Review: We Jazz, Helsinki

Wif Stenger experiences the first ever We Jazz Festival in Helsinki, featuring a colourful array of sounds and venues with an emphasis on the visual

A lively jazz scene has blossomed in Helsinki in the past decade – yet it has lacked a proper festival beyond the small, all-domestic Viapori island series and April Jazz in nearby Espoo.

The We Jazz series (9-14 December), curated by DJ/journalist Matti Nives, offered a strong visual element, starting with exhibitions of cover art, paintings, photos and films. These included a rarely seen 1971 ECM documentary featuring Wadada Leo Smith, See The Music – which could have been a motto for the festival.
Drummer Teppo Mäkynen’s trio performed playful “3D loft sets” surrounded by 360-degree projections of animated films and a bemused, bespectacled audience. At the other extreme were two sold-out sets played in complete darkness by saxophonist Jukka Perko. He wove a spiritual journey, drawing on his experiences with Dizzy Gillespie, orchestral work, tangos, hymns and settings of Kahlil Gibran.

A vintage cinema owned by the filmmaking Kaurismäki brothers hosted drummer Olavi Louhivuori’s Oddarrang quintet. Accompanied by short abstract films, they presented their acclaimed new album In Cinema, with its forays into ambient, post-rock and psychedelia. The capacity crowd was transfixed.

The festival’s other venues were just as intriguing. They ranged from an 1870s Russian opera house to the Savoy, an acoustically warm 1930s Art Deco theatre, and an elegantly expanded Koko Jazz Club, the city’s prime jazz hotspot in recent years.

The final day, Saturday, brought a jazz brunch followed by a children’s concert and workshops at the Tavastia rock club. That featured a guest jazz fairytale by rapper Paleface – who recently starred on a bestselling album and tour with the Ricky-Tick Big Band. This time he was backed by saxophonist Linda Fredriksson’s playful “punk-jazz” Mopo – and overhead projections of live painting.

Mopo also played a grown-up evening set at Koko alongside another experimental trio, Black Motor (pictured), and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, son of the late bassist Pekka.

The city’s other best-known trumpeter, Jukka Eskola, appeared with his easy-listening Orquesta Bossa. Like drummer Mäkynen, he’s an alumnus of Helsinki’s most celebrated band, the Five Corners Quintet (2003-2010).
Indeed, all of its graduates played at We Jazz, including saxman Timo Lassy. He launched a new live album on Italy’s Schema Records with help from soulful US vocalist Joyce Elaine Yuille and Holland’s DJ Maestro, mixer of several Blue Note compilations.

The Five Corners veterans tended toward more crowd-friendly retro and danceable sounds. Yet there was also a strong contingent of dissonance-loving free players, such as Berlin-based guitarist Kalle Kalima, witty, minimalist drummer Joonas Riippa and skronky saxophonist Mikko Innanen – who’s played with the likes of Wadada Leo Smith and Billy Cobham.

That experimental bent carried over to the foreign guests. They included American pioneers Andrew Cyrille and Greg Osby, plus Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who led a closing-night stomp at the Savoy.

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