Review: Pori Jazz Festival, 50th edition
This year’s Pori fest was a study in contrasts, with a thoughtful, varied jazz programme in small venues located far from the purely-pop main stage, writes Wif Stenger
“Do you feel better now?” a smiling Dee Dee Bridgewater asked after an acrobatic scat duet with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield that ended with both laughing at their no-holds-barred improvisation on New Orleans.
We, in the rain-soaked crowd, did feel better. The ever-effervescent Bridgewater (pictured right, with Mayfield by Stefan Crämer) and her New Orleans Jazz Orchestra brought a blast of Louisiana heat to a chilly Finnish July – and a Sazerac cocktail of rambunctious old-school jazz to a festival that otherwise tended toward the cerebral or the blatantly commercial.
Bridgewater’s decision to tour the world with a 15-piece band of all ages is surely not a commercial move. She was in powerful form, growling bluesy life into warhorses like Alexander’s Ragtime Band and St. James Infirmary.
Such roots jazz was rare at the Pori festival, which for half a century has brought listeners to a former paper-making city on Finland’s west coast, 250 km from Helsinki. This year’s rearranged festival drew up to 25,000 fans daily onto a lush green island. Most came for main-stage stars such as Kylie Minogue, Jessie J and Robert Plant.
Brain food: Iyer, Akinmusire, GoGo Penguin
Jazz was mostly relegated to smaller venues about a kilometre away, even opening-day giants Wayne Shorter and Stanley Clarke. Fortunately, the smaller stages offered intimacy and concentration that were impossible in the main stadium.
That was crucial in the more cerebral side, represented by pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Both are sensitive performers, not ideally suited to a restless festival setting. Which is not to say they didn’t swing – both did mightily at times, each backed by a masterful drummer who nearly made other band members superfluous.
Akinmusire (pictured left by Markku Åberg) started off by duetting with the gulls circling above the windy, eponymous Lokkilava (Seagull Stage). His brief, subdued set fell short of last year’s astounding club show at April Jazz in Espoo. Chalk it up to exhaustion near the end of a tour that took him from London to Madrid within the previous two days. His group, nonetheless, moved as one like a panther, led by drummer Justin Brown, who dropped ominous military marching beats into this dark-edged set.
Like Akinmusire, Iyer relies primarily on his drummer. Marcus Gilmore (pictured below by Markku Åberg), in cowboy hat and bushy beard, suggested a Wild West sheriff sauntering down Main Street with a genial smile – but a deadly-accurate six-gun to nail baddies in a flash. In his charcoal-grey suit, Harvard professor and physicist Iyer was analytical, minimalist and repetitious – without ever being boring. Bassist Stephan Crump supported Iyer’s left hand as the trio played a suite from their current album including Hood, a tribute to Detroit minimal-techno DJ Robert Hood.
Earlier on the same stage, yet another piano trio reinterpreted strands of electronic music. Manchester’s GoGo Penguin tapped into ideas from Aphex Twin and Radiohead, while showing kinship with the Bad Plus, Esbjörn Svensson Trio and Dawn of Midi – though never going as far as the latter in its acoustic disassembly of electronica.
These groups are tackling a key artistic challenge of our day, reinterpreting the synthetic in organic, handmade form, as our brains struggle to understand the digital world they’ve so abruptly created.
Electronics were also to the fore as trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær teamed with Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie, fellow Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset and Finnish remixer Vladislav Delay. This could have been sparse astral travelling to rival the best of Jon Hassell and Bill Laswell. Instead, with a brutally loud, muddy sound mix and top-heavy instrumentation, it turned mostly into oppressive sludge, especially a lumbering rendition of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. Better were the reggae anthem Satta Massagana and an eerie "fjord-jazz" solo by the trumpeter, during which he blew into the mouth of his instrument for a didgeridoo-like effect.
Another trumpeter, American Theo Croker, and altoist Miguel Zenón (who’s from Puerto Rico though you’d never guess it from his Bird-like sound) were both skilful and led crack bands, yet lacked distinctive voices. The soul-jazz crooning of Brazil’s Ed Motta and Oregon’s Jarrod Lawson were too syrupy for my taste.
Top Finns: Kantonen, Elifantree & Helsinki-Cotonou
Steering clear of treacle were top Finnish trumpeters Verneri Pohjola and Jukka Eskola (pictured left by Maarit Nissinen), who played tasteful, restrained sets with their own bands, then staged a good-natured late-night cutting contest at the Jazz Café.
Other domestic highlights included an uncompromising free tribute to the festival’s early years from eminence grise saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, a commissioned piece called 1966, and the much lighter 50s cool-jazz stylings of drummer Teppo Mäkynen’s new band Teddy’s West Coasters.
The 50s and 60s also guided keyboardist Seppo Kantonen, who did yeoman work in two shows. He used fingers and elbows on the Hammond organ in a playful space-age duo with drummer Joonas Riippa as Kahden miehen galaksia (2-Man Galaxy). Kantonen then played a soul-satisfying Jazz Café set with his rollicking piano trio, echoing Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner.
The quirkiest entry came from Elifantree, a Helsinki trio led by Turkish-Swedish vocalist Anni Elif Egecioglu. They splice 80s technopop, free jazz and Kate Bush-style theatricality for an utterly unique sound.
Another exciting multicultural, multi-genre domestic band was the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble. This eight-man band joyously mixes jazz, funk, Afrobeat, prog rock and Spike Jones-like zaniness. Beninese front man Noel Saizonou suggested a more cheerful Fela Kuti on vocals, sax and talking drum. Tanzanian percussionist Menard Mponda kept up ever-changing polyrhythm under guitarist Janne Halonen’s catchy melodies. It’s hard to resist a band with eight singers, three horn players and three drummers who can all stop on a dime for a cowbell solo.
Cowbells and congas featured prominently as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club stopped off on its farewell tour. That goodbye comes none too soon, with most of the original stars gone and lead vocalist Omara Portuondo (pictured right by Stefan Crämer) quite frail at 84. She gamely struggled through upbeat dance numbers before sitting down with a more sympathetic acoustic setting for quiet ballads that better suited her voice.
The festival ended with Robert Plant announcing “I love jazz!” – sarcastically perhaps as he was on the main stage, which was a nearly jazz-free zone throughout the festival. Plant, too, steered clear of jazz, though he delved into its roots: the Delta with Spoonful and West Africa, improvising with Gambian violinist Juldeh Camara on reinvented Led Zeppelin warhorses.
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