Review: Tampere Jazz Happening

Pascal Dorban in Finland sees Henri Texier, Denys Baptiste and the Art Ensemble of Chicago among a host of Scandinavian performers

2018 saw the 37th edition of the Tampere Jazz Happening (TJH), winner of the 2017 Europe Jazz Network award for adventurous programming. It was truly a great year for this colorful festival, which took place during the long weekend of All Saints’ Day.

The older a fine wine’s vintage, the better - 73-year-old French bass player Henri Texier (pictured right) opened Friday evening beautifully with his brand-new Sand Quintet project. Texier’s trademark compositions were embellished by two horns: his son Sébastien on alto and clarinet and Vincent Lê Quang on tenor and soprano. Guitarist Manu Codja’s inimitable style added a light electric touch, and last but not least, Gautier Garrigue manned the drums with power enough to carry his fellow musicians through the set.

Prior to this gorgeous opening, the Jazz Finland organisation had awarded drummer Jussi Lehtonen the Yrjö Jazz Prize, Finland’s most prestigious jazz award.

It was Lehtonen and his energetic quartet that let us sample the quality to be expected from the Finnish bands performing later in the evening in Telakka, the smaller festival venue traditionally devoted to the local scene.Between international gigs at Pakkahuone, Tampere’s trio Black Motor delivered a strong set while trumpet player Martti Vesala’s Soundpost Quintet paid tribute to the jazz luminaries of the 60s.

Before the last Finnish gig of the night, Maxxxtet, led by saxophone player Max Zenger, Norwegian Trygve “Longbeard” Seim (pictured below left), took us on a mystifying Nordic voyage from his home fjords to the capital of Finland, where Seim composed his project Helsinki Songs. Trygve Seim’s quartet is an excellent model of collaboration between Nordic musicians, featuring his countryman the bassist Matias Eilertsen, Estonian piano player Kristjan Randalu, and Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari.

Another Finnish drummer, the prolific Olavi Louhivori, wowed the audience on Saturday with the debut of his new Scandinavian band Net of Indra. Besides Palle Danielsson’s immaculate bass line, Louhivori’s captivating playing provided a perfect counterpoint to the dialoguing (and sometimes duelling) of two horns - Juhani Aaltonen on saxophone and Eivind Lonning on trumpet. Norway, the theme country of next year’s Jazzahead, sent another ambassador on Saturday: Porsgrunn native Bugge Wesseltoft with the new Rymden trio, featuring two former members of EST. They came to present one of their first gigs before an official CD release with ACT Music early next year.

Telakka’s Finnish sets on Saturday included drummer Teppo Mäkynen’s newest band 3TM, a trio (as the name suggests) combining jazz with electronic elements. The second set of the evening was Halme Prospekt, a sextet led by saxophone player Hepa Halme. Near midnight, they were followed by the Mopo trio, further graced with the presence of saxophone player Mikko Innanen.

Finnish jazz undoubtedly played a key role in the four-day festival. Once the audience had caught the last "Trane" (UK-based Denys Baptiste’s latest project which, as one might imagine, makes reference to Coltrane’s music), they were left to dance the night away to the music of Timo Lassy & Ricky-Tick Big Band Brass, a famous Finnish 15-piece ensemble. On the same stage the night before, the New York-based Ghost-Note delivered their first-ever international performance in Tampere, with a percussive funk that kept everyone at Klubi kicking into the wee hours of the morning.

In an attempt to attract newcomers to this popular festival, the TJH has made a tradition of running a free event in Klubi, with a spotlight on a different country each time. This year the festival started on Thursday with Austria as the theme, offering three gigs for a younger audience, notably the last set of the evening with the unexpected trio Elektro Guzzi and their techno music which seemed unfortunately a bit out of place for a jazz festival. The other two Austrian bands were better ambassadors for the jazz cause: the evening kicked off in the finest possible groove with trumpet player Mario Rom’s Interzone project, to be quickly followed by the quartet Kompost 3 and their modern reading of jazz mixed with electronic and rock elements.

Sunday was mainly devoted to large ensembles, the most famous being the Art Ensemble of Chicago (pictured right). This band with its 50-year history was on a promotional tour for their 21-CD luxury box, released by ECM records. Prior to this closing act at Pakkahuone, audience members were enchanted by two other great ensembles, each in its own unique fashion. The Swedish Fire! Orchestra is a group that has featured up to 28 musicians at a time. This year in Tampere, 13 of them led by Mats Gustafsson on baritone sax joined forces for an intense one-hour set, leading into flutist Jamie Baum’s first appearance at the TJH. Jamie Baum’s ambitious arrangements of Middle Eastern music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and her own compositions – notably the Shiva Suite composed shortly after the earthquake that rocked Nepal in 2015 - captivated the audience with a first-class band of seven members comprising some of the finest NY-based musicians.

The Pakkahuone big stage closed down around 7.00 pm, but the audience could still flock to Telakka and enjoy one of the best Finnish gigs of the long weekend. Along with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Tuomo Prättälä on piano, the Ilmiliekki Quartet boasts two of Finland’s most iconic jazz musicians: the aforementioned Olavi Louhivuori and the winner of the 2017 Yrjö Jazz Prize, Verneri Pohjola. Their project reinterpreting Finnish-Swedish folk songs in the language of jazz would certainly not have had the same impact without the sensual voice of Louhivuori’s ex-wife Emma Salokoski, whose stage presence helped those who couldn’t find a seat forget the discomfort of standing in the packed venue.

100 years ago, the streets of Tampere were the scene of a bloody civil war from which neither civilians nor or even children were spared. Bullet grooves can still be felt along the walls of the Old Customs House Cultural Centre, home of both the Klubi and the Pakkahuone. In a world growing ever more divided thanks to elected dictators of all stripes, music seems to be one of the few things that brings us together. We should be thankful to the TJH and many other music festivals around the globe for doing that work so very well. Long live the Tampere Jazz Happening.

Photos by Maarit Kytöharju

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