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Jazz and the City

by Santeri Kaipiainen

Since its launch a decade ago, We Jazz has broken the mould of a traditional festival by spreading into unexpected venues while expanding to become a record company, shop and magazine.

Early December is often a dark, rainy time in Helsinki, but it’s a crisp, snowy night at Suvilahti, former industrial area not far from the city centre, best known as the setting for the summertime Flow Festival. Now there is a heady mix of sounds seeping out of its old buildings into the chilly night: at Mittarikorjaamo, the air is scented with mulled wine and people in stocking feet listen to the calm, soulful melodies of saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson, accented by free commentary from drummer Berke Çan Özcan. Next door in the larger Tiivistämö, Otto Eskelinen’s shakuhachi and Antero Mentu’s sitar flavour the sound of the group Uusi Aika, whose music is equally influenced by the spiritual jazz of Pharoah Sanders and the psychedelic folk of Pekka Streng.

The Danish band Little North, which takes over the Tiivistämö stage, brings to mind the atmosphere of the Brad Mehldau Trio, while the British-Swedish-French foursome [Ahmed] seems to be in constant change, like an Escher metamorphosis, playfully evolving its seemingly static groove a bit at a time. The sixth day of the week-long We Jazz festival, held for the ninth time in December 2022, is underway.

The We Jazz brand is personified by Matti Nives. In his roles as the festival’s artistic director, record producer, DJ, managing director, music writer and graphic designer, he has become a major background figure in the Finnish jazz scene – and increasingly in the broader European one as well. In 2009, Nives and saxophonist Timo Lassy launched club nights featuring jazz LPs, with the operation expanding into a company in 2011, a festival in 2013, and a record label in 2016.

“In the eyes of the world, we’re a record label that also organises a festival, although in fact it’s the other way around,” Nives says during a brief break at Suvilahti. The Finnish quartet Oaagaada has just finished their set at the Peloton Cycling Eatery a combined restaurant and bike shop, and Suvilahti’s extensive evening program is just about to start. 

“We Jazz is starting to become better known as a brand internationally,” says Nives. “I think that’s specifically due to our records, but the festival’s reputation also seems to have grown outside of Finland. Foreign guests seem to have found their way here, even now after the pandemic era.” 

Matti Nives at We Jazz in 2018 by Maarit Kytöharju.

Rewarding risks 

According to Nives, the 2022 festival not only offers the largest number of performers so far but is also the boldest yet in terms of its offerings.

“Any kind of event production is now riskier than before, as costs have increased and people’s spending power has weakened, while the world around us has become riskier, and people’s energies are bound up with various concerns,” Nives points out. “We also didn’t have really familiar Finnish names that sell tickets easily – partly because many Finnish bands haven’t released new music this year.”

Only about a quarter of the groups performing were all or predominantly Finnish, and even among them there were only a few big names in domestic terms, such as saxophonist Linda Fredriksson, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and Teddy Rok (aka drummer Teppo Mäkynen).

“The music of the artists in this latest festival is not only largely unknown in Finland, but also the most experimental musical entity so far within the We Jazz context. We’ve taken risks before, but the more I listen to music myself and discover new things, the more I want to be adventurous in programming as well. In that sense, it feels good and reassuring that people have been enthusiastic about the gigs.”

The enthusiasm isn’t just from the audience either, Nives says.

“The feedback from the performers has been downright excited. They seem to sense that this is driven by a love of music instead of making money. Foreign artists have their own circles of influence, so if they have a good experience here, that boosts our reputation. For the same reason, we’ve also brought in journalists, agents and festival promoters from abroad.”


An urban nomad

Since the beginning, the most distinctive feature of the We Jazz festival has been its locations. Traditionally, a festival focuses on one or a few concert venues. By contrast, We Jazz has spread all over Helsinki. Besides traditional music venues such as the Tavastia, Kuudes linja and G Livelab clubs or the Alexander Theatre, over the years We Jazz has staged concerts at rental storage facilities, cinemas, art galleries, empty offices and stores, nightclubs and hotel lobbies as well as various cafés and restaurants. Sometimes the festival has popped up in Tallinn and Tampere as well.

“There are some similar concepts around the world,” Nives concedes. “However, this hasn’t often been done in the jazz field, which was one of the reasons why we started the festival. We want to start thinking from scratch every year about where we might organise concerts next.”

Some venues change every year as the organisers test out new ideas, but the most versatile spaces – such as Suvilahti’s old industrial buildings, the Korjaamo Culture Factory (a former tram depot) and the Ääniwalli club – have become mainstays as they enable simultaneous events on several stages, creating a “festival within a festival”. New concert venues in 2022, included the newly opened Kalliosali in an old cinema and the Kallio district’s trendy Harju8 bar.

“In the early years, some of the venues had an indifferent, business-oriented attitude towards working with us, and therefore a big lesson for us over the years has been that the venues must also want our music,” he says. “It’s important that the venue operators are excited about our festival and the artists that we’re bringing in to play. After that, we can figure out how to arrange the gig in practical terms.”

There have also been unsuccessful efforts during We Jazz’s history, but according to Nives, the audience hasn’t necessarily noticed this.

“If a single venue doesn’t work, luckily most of the gigs are elsewhere. In the same way that a musician may be unhappy with their solo, even though the audience liked it, I may regret an unforeseen inappropriateness of venue or sequence of performances. For example, in 2021, the wall between a bar and a stage had been removed at Ääniwalli without my knowledge, so unfortunately there was a lot of noise during a quiet set by Dan Nicholls.”

Various conceptual performances have also become part of We Jazz. Every year, there is a ‘secret gig’, with the venue and artists kept a mystery from the audience until the last moment. Artists have also accompanied films and live images, interpreted the repertoire of some legendary musician or releases by a certain record label. In some years, programming on one stage has been left up to a guest group, which has been given a free hand to assemble a line-up of performers according to its own taste.

“We have a lot of performances that have never been heard anywhere else before, as we invite artists to collaborate with each other for the first time,” Nives says. “When we bring a band all the way here, I’ve deliberately tried to look for musicians who can do several gigs on the same trip and perhaps record a record for us while they’re here. This also promotes somewhat more environmentally sustainable touring.”

In previous years, We Jazz musicians have also played in several different ensembles during the festival, an operating model that has long been used at chamber music festivals.

“I try to find artists who’re interested in this type of thinking,” he explains. “When they’re put together to play for the first time, we don’t expect the end result to be something legendary, but possibly the beginning of something new, the effects of which may not be seen until later.”


A Tale of Two Hotel Rooms

In 2022, for instance, We Jazz presented all the artists from the New York label Valley of Search in Korjaamo’s upstairs loft, and offered an artist residency for the first time, when Brooklyn-based sound artist Ka Baird performed on four consecutive days in room 231 of GLO Hotel Art with rotating guests and ended their visit with a solo performance at Mittarikorjaamo.

“I haven’t done a festival residency like this before, and it’s actually been really fun! When I was first shown the performance space, I was a little taken aback. I knew that it was going to be at a hotel, but I thought that meant one of the conference rooms or something, instead of an actual hotel room,” Baird says.

“But as soon as the first performance started, I knew it was going to be a really cool thing. I think that the idea was risky and adventurous – a kind of risk that experimental music festivals should actually take: not only experimenting within the art form, but also with the way in which it’s presented. The performance environment makes such a huge difference in how art is perceived, and the hotel room made for very focused duo performances, for sure.”    

Baird and Nives negotiated about performing partners, although for practical reasons Nives ended up making the final choices.

 “I was familiar with Sami Pekkola because we’d both worked with Pekka Airaksinen [1945–2019, an experimental Finnish composer, performer and electronic musician], and Sami was helping with some of his archives. Chris Williams was a fellow New Yorker from the downtown improv jazz scene, but I’d never played with him. Linda Fredriksson and Mikael Saastamoinen were fantastic – we had such fun improvisations, so I’m quite pleased with Matti’s curation. Every set was different.”

Ka Baird playing with Sami Pekkola at We Jazz in 2022.

Margins matter

A contemporary art music festival, an experimental electronic music concert or an art gallery might be the most likely places you’d expect to come across Baird’s music, which involves the human voice, flute, electronics and physical stage art. So how did they end up at a jazz festival?

“You know, I wonder the same thing. I’m surprised that I was curated into this festival – that’s not to say I don’t love and appreciate jazz and its musicians,” Baird says. “Matti is doing a great job at keeping people guessing what’s next. He’s pushing the stylistic limits of the festival, so maybe it’ll have to be renamed.”

Indeed, so maybe in the future the festival could become We Sound

“I’m interested in all kinds of music, and a genre-less festival would give me freer hands to curate, but then the focus would also be more scattered,” Nives suggests. 

“Jazz is a good content guideline and reference point, though, because through it we can go deeper into a certain type of music. It is a different question to say at what point that music ceases to be jazz, but I don’t think that defining the boundaries of the genre is very interesting.”

We Jazz has also started organising the summertime Odysseus Festival on Helsinki’s Lonna Island. In its programme, Nives includes elements that would not stylistically be logical for We Jazz, such as contemporary art music and installations.

“Likewise, I’m founding a new record label alongside We Jazz called Other Power, which will focus on experimental music,” he says.

As Nives sees it, culture beyond the mainstream is a crucial part of Helsinki’s cultural attractiveness and freedom of choice – or that of any city or region.

“In that sense, it’s important to think about how events on the margins can gain visibility as part of the mainstream too, for example through the media. It may be that many people don’t find cultural events that are interesting to them within the core of the mainstream.”

Indeed, We Jazz aims to attract not only jazz lovers but also people who’re interested in theatre, visual arts and other new experiences, regardless of how much they listen to jazz in their free time.

“We’ve also had collaborations with film, literature and visual arts projects. So rather than the intersections of musical genres, let’s talk about the intersections of cultural genres!”

Feature photo: We Jazz 2022 by Jesse Ponkamo

Translation: Wif Stenger