Review: Tampere Jazz Happening

The Finnish festival of contemporary jazz surprises and pleases Dave Foxall, who spots a tuba theme among the music, spoken word, poetry and rap 

The theme for the 34th Tampere Jazz Happening was jazz plus spoken word, featuring the music combined with poetry, polemic and rap. But the weekend was filled with far more. Indeed, one could almost as easily say there was a tuba theme: not an overly common jazz instrument but I spotted one on at least three separate occasions. In reality, the programme was so varied (as usual) that perhaps the theme was simply one of good music, with impressive performances from artists as diverse as David Murray, Trilok Gurtu (pictured right by Maarit Kytöharju) and Ginger Baker (not all at once, it has to be said). In fact, to get the ‘list making’ out of the way, this particular Tampere programme included artists from Portugal, Estonia, Cuba, the US, India, Italy, France, Ghana, Canada, and all five Scandinavian countries.

Tampere’s programme always focuses on the contemporary (although some of the names may have been around a while) and after the Young Nordic Jazz Comets (one up and coming unit each from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) were showcased on the Thursday, the programme proper kicked off on the Friday in suitably challenging fashion with Sweden’s Mats/Morgan Band. Zappa-influenced keyboards and drums with added bass and electronics, it was confounding and exhilarating in equal measure with labyrinthine compositions delivered with relentlessly high energy – a great start to a long Friday night.

Trilok Gurtu, Omar Sosa and Paolo Fresu maintained and built on that energy with a largely improvised set that nevertheless displayed a great deal of accessible structure; meeting Gurtu’s stated goal of "spontaneous composition". Closing the evening in the main hall were the hard-swinging Ricky-Tick Big Band (assembled by the Finnish record label of the same name) fronted by Finnish rappers Paleface, Redrama and Tommy Lindgren. Honestly? Not normally my cup of tea but the combination was perfectly matched and balanced, thanks especially to the arrangements of bandleader Valtteri Pöyhönen. Closing out the night, saxophone master David Murray combined forces with hip-hop poet Saul Williams for a set that evoked the raw power and righteously edgy marriage of jazz and political verse.

The following day, the afternoon saw "Viking jazz" trio The Thing deconstructed with each member taking a turn. First, Mats Gustafsson played a mind-blowing (and lung-busting) solo set. Then, Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit gave us end-of-the-world, 12-handed soundscapes (including tuba #2). But then Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Young Mothers (pictured left by Maarit Kytöharju) took the prize for most outrageous eclecticism, combining free jazz, groove, rap, and doom metal into a set that brought a whole new meaning to the word "fusion".

And what about the "local talent"? We are in Finland, after all – where are the Finns? As usual, mostly in the Telakka Bar, a great, low-ceilinged, small-staged, log ’n’ brick venue in which some of the most intimate performances of the weekend were heard. The very local Tampere Jazz Collective ran through some innovative 11-piece compositions, subtly updating the big band tradition (including the weekend’s first tuba). Kasperi Sarikoski and Nuance gave us a trombone and guitar-led cinematic set with some surreptitious experimentalism and genre-hopping. The closer on Friday was part of the spoken word theme with respected Finnish author and poet Hannu Salama’s granite voice declaiming against the quirky punk-jazzism’s of renowned outsider musician Hepa Halme.

Saturday’s Jussi Fredriksson Trio served up some deceptively classic Monkish fare. Skinny Jenny took us directly into prog-jazz territory (increasingly popular in Scandinavia lately, methinks) with heavy King Crimson and Pink Floyd references. But the highlight had to be the Ilmiliekki Quartet (pictured right by Jyrki Kallio), reunited and with their first fresh material since 2007’s Take It With Me. Ex-Young Nordic Jazz Comets themselves (2002) these days, the individual members are becoming better known than the quartet itself. Certainly in the UK, Verneri Pohjola (trumpet) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums) are getting a lot of exposure via Edition Records. Anyway, Ilmiliekki have always been about memorable composition seamlessly melded with improvisation plus unique ballad-like takes on the occasional pop song (Björk, Tom Waits, etc.). The set was entirely new material from the forthcoming album on TUM and maintained that "tradition|" in front of a packed Telakka. I blame them entirely for me not seeing Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion because I couldn’t tear myself away. No regrets.

Finally, the Sunday was kind of a Ladies’ Day with all women-led groups, but thankfully we were about as far from Royal Ascot as one could hope to be. First, an hour’s unpredictability with Life and Other Transient Storms, with both Susana Santos Silva and Lotte Anker tearing up the envelope. Then Sacrum Facere, a classically-tinged suite from Maria Faust themed around Estonian national identity, combining traditional jazz instrumentation of brass, woodwind and piano with the dulcimer-like kannel (oh, and tuba #3). Then Carla Bley closed the afternoon with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard (pictured left by Maarit Kytöharju) with an entrancing set of chamber jazz drawn from her ECM album, Trios.

That evening, all that remained was for the Hedvig Mollestad Trio to end the festival on a high-volume note, with a set of storming jazz-rock full of Zeppelin-ish and McLaughlin-inspired riffs with subversively tricky rhythms.

The Tampere Jazz Happening… 34 years in and still offering up something to please – and surprise – everyone.

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