Review: We Jazz Festival, Helsinki

In the icy Finnish midwinter, time stands still in the best possible way for Wif Stenger during We Jazz, with its offbeat settings and collaborations

During his Saturday-evening set at a former mental hospital, saxophonist Jukka Perko mused about time in music: how an hour of music can seem to pass in a minute or vice versa and how every minute of music distils the player’s thousands of hours of experience and the centuries of development behind each instrument.

Time frequently stretched or stood still during Helsinki’s fourth annual We Jazz festival, which took place from 4-11 December and included US saxophonists Logan Richardson (pictured right) and Mark Turner and Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch.

At the old hospital, after Perko’s trio set with Finland’s top jazz guitarists Teemu Viinikainen and Jarmo Saari, it was time for Swedish-Turkish vocalist Anni Elif Egecioglu. She took listeners back to the 1870s when Finland’s national author Aleksis Kivi was a patient there, shortly before his death at age 38. In his former room overlooking Lapinlahti Bay, she improvised on the theme of his schizophrenia and depression.

On a lighter note, the Mikko Sarvanne Hip Company harkened back to the 1950s with a Beat-style poetry reading set to big band cool jazz. A few nights earlier at the tiny Sävy café, an hour passed swiftly in an uninterrupted free improvisation bringing together for the first time Swedish saxophonist Otis Sandsjö with Finnish pianist – and this time electronic keyboardist – Aki Rissanen and drummer Tomi Leppänen, whose main influences lie in indie rock and 1970s German experimental music. Sandsjö’s breathtaking circular-breathing technique was a more urgent, testosterone-driven update of Evan Parker’s endless spirals.

Past and future also interfaced at G Livelab club, a new club with an interior made from recycled materials such as patinated copper roofs, and state-of-the-art acoustics designed by the country’s leading loudspeaker company. Here too, there were echoes of 70s krautrock and ambient music in a set by Oddarrang. With guest guitarist Nicolas Rehn, the cello and trombone-led band played the final show of a European tour that included the London Jazz Festival – although they’ve moved farther from their jazz roots into post-rock with their fourth album Agartha (not to be confused with Miles Davis's similarly titled fusion outing).

On the final night, the same venue hosted a contrasting pair of piano trios, both looking into the past and future. Iro Haarla (pictured left by Maarit Kytöharju) bears comparison to Alice Coltrane in that she plays spiritual jazz on piano and harp and happens to be the widow of a daring jazz pioneer (drummer Edward Vesala). At 60, the ECM artist is just hitting her stride with an oeuvre that ranges from limpid Jarrett-meets-Satie reveries to the Cecil Taylor-esque State Of Dissolution, where she grabbed great handfuls of low notes, eventually crashing into them with her left forearm to the elbow. Backing her was the expressive duo of bassist Ulf Krokfors and drummer Markku Ounaskari, balancing her complex, knotty compositions, all three masters of subtlety.

The final set of the week pitted pianist Rissanen against the country’s premier rhythm section, rock-steady bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen, whose rich palette includes martial rolls, brushwork, rim-rapping and shaker-dragging – without an air of gimmickry. The leader’s songs and approach embrace propulsive Nordic contemporary à la E.S.T., the hypnotic repetition of Steve Reich and the Finnish-Estonian folk tune Kallavesj. As he concluded with the title track of his new album, the unabashedly romantic ballad Amorandom, time fell away.

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