We Jazz Live: Jazz From Finland

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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Documenting the Finnish label We Jazz Records' ongoing live activities, the "We Jazz Live Plates" volumes present a fairly complete overview of the label's roster of talent in a live environment. Volumes 2 and 3 of this project have been released together and present recordings of various projects' performances at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki on the one hand (Ateneum 2019), and open-air concerts captured on the island of Lonna, just outside Helsinki, on the other (Lonna 2019). From a hard-swinging post-bop session in the hands of the Aleksi Heinola Quintet to Antti Lotjonen's Quintet East label debut, and from the experimental, folk-flavored extravaganza as demonstrated by the Hämeenlinna-based quartet Oaagaada to extended reworkings of tried and tested material by the label's star duo of Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen, the two live albums cover a lot of ground and demonstrate just how vibrant jazz is in Finland today.

Various Artists
Ateneum 2019
We Jazz Records

First off, it has to be mentioned that the sound quality of these discs doesn't quite match the label's otherwise meticulous sonic production values, and therefore don't belong among today's flagship live recordings as regards sonic properties. However, what the albums lack in transparency, they more than make up for in the compositional resourcefulness they present and the contagious energy they capture. Helsinkian quartet OK:KO, whose debut outing Syrtti saw the light of day in 2019, opens the proceedings with punchy modern jazz exhibitions that find the low rumbling of a Fender Rhodes humming to hip-hop-infused drum beats and ferocious saxophone blowing. Both compositions are off of their debut album but treated to very different interpretations that highlight the band's tight interplay and command over the contrasting, or rather complementing powers of composition and improvisation. The [drummer] Joonas Leppänen-lead outfit Alter Ego's two contributions to the disc suffer a bit more from the somewhat modest sound quality and have a hard time making up for the lack in transparency, which is subsequently far less noticeable in the hands of Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen. Their conversational pieces provide exciting arcs of percussion and melody which beg to be savored with patience and a fondness of the experimental side of jazz. All of these projects' studio albums (Antti Lötjönen's debut was released in April 2020) deserve a place in any jazz enthusiast's record collection, while these live performances provide an exciting glimpse into how they interpret that work live.

Various Artists
Lonna 2019
We Jazz Records

Wind blowing against the mic and a muffled count-in preface the hard-bopping opening set of the Aleksi Heinola Quintet, of which the liveliness takes it to the next level. Again, the sound leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the swing on the "Giant Steps"-inspired opening title "Drift" is real. Heinola's straight forward no-nonsense style of drumming recalls old-school swing mentors like Billy Higgins or Philly Joe Jones while Manuel Dunkel and Mikko Karjalainen 2's free-wheeling sax and trumpet exchanges wouldn't sound misplaced in the context of Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers. Antti Lotjonen's take on swing is of a calmer nature here, though the cuts from its debut record for We Jazz (ALQE, 2020) would tend to disagree. A trinity of horns (including Finnish trumpet-star Verneri Pohjola) tenderly huffs and puffs to Don Cherry's "Art Deco," blowing over a strolling rhythm section, whose coolness again is steeped in the swinging tradition of the '50s. The old-school air of the set is loosened up by Oaagaada, whose folkloric and percussive approach brings a new flavor to the table. The squealing duality between Tuure Tammi on trumpet and Sami Pekkola on alto and soprano brings to mind the free-spirited and extroverted language Dewey Redman and Don Cherry shared in their '70s and '80s post-Ornette Coleman undertakings— particularly with the quartet Old and New Dreams. The undefined double bass booming on the band's second contribution to this album tends to steal the show in a bad way, but the group's chemistry and proficiency remains undeniable.

Musically-speaking, Ateneum 2019 and Lonna 2019 give an exciting overview of what We Jazz has to offer and aptly present the large amount of talent that is cooking in Finland's jazz scene. Sonically the records however aren't representative of We Jazz' otherwise remarkable production values. It's safe to say that in the context of a live situation the former criterion is more relevant and eclipses any grievances with the sound. In the end the music prevails and some very special moments have been captured here.

Tracks and Personnel

Ateneum 2019

Tracks: OK:KO Syrtti; Piik; Alder Ego: Cubism; Mystery Room Nr. 6; Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen: Fallow; Goldenrod.

Personnel: OK:KO: Okko Saastamoinen: drums; Jarno Tikka: tenor sax; Toomas Keski-Säntti: Fender-Rhodes; Mikael Saastamoinen: bass. Alder Ego: Joonas Leppänen: drums; Tomi Nikku: trumpet; Jarno Tikka: Saxophone; Thema Akerblom: bass. Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen: Timo Lassy: saxophone; Teppo Mäkynen: drums.

Lonna 2019

Tracks: Aleksi Heinola Quintet: Drift. Antti Lötjönen Quintet East: Art Deco. Oaagaada: Ennakkotiedoista poiketen; Zaa. Aleksi Heinola Quintet: Bouncin' at the S.U.P.

Personnel: Aleksi Heinola Quintet: Aleksi Heinola:drums; Manuel Dunkel: tenor sax; Mikael Jakobsson: Fender Rhodes; Nate Francis: bass; Mikko "Guru" Karjalainen: trumpet. Antti Lötjönen Quintet East: Antti Lötjönen: bass; Vernerji Pohjola: trumpet; Mikko Innanen: alto saxohpone; Jussi Sannaste: tenor saxophone; Joonas Riippa:drums. Oaagaada: Tuure Tammi: trumpet; Sami Pekkola: alto saxophone & soprano saxophone, shrunk boxes; Tero Kemppainen: bass; Simo Laihonen: drums.

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