most prominent memberstrumpeter Verneri Pohjola and pianist Tuomas Prätilä.
For some listeners, Werneri's trumpet may be too hesitant or imprecise, but the corollary is his exploration of very mellow breathy sounds, which complement Prätilä's melodic piano. The rhythms of bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Olavi Louhivuori also deserve special mention, maintaining a discrete presence, but well capable of ratcheting up the drive power, as in Louhivuori's "Hatchi."
Second up was violinist Billy Bangs, who needs no introduction to audiences in New York. Neither did his colleagues for the evening, playing as the FAB TrioJoe Fonda and Barry Altschul. Individually they have played with numerous luminaries of the American scene, including Archie Shepp, Sun RA, and Anthony Braxton. Their performance bore the wealth of experience they hold, as they played one extended piece with solos from all members. For a final number, the melody of Compay Segundo's "Chan Chan" rang forth, proving the ensemble's inspiration to be at once essentially rhythmic and traditionally ethnic.
The UMO Jazz Orchestra is something of an institution in Finland and turns regularly to premier pieces by the country's leading contemporary composers, be they from jazz, rock or classical backgrounds. One of them, Raoul Björkenheim, has been engaged over the years in all three fields, and the final show of the Savoy Theatre concerts featured the premiere of his latest offering, The Sky is Ruby.
Having moved far from his initial success with his rock-inspired band Krakatao in the early 1980s, Björkenheim now works with musicians from across the spectrum. A previous record Shadowglow was produced with drummer Lucas Ligeti, a personal appearance on Boxing Day at The Stone, New York was with Hamid Parker and William Drake, and current engagements find him working with the Avanti Chamber Orchestra.
The Sky Is Ruby might be termed a "conventional" avant-garde composition, but with greater than usual space for solo contributions from the band memberspercussion and saxophones, in particular. In addition to Björkenheim, the featured soloists were UMO founder and "old man of Finnish jazz" Juhani Aaltonen on flute and saxophones, and Iro Haarla on piano and, briefly, on concert harp.
Although the festival continued on the following evening in the atmospheric modern church venue with a concert of Double TriosAaltonen's and the FAB'sthe abiding memories from the festival are: the array of brass from UMO; Haarla and her delicate harp; grisly Aaltonen centre-stage with his selection of hardware; and bouncing between his admirably restrained exotic guitar and the introduction mic, the tousled composer Björkenheim, introducing and explaining occasionally in three languages. In sum, a thoroughly multicultural event of diverse and contemporary modern music.