Finnish fests look back . . . and forward

Finland’s two biggest jazz festivals, Espoo and Pori, stick close to their roots this year. Meanwhile the Raahe festival begins a new chapter, says Wif Stenger

When it comes to headliners, April Jazz, in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo (21-26 April), usually banks on safe Grammy and Downbeat award winners, this time David Sanborn, Diane Schuur and Oregon. The second and third-tier bookings may be more interesting, from Birmingham DJ/alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch and Finnish art-jazz vocalist Anna-Mari Kähärä to Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez, veteran of Pat Metheny and John Zorn bands.

The festival entices non-jazz audiences with Portuguese pop-fado singer Ana Moura, cheerful Texas blues/rock singer Ruthie Foster and ex-Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries playing the band’s songs with the local Tapiola Sinfonietta orchestra.

Two of the most-established mid-career Finnish jazzers, pianist Iiro Rantala and saxophonist Jukka Perko, debut their album It Takes Two to Tango (out 24 April on ACT), which reworks Finnish tangos and even Sibelius’s Finlandia.

Also unveiling a new album at the festival is Manuel Dunkel, one of Finland’s most soulful saxophonists over the past 20 years, star of many groups including the UMO big band. His top-flight band features pianist Alexi Tuomarila, drummer Teppo Mäkynen and Swedish trumpeter Anders Bergcrantz.

Finally, Espoo Big Band, which hosts the festival, celebrates its 35th anniversary with Finnish sax legend Juhani Aaltonen (pictured right by Maarit Kytöharju), British trumpeter Gerard Presencer and a “surprise foreign guest star”. Full Espoo programme here.

Pori Jazz
Foreign guest stars abound at the country’s oldest jazz festival, which hits 50 this year in the west-coast town of Pori (11-19 July). Packing up to 24,000 fans into Kirjurinluoto Park, it’s one of the country’s biggest music events. Facing criticism for its shift toward pop, Pori now responds with its strongest jazz line-up in years.

Leading the way is the sorcerer himself, Wayne Shorter, who has appeared at the festival three times (pictured left at Pori 2003 by Kari Erkkilä). He’s also played in Helsinki several times since a 1964 Miles Davis date. His last show, two years ago, proved he’s still an uncompromising improviser who does not pander to mass tastes.

Fellow fusion pioneer Stanley Clarke, cover feature in JJ August 2014, has stuck closer to the commercial mainstream, marking a strong return to fusion with last year's album Up. Clarke, too, is a regular fixture at Pori, makes his third appearance in recent years.

Along with pianist and physicist Vijay Iyer, Pori spotlights two of the most startling young American trumpeters: Ambrose Akinmusire and Theo Croker, grandson of Doc Cheatham and protégé of Donald Byrd and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Bridgewater, too, will be on hand, along with her former guitarist, the ambient-minded Eivind Aarset. He’s part of an impressive contingent from neighbouring Norway including saxophonist Marius Neset, and sometime Aarset collaborator trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer – the latter, curiously enough, with the reggae rhythm section of Sly & Robbie. From Manchester there is GoGo Penguin, while non-jazz headliners include Robert Plant, soul-blues veteran Lee Fields, Kylie Minogue.

A Latin American roster includes young Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Brazilian crooner Ed Motta, farewell-touring Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club and Puerto Rican alto player Miguel Zenón.

Despite its growing pop orientation, Pori has thankfully spotlighted more domestic jazz acts since a new director took over a few years ago. This year they include Finnish jazz’s rising star of the moment, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, son of the late bassist Pekka Pohjola. After a debut album on Germany’s ACT, he has just released the acclaimed Bullhorn on the UK’s Edition Records (vinyl release 30 April).

Other Finnish acts worth checking out include flautist-saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, going strong at 79, chanson songstress Aino Venna and drummer Teppo Mäkynen’s new 50s-styled band Teddy’s West Coasters. Full Pori programme here.

Raahe Jazz On The Beach
A few days later, further up the west coast, Jazz On The Beach (Raahen Rantajatsit, 23-25 July) also stars a former Miles saxophonist, this time Dave Liebman. He appears with a Finnish quartet featuring pianist Aki Rissanen. The pianist also plays here in trumpeter Pohjola’s band alongside drummer Mäkynen.

Raahe has a reputation for booking bold avant-garde music, balanced with lighter crowd-pleasers. This year’s programme is the first collated by new director, French impresario Charles Gil – and again shows a tasteful mix of easy and difficult listening, with a Gallic accent.

A perfect example is the three-horn Trio Journal Intime, which plays a Jimi Hendrix set, a concert with wide-ranging guitarist Marc Ducret and a show for kids. Another French group, Vincent Courtois Médiums, features a tantalising line-up of cello and twin tenors, with free-jazz, folk and world-music influences.

Likewise Swedish jazz singer Lina Nyberg, who debuted with pianist Esbjörn Svensson two decades ago, is equally at home reinventing American and Brazilian standards as with more experimental material.

Besides Pohjola (pictured right), the biggest domestic name is sextet Dalindèo, whose album Kallio was re-released in March by London’s BBE Music. Their danceable, high-energy sound sources everything from Ethiopian jazz to surf guitar – just right for a beach party. Full Raahe programme here.

CD links: Rantala & Perko; Pohjola; Dalindèo

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