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What's next for Nordic Jazz?

by Petri Silas

Not long ago, a new style of improvised music from the top of the world was taking the global jazz scene by storm. Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish bands had a novel angle on the genre and a phenomenon dubbed Nordic jazz was born. But continuing success requires idealism, contacts and hard work. The green slogan “Think globally, act locally” applies here as well.

Wisdom of hindsight or not, the turn of the millennium seemed to become an important watershed for many disciplines in art. When looking at music and zooming out to a wider perspective, one of the big winners and beneficiaries was contemporary Nordic jazz.

As the noughties began, new and original jazz-based bands from Finland, Sweden and Norway began gaining more international attention. There emerged a new breed of bold musicians who were standing on the shoulders of canonised giants such as Edward Vesala, Jan Garbarek and Jan Johansson, yet had their own distinct and modern way of approaching jazz, often called “the only truly American artform”. A more open and universal attitude was spreading as influences from chamber music, post-rock and electronica seeped into improvised music more forcefully than before.

There was a scent of promise in the air, which quickly went from local to global. A phenomenon was born and the flames were fanned by Stuart Nicholson’s book Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address), which came out in 2005. The polemic and entertaining essay soon became an oft-quoted, highly influential text which ended up playing a major part in the renaissance of Nordic jazz.

However, just as every revolution has a tendency to devour its children, so is every trend just about as quick to vanish as it was to appear. And as in all similar cases, the big challenge now is to maintain and expand. And to build bridges. The excellent Nordic jazz bands are still here; so is the outside world. What about the links in between?

Project manager Riku Salomaa from Music Finland UK outlined this dilemma in an interview with Soundi magazine in December 2012. “What Finnish jazz needs right now is independent managers and producers whose personal networks and contacts can be harnessed to further the artists’ cause. The best results come when a manager from Finland joins forces with a promoter from the target country,” Salomaa said.

One mover and shaker he singled out was Annamaija Saarela, who leads her own music agency from her hometown of Tampere. 

Contacts and firm belief

Annamaija Saarela’s experience in the field spans from helming the annual Tampere Jazz Happening festival in 1999−2002, to acting as the executive director of the UMO Jazz Orchestra in 2002−08, to holding various confidential posts and beyond.

Nowadays also the president of the Europe Jazz Network, Saarela is all too familiar with the obstacles faced when exporting jazz from the top of the world. The first factor is obviously geography, she says.

“We are far away from pretty much everywhere, so it is always hard to arrange Finnish bands an opportunity to be seen and heard by audiences elsewhere.”

The second major issue is financing. But it all actually starts at home, as Saarela astutely points out.

“If a Finnish musician wants to make a living playing exclusively jazz, the local market with its quite small live circuit and dwindling record sales just isn’t sufficient. And that’s where I can come in. The work I do with Annamaija Music Company is based on two simple things: the contacts I have accumulated and my firm belief that many of our jazz artists are interesting also on the international scale. Having said that, putting these projects together would be impossible without so-called government money.”

One way of spreading the word is providing journalists, record company people and promoters from abroad with a chance to get acquainted with Finnish jazz. When working with the UMO Jazz Orchestra, Saarela was one of the local pioneers who took a firm grip on this tool.

“UMO Jazz Fest was a happening I arranged three times in 2005−07 in co-operation with the Finnish Jazz Federation and the predecessor of Music Finland, the Finnish Music Information Center. All told, we flew close to a hundred guests to Helsinki and forged some vital and long-lasting relationships to further the cause of contemporary Finnish jazz. One of the hottest groups of the moment was Ilmiliekki Quartet, and I dare say that the success now enjoyed by the Verneri Pohjola Quartet and Olavi Louhivuori’s Oddarrang both in the UK and the continent has at least something to do with the UMO Jazz Fest experience.”

If these particular cases are evaluated by promoter interest or public and media attention, the results speak for themselves. Many a European music scribe now follows “the offspring of Ilmiliekki” with an acute ear.

“There’s plenty of jazz in this accessible and sometimes majestic album, but you don’t have to be a jazzer to get it,” was how John Fordham from The Guardian newspaper recently summed up his very positive thoughts on Oddarrang’s current disc In Cinema (2013).


They Jazz

Echoes of the UMO Jazz Fest spirit and its underlying modus operandi are apparent in a new jazz event staged for the first time in the Finnish capital in December 2013. Already in its inaugural year, We Jazz Festival had lofty aspirations and continues to aim commendably high. Among international stars featured at the festival such as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and drummer Andrew Cyrille, one of the top local acts was Black Motor featuring Verneri Pohjola.

“We are trying to imagine Helsinki as a city of jazz for a period of one week,” envisioned the event’s mastermind Matti Nives in a preliminary interview in Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. The head of We Jazz also referred to the festival with lofty and unusual words like utopia and installation.

Annamaija Saarela sees potential in this pursuit and hopes that We Jazz will be successful in developing the local scene and heightening the global profile of Finnish jazz. However, only time will tell if the push for longevity is strong enough and if the listeners continue to embrace the event.

As far as city festivals for jazz are concerned, Saarela always enjoys visiting London in November and Copenhagen in July.

“For me big part of the appeal of these two great events is their nature of allowing many promoters, clubs and organisers to stage their own programmes. This way the variety stays wide and the quality high.”

Although taking a more hands-on approach to We Jazz, Matti Nives subscibes to a similar ethos. He believes in the magic of presenting the audiences with something they may never have experienced before. Hence his idea of attempting something heroically dubbed “a 3-D concert” and staging another gig in complete darkness.

“Because I am into different varieties of jazz and also interested in mixing music with other art forms, I constantly try and find new ways of looking at things. A good example might be photographer Miikka Pirinen’s project for We Jazz where he shot a portfolio of jazz-influenced ‘fashion photos’.”


City as a living laboratory

Among the myriad music festivals arranged in cities all over the globe, Nives has no paragon after which We Jazz was modelled. However, he finds it easy to list some personal favourites like Flow Festival (in Helsinki), Tampere Jazz Happening, London Jazz Festival, Berlin Music Days, Primavera Sound (in Barcelona), and by:Larm (in Oslo). All in all, the overall concept of a city seems to a hold a special meaning for the enthusiastic organiser.

“Jazz tourism is something Finland in general and Helsinki in particular should investigate more and in the future also invest in. Quite like the city itself – almost as a living organism – plays an integral part in movies such as Drive or Lost in Translation, I believe that in days to come the setting will play a crucial role in a modern holistic festival experience. By referring to We Jazz as a utopia I am sort of throwing the ball in the audiences’ direction and challenging the listener to come to the events with an open mind and expecting the unexpected.”

But however enthralled Nives seems to be with the idea of his current hometown as a kind of temporary winter wonderland of jazz, he is far from wanting to limit We Jazz as a whole to something that could only function in Helsinki. On the contrary, and Japan in particular is a direction he is eyeing quite eagerly at the moment. With rational thoughts as regards the financing, of course.

“As far as our first festival goes, public funding covered about 15% of the entire budget. But I still want to ensure that commercialism will never influence the artistic process. In my eyes, We Jazz is more similar to a start-up business and a living laboratory of new things than a traditional music festival. To maintain this ideal it is important to find collaborators and sponsors who truly understand and appreciate what we are about. Visual aesthetics are very important to me and I will strive to avoid the usual pitfalls of staging an event and having to plaster the club walls with posters and corporate logos.”


Light into darkness

We Jazz takes place during the darkest period of the year, when the sun rises above the horizon in Helsinki for just a few hours. It was no coincidence or accident that Nives chose this particular time slot for his ambitious festival.

“Timing was important. Good music is always about many things, one of which is good vibes. I want to do my share by staging We Jazz at a time when the event can bring some light into the darkness. If things go my way, this happening will always be something lovely, yet somewhat hard to define. Quite like a pleasant dream one wants to revisit after waking up.”

Meanwhile, Annamaija Music Company has upped the ante and made some other dreams come true by exporting Finnish jazz in the form of Black Motor, Rakka and saxophonist Mikko Innanen across the Atlantic to perform at the NYC Winter Jazzfest in January 2014.

Just as something positive and invigorating was happening for Nordic jazz at the turn of the millennium, the saga of top Finn jazzers going global continues in 2014.

We Jazz Festival

Live at We Jazz DVD

Main photo: Petri Luukkainen.