Preview: Helsinki jazz festivals

Wif Stenger previews four Finnish festivals, with acts ranging from local punk-jazz and string trios to names such as Roy Hargrove, Ginger Baker and Peter Erskine

Helsinki’s record-hot summer climaxes on a jazzy note in August and September, beginning with Flow Festival (8-10 August) at a century-old gasworks. Dubbed “the hipster festival” by locals, its focus is on indie rock, electronic and world music. Throughout its history, it has always booked jazz as well, starting in 2004 with the Five Corners Quintet.

The members of that now-defunct Helsinki band have gone on to dominate local jazz in the decade since, including double bassist Antti Lötjönen, who’s become the go-to bassist of his generation, playing with Ilmiliekki, Sun Trio and folk-rockers Värttinä. Last year Lötjönen finally launched his own Quartet East with exquisitely minimalist drummer Joonas Riippa, hardworking saxman Jussi Kannaste and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, who recently signed to Edition Records. They appear on 10 August – making Lötjönen the only artist to appear at every Flow since its inception.

Also on the bill is Mopo, the capital’s most exciting band of recent years. Led by saxophonist Linda Fredriksson, this trio mixes jazz, punk and Zappa-esque absurdity. Their joyful live sets may involve rubber squeaky toys, walkabouts in the audience and switching instruments mid-song without missing a note. England's Evan Parker also makes an appearance at Flow.

This year’s American jazz star slot – filled by Ravi Coltrane last year – is held by Texas trumpeter Roy Hargrove. With his unabashedly romantic tone, he’s had a 25-year career with ventures into the worlds of funk, hip-hop, soul and Afro-Cubanism. He appears with a quintet featuring New York’s Justin Robinson on alto sax. Three years ago, Hargrove recorded a live album in New York with French singer Cyrille Aimée. She appears on 23 August at the Helsinki Festival’s Huvila Festival Tent with another trumpeter – and another Five Corners alumnus – Jukka Eskola, leading his light-hearted Orquestra Bossa.

The stylish Huvila Tent, open 15-31 August, also features Israeli-Ethiopian singer Ester Rada on a bill with Brooklyn soul/R&B singer Nicole Willis and her husband, Finnish multi-instrumentalist Jimi Tenor. From further south, there’s expressive New Orleans singer John Boutté, best known for the Treme TV show theme song.
Self-described “hellraiser” Ginger Baker brings his Jazz Confusion quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (of the James Brown and Van Morrison bands), British bassist Alec Dankworth and Ghanaian percussionist Abbas Dodoo. Supporting are Black Motor, an equally irreverent free-jazz trio from Tampere, Finland.

The final jazz night at Huvila is hosted by pianist and TV personality Iiro Rantala, who manages to balance crowd-pleasing romance and restless artistic exploration. He’s done so with sharply contrasting bands, from Trio Töykeät to the human beatbox-driven New Trio. On 28 August he presents two more threesomes: the gentle, lilting String Trio with Croatian cellist Asja Valcic and Polish violinist Adam Baldych (pictured above), and the Super Trio, where he matches wits with German drummer Wolfgang Haffner and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš. The latter has recently been reinventing material from Weather Report, which he co-founded in 1970.

In late August, the Helsinki Festival’s jazz focus shifts to the nearby island of Suomenlinna. Fortified in the mid-eighteenth century, it was badly damaged soon afterward by an Anglo-French bombardment during the Crimean War. Now its atmospheric old stone structures are put to more peaceful uses, including the annual Viapori Jazz festival (27-30 August).

The emphasis is on mid-career domestic talent such as saxophonists Jukka Perko and Timo Lassy – yet another Five Corners graduate, this time duetting with Greek keyboardist George Kontrafouris – and Finland’s two busiest jazz vocalists, Aili Ikonen and Johanna Försti, both veterans of myriad bands and styles.
Surprise inclusions from other genres include gruff Tom Waits-style rocker Tuomari Nurmio, actor Hannu-Pekka Björkman and electronic percussionist Samuli Kosminen, who’s played in various Icelandic and Finnish avant-garde projects.

A few weeks later, the cream of domestic jazz is showcased at the Jazz Finland festival (18-20 September). Hosted by a recently formed national umbrella organisation, it coincides with this year’s European Jazz Conference. Besides drummer Peter Erskine, Finnish leading lights on show include guitarist Raoul Björkenheim along with the aforementioned Ilmiliekki, Sun Trio, Mopo, Lassy, Rantala and many others – a tasty smorgasbord of the country’s bubbling jazz scene.

Rantala: ACT/Arne Reimer
Eskola on JJ homepage: Miikka Pirinen
Viapori Jazz venue: Maarit Kytöharju

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