Preview: Helsinki We Jazz & Tampere Jazz

From a rolling tram to a former customs house, from Vijay Iyer to Ginger Baker, Wif Stenger previews two major jazz events in Finland this autumn

Off the coast of Helsinki, young drummer Sami Nummela played solo in an abandoned 19th-century Russian building on an off-limits military island – a typically dramatic setting for the We Jazz collective to unveil the programme for its third annual festival. The group often stages its events in offbeat settings around the city. The weeklong series (7-13 December) includes shows at an art-house cinema, pianist Joonas Haavisto’s 30-square-metre flat, the old wooden headquarters of a loudspeaker company and aboard a tram circuiting the city. Another is the cosy Sävy café in the bohemian Kallio district, where Nummela and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola (pictured right by Aga Tomaszek) played solo sets later in the launch evening.

At the coffee shop, both played sets that were distinctively Finnish – laconic and controlled, yet suffused with subtle humour and warmth. Pohjola, suffering from a severe backache, played seated, accompanied by looping and ambient electronics, channelling Frippertronics in a silent way, meditative and occasionally etched with pain.

Nummela then offered an unusual set of standards in which the notes played mostly in his head – and ours. Traffic passing by supplied added instrumentation to tunes by Ellington, Monk and similarly minimalist bop drummer Denzil Best. The rest was fill-in-the-blanks, but as a shared creative process, not a gimmick. As Keith Richards said in a recent interview: “It’s what you don’t play.”

The drummer returns to the same café on 9 December with his new Bowman Trio, this year’s We Jazz Rising Star. The band is inspired by imaginary explorer Johan Bowman, who (purportedly) carried Edmund Hillary to the top of Everest in 1953. The feat is recounted in his notebook, reproduced in the festival magazine, setting the bar rather high as an improvisational metaphor.

Another 50s cool jazz-styled band, Teddy’s West Coasters, plays two nights earlier at Helsinki’s original opera house, the gingerbread 1879 Alexander Theatre. The band, led by drummer Teppo Mäkynen, are on a bill with eccentric poet-vocalist M.A. Numminen and pianist Vijay Iyer, returning a few months after a profound Pori Jazz performance. He’s the festival’s only international headliner besides German multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel.

Otherwise it’s mostly familiar domestic names such as saxophonists Juhani Aaltonen, Jukka Perko and Timo Lassy. Trumpeter Pohjola accompanies a 1926 silent film and plays another cinema show with his own quartet featuring Mäkynen and pianist Aki Rissanen – who likewise leads a set with his own outfit. Relative newcomers include vocalist Laura Annika and the Teemu Åkerblom Quartet, which released its debut in mid-September.

Tampere books Baker & Bley

Also announcing its line-up this week was Tampere Jazz Happening, known for its bold free-oriented programming. There’s more international firepower here, from Ginger Baker – who was surprisingly affable and energetic at his last Helsinki concert – to American stalwarts Carla Bley and David Murray (with spoken-word artist Saul Williams).

From the indie rock scene, Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld teams up with saxophonist Colin Stetson. Tampere’s annual helping of world music is served up by Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu (pictured left by Massimo Mantovani).

Along with many left-of-centre Scandinavian, Baltic and French acts, there’s the return of Pohjola’s old band, Ilmiliekki – as well as the Young Nordic Jazz Comets event, where they got their start in 2002. The setting here, too, is atmospheric, a red-brick former customs house from a century earlier.

Further information: We Jazz: 7-13 December. Tampere Jazz Happening: 29 October - 1 November

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