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World-class jazz for new audiences

by Pierre Ringwald

...Staging six days of jazz at the beginning of the Christmas season was a risky undertaking, but We Jazz’s astute programming decisions made it work...

We Jazz 2013 Festival - Concerts on 14 December 2013, Helsinki

We Jazz 2013 (9/12−14/12) was a six day-long series of events staged in Helsinki, which included concerts, film screenings and an exhibition of Finnish jazz vinyl cover art, photography and visual art. And while a number of notable international artists played over the course of the week, including American saxophonist Greg Osby and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, ultimately We Jazz 2013 served to highlight the broad scope of the Finnish jazz scene.

The last day of We Jazz 2013 brought a fitting close to the week, as it featured an impressive range of Finnish jazz acts. For those ready, willing and able to venture out for brunch on a Saturday morning, trio KVR (Kannaste-Viinikainen-Riippa), supported by We Jazz DJs, started off the day’s events at Siltanen restaurant and bar. A few short metro stops away, Mopo, who had supported the combined talents of Black Motor and Verneri Pohjola the previous night, looked and sounded no worse for wear as they performed for the Children’s Jazz session at the legendary rock club, Tavastia. The audience of young children and their parents responded enthusiastically to the playful, bombastic trio whose forays into the audience with squeaky toys were a particular hit. What was most impressive about Mopo’s performance was how well they catered to their young crowd. Their improvisational excursions were shorter than usual (minimizing toddler-wandering), but they retained their blend of head-nodding grooves and free elements that had children rattling appreciatively the shakers that they had crafted during art workshops.

In the evening, Savoy Theatre played host to a triple-bill which opened with a set from pianist Joona Toivanen. Drawing from his newly-released solo album Polarities, Toivanen played a set of melodic, often contemplative compositions, some of which were enhanced by live loops. Whilst live-looping has become something of tired novelty, Toivanen’s application of this technique seemed well-considered, providing additional colours to the atmospheric quality of his compositions.

Following the first intermission, the Timo Lassy Band took the audience in an entirely different direction with their undeniably entertaining, expert take on the soul-jazz sound. Leading the band with his powerful, well-measured sax-playing, Lassy gave the rest of the band plenty of space to stretch out, as exemplified by the riveting conversation in rhythm between drummer Teppo Mäkynen and percussionist Abdissa Assefa that had the audience hollering in appreciation.

Tomasz Stanko’s quintet closed the Savoy show with a strong, lyrical performance. Stanko’s playing was fluid and responsive – he clearly enjoyed his exchanges with Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori (leader of the critically-acclaimed group Oddarrang) whose expert ability to build from-a-whisper-to-a-roar-and-back-again provided the perfect rhythmic accompaniment to Stanko’s dynamic playing. The highlight of Stanko’s quintet, however, was the performance of Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila – his wonderfully colourful melodic excursions added an exciting element to the group’s performance.

With the conclusion of the Savoy show, We Jazz 2013 finished where it all began – at Kuudes Linja, the birthplace of the We Jazz Dj Collective’s club night in 2009. The We Jazz collective, alongside special guest Sunaga T (a highly regarded Japanese dj/producer with a stunning selection of jazz vinyl at his disposal) provided an expert lesson in how to make jazz work for the dance floor. For those who were still looking for an additional fix of live music, Dalindèo were on hand to perform a late set, playing their crowd-pleasing blend of 60’s instrumental rock (bandleader Valtteri Pöyhönen’s reverb-drenched guitar work recalling The Shadows) and soul-jazz as heard on their well-received album Kallio. But it was the opening act, organ-drum duo Kahden Miehen Galaksi, who provided the most riveting performance. Organist Seppo Kantonen and drummer Joonas Riippa seemed to enjoy a telepathic connection that allowed them to bring their compositions to the brink of improv-induced collapse and back again, as they referenced everything from cinematic ‘car-chase’ grooves to hip-hop and psychedelic-drenched jazz-rock.

Staging six days of jazz at the beginning of the Christmas season was a risky undertaking, but We Jazz’s astute programming decisions made it work. If there are plans afoot to launch We Jazz 2014, the reception of 2013’s closing day’s performances alone suggests that next year will be a success. Let’s hope that Matti Nives and the rest of the We Jazz team are up for the challenge.

Credits: Matti Nives & Miikka Pirinen