UMO Jazz Fest 2007 in Helsinki, Finland
UMO Jazz Fest
Bio Rex Theatre and Temppeliaukio Church (Marilyn Crispell concert only)
August 30-September 2, 2007
For the 5th annual UMO Jazz Fest in Helsinki, Finland, UMO Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Fest Executive Director Annamaija Saarela faced the unenviable task of having to find a new home for the festival outside the UMO Jazz House club (in prior years it had customarily served as home base for much if not all the festival's music, not to mention its role as Helsinki's primary jazz club), which was forced to close earlier this year due to water damage. The good news: a central location was foundthe Bio Rex Theatre, with its visually stunning interior, is one of the city's oldest remaining movie theaters and a landmark of modern architecture in Helsinki (built in 1936 and exquisitely refurbished noticeably within the year). The bad news: it was much too spacious (seating over 600) for the disproportional showing of Finnish jazz enthusiasts. Ticket buyers undoubtedly would have packed the UMO Jazz House each and every set had it not been for the last minute venue change. But unfortunate and deceiving as it was, shadows of heads and large pockets of space scattered the spacious theater each night, thus making even well attended sets seem sparse.
Without such a problem on the programming front, however, this year's UMO invited much of Finland's finest, from legends like septuagenarian multi-instrumentalist Juhani "Junnu" Aaltonen (one-time founding member of the UMO Jazz Orchestra, Finland's national jazz orchestra which dates back to the '70s), and his longtime colleague in bassist Teppo Hauta-aho, to more recent local phenoms Oddarrang led by 26-year- old drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Other Nordic countries like Sweden were represented in addition to a pinch of European (and American) talent, as well.
Aaltonen is undoubtedly one of Finland's standouts, with a distinct voice on primary instruments tenor sax and flute. His affiliations with the late Finnish drumming legend Edward Vesala and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen are two of his better-known associations. Nordic Trinityone of this journalist's most anticipated concerts of this year's UMO is a fairly new leaderless trio comprising three generations of Finns: veteran Aaltonen, drummer Klaus Suonsaari (quite active on the NYC jazz scene and a longtime East Coast resident) and the youngest member, guitarist Mikko Iivanainen. Together they recorded and released their debut on Suonsaari's KSJazz label entitled Wonders Never Cease two years ago, a highly touted recording that sadly received little exposure in the States. Their energetic late set the first night of the festival made the 7- hour time difference (not to mention any jetlag), after arriving in Helsinki only hours previous, irrelevant.
Aaltonen's incessant sonic searching as a player opened eyes and invited what ears remained in the theater during that late hour to join him in his continuous quest of sound. A very spiritual playerand personthis aspect is perhaps Aaltonen's greatest strength and most Trane-like attribute. The reedman's expert display of multiphonics and an intense breath-heavy tone summoned such spirituality in his music from set's beginning to end, not only recalling Trane but the very early and heady days of Gato Barbieri. And never sacrificing musicality for the sake of pyrotechnics, he certainly can take it out there with the best of them. Aaltonen's grounding as a longtime studio musician affords him the foundation necessary to freely and competently explore sound through music, thus separating himself from a huge portion of the pack that clumsily venture without basis or any focus.
The lead voice was best suited to Aaltonen, as was heard on Suonsaari's "Offering," which evenly and patiently took in the contributions of delicate percussion and guitar atmospherics. The saxophonist's earthy approach counterbalanced his atonality, delicately painting the color of a tune's theme such as heard during the rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." Without necessarily getting caught up in the familiar changes, he instead barely glanced over the tune's familiar melody. His connection with Suonsaari was especially compelling. The drummer, situated between reedman and guitarist, angled himself towards Aaltonen and rarely lost eye contact. "Noble's Dream," a ballad countered with occasional hard-driving tempos, demonstrated the duo's empathy when Iivanainen dropped out.
Suonsaari is an excellent and sensitive cymbalist as he displayed here. Iivanainen, playing more of an aesthetic role and rarely interacting with the other two, didn't serve as a distinctive voice per se, though his stylistic playing proved best suited in the role of providing a Frisell-ian like tapestry of background textures and colors. The trio's organic strengths were particularly though only temporarily lost during the guitarist's only occasional solos, which came off as asides. It was as if two groups suddenly were playing simultaneously, one with drums and tenor and another for unaccompanied solo guitar. And any Aaltonen listening experience is incomplete without his marvelous flute playing; fortunately one of the seven tunes featured his emotional, breath-heavy fluttering technique on "Desire" (which will be officially released late this year on Nordic Trinity's sophomore effortEternal Echoes). Completely self-taught on the instrument, he has created his very own ("wrong as he admits) embouchure and voice, which screams and whispers to be heard by more ears.
On the same night, opening the festival, was Swiss-born NYC pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, fresh on the heels of her solo CD Signs and Epigrams (Tzadik). Her set featured eight of the CD's ten compositions, newly improvised for this, her first-ever performance in Helsinki. She naturally flitted in and out of tempo with dexterity with her inside/outside piano technique, plucking and manipulating the piano's strings (utilizing at times several objects to alter pitches and to create sounds not customarily associated with the, given, orchestral capabilities of piano), and creating a mystical performance. Full of unexpected surprises at every turn, every turn coming as frequently as Monaco's Grand Prix, her modern classical flair in repertoire and jazz-like freedoms fueled spontaneous decisions through each heavily improvised piece.
As opposed to Cecil Taylor's approach, Courvoisier relies less on clusters and more on single notes, some which come at lightning speed, others resonating through the performance space. The rhythmic bouncing of her playing are likened to rainfall, after water ricochets off leaves, rooftops and objects en route down to the ground while being altered by varying wind shifts, creating sometimes a more dense water drop rate or, conversely, a more spaciously separated effect. This helps distinguish Courvoisier's usage of notes and chords from Taylor's more customary relentless thunderous blows and runs that are less about the single effects of a note and the space around it, and more concerning the overall momentum and the larger whole that each note is but a mere part of.
Her "studies for piano (titled "Epigrams 1-3 on the CD), offer more relaxed yet intricate exchanges of a playing keys-to-strings approach and dialogue that was revisited and recreated on two occasions through this live solo set. At one point, she placed a bouncing object on the strings, creating in essence a rhythmic shadow and partner when playing near or below middle-C. Replicating a loose steel guitar string played with a slide, it was as if a conversation occurred between various string players, from piano to detuned slide dobro guitar, kora and one or two other various incorporated string instrument(s). All those sounds miraculously were coming from the two hands of one person, and without the usage of overdubbing or samples, an admirable and musically successful feat that was genuinely and generally appreciated by all those in attendance. The festival had officially gotten off to a running start.
Another New York-based pianist (actually Woodstock), Marilyn Crispell, was featured in a highly- anticipated set that held double honors of being the only act to play outside the Bio Rex as well as serving as the festival's pinnacleand appropriate enoughcloser. Her closely-knit "Finnish trio", featuring bassist Teppo Hauta-aho (he's worked on and off with Aaltonen and Vesalaup until the latter's passing in 1999since the late '60s and has since played and recorded with Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton) and the youthful Olavi Louhivuori (drums), performed in the heavenly locale of Temppeliaukio Church, one of Helsinki's most famous architectural attractions since its late '60s construction. Built into solid rock (hence its nickname "Church of the Rock"), the visually stunning space is naturally lit through narrow glass panels between the church's interior wicker-like circular dome ceiling and its steep rock walls; likewise the acoustics were mostly naturally amplified, making the set musically as it was visually spectacular.
Crispell's spacious single notes and foot-pedal accentuated chords resonated through the church before sounds of birds chirping echoed off the walls. Simultaneously the bassist and drummer cautiously and quietly sauntered in from the back of the audience, while heads noticeably tilted upwards looking for the source of the bird sounds, which either were pre-recorded (like in another Crispell collaboration with ornithology expert, reedman David Rothenberg), or might they be coming from Crispell's bandmates? It was indeed the latterboth slyly were holding wooden bird chirp mechanisms unnoticeably down to their sides! Crispell's solo then transformed the chirping into prepared piano treble notes, as her band mates took to their waiting instruments. The pianist undoubtedly was the music's focal point and nominal leader, even though this trio was very much a cooperative. Hauta-aho, with a mallet stick in his left hand, bowed with his right, replicating the bird sounds ever so subtly. And as if performing movements to a much larger piece, the trio allowed their next movement's notes to dissipate into diminishing echoing sounds that subsequently dissolved into silence. The ensuing allegro "movement was far more rhythmic than its reflective predecessor, and the audience didn't dare make a move towards any applause to break up the musical momentum and consistency between the movements of this entirely improvisational set.
Crispell has been well documented as a purveyor of Coltrane's music on piano (just listen to her recorded and liverenditions of "After the Rain and "Dear Lord for quick evidence), and so a latter day Trane- inspired segment immediately transformed not only the music, but the space itself into its natural and practical purpose for beinga place of worship. With Hauta-aho focusing on his performance of long and deep arco lines, Crispell reached for the interior of the piano with short xylophone-like ball-ended sticks in each hand while Louhivuori took to bamboo sticks and small metal chimes and rattles.
Following, the final movement brought an unexpected but welcomed spotlight in the form of an extended introductory drum solo by Louhivouri, and what ensued was an ultra-sensitive, percussion-minded improvisation that showcased in a microcosm the openness and freedom of what the trio could and did accomplish (surprisingly they had only played together as a trio one time previously though, not so surprisingly, that time was at another Finnish festivalin Raahe on the country's northwest coast, two years ago). The group's collective sense of improvisational momentum utilized dynamics and extended techniques throughout the single nearly hour-long set. When the group's last notes altogether disappeared, again obviously no one wanted to have it culminate with unmusical clapping. So after what seemed like a full minute of silence, the crowd erupted with a lengthy applause well after the last note had been stroked. It even took this writer several additional minutes to even rise up from my seat. The music seemed permanently lodged into the church's mystical walls, and though probably not within the realm of possibility, the Church of the Rock proved to be not only suitable but an ideal venue as host to the musicians and listeners of UMO.
Louhivuori also performed on opening night, as leader and primary composer of the group Oddarrang. Recipient of the Finnish Jazz Grammy last year for its debut album Music Illustrated (Texicalli), the first striking thing about the quintet was its instrumentation of trombone (Ilmari Pohjola), cello (Osmo Ikonen), guitar (Lasse Sakara on electric and acoustic), bass (Lasse Lindgren) and drums. Varied textures and harmonies sired a colorful and intriguing listen to their organic qualities as well as atmospheric ECM-ish approach. Momentous harmonies generally were the collective's guide. The band definitely seemed to be a popular local favorite that most that night had come to hear. Their set closer, ""Teema/Sininen avain" (which appears on their debut CD), perhaps best boasted the band's strengths of electric meets acoustic. The trombonist traded his instrument for a water bottle, which he blew into his mic, while Ikonen contributed backing hollers and hoots, taking the jazz groove to a rocking, mesmerizing prog rock level akin to prime Hawkwind, or better yet reminiscent of typical Ash Ra Tempel. But as with Crispell's trio, Louhivouri never overpowered the proceedings, not surprisingly and with frequency preferring brushes and hands rather than sticks in his playing.
To take advantage of the Bio Rex space (and I'm not referring to the empty seats), it was not only practical but also obvious for the festival organizers programming that utilized the large screen above the musicians. Anssi Tikanmaki's Film Orchestra performed to the late '90s black-and-white film based on Juhani Aho's Juha, a classic Finnish novel. And Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger brought in an unusual international ensemble to perform to edited versions of two of film director Werner Herzog's anarchistic films, images with prophetic narration, entitled Requiem for a Dying Planet. Reijseger took snippets of the movies, which he originally did the full soundtrack for, and has created a live performance project which he's presented nearly a dozen times in concert. One's attention was easily and evenly divided amongst the images and the music: the depth of the message behind scuba divers under the visibly thinning Antarctica ice cap was as emotional as the unique musical hybrid occurring underneath the images. Along with Reijeseger's virtuosic and unorthodox if not extended technique and approach to the cello, his multi-cultural ensemble included Senegalese singer and percussionist Mola Sylla and the Sardinian voices of Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei (a vocal quintet which had to literally improvise minus the one who got stranded in Rome and couldn't make the flight and gig).
Perhaps the set's climax came after the multi-media set came to a close. Two of the singers jovially performed an arm-in-arm traditional step-dance, another played a mouth (Jews) harp, and Reijseger stood up and lifted his cello as if it were an oversized guitar, heavily strumming it like Ritchie Valens, while interacting with Sylla's playing of the gorgeous sounding metallic-key kalimba thumb piano. For over an hour and a half, the group's evident camaraderie and entirely unique project was absorbed and appreciated by an enraptured audience with but the one brief pre-encore pause.
The other film-oriented musical project came from Markku Peltola's Buster Keaton Orchestra, who followed the screening of Juha but in the boomy, standing-room-only lobby area outside the actual theater. Images appeared on a much smaller screen placed above the makeshift stage and were viewed with obvious secondary significance. Acoustic guitarist and leader Peltola aptly described his music as "folk songs from an unexisting land." And as aptly, his music partially set to images was entitled Man Without A Past. Along with electric guitar (Tommi Laine), trombone/accordion (Kusti Vuorinen), trombone/percussion (Janne Tuomi), violin (Pike Kontkanen), bass (Timo Kaaja) and drums (Juppo Paavola, actually on drum box and a single cymbal)a Ry Cooder-ish twang to a dark Tom Waits aesthetic sliced through the Buster Keaton Orchestra septet's infectious Tin Hat-like approach and concept. Their less jazz-inflected lumbering double trombone-based grooves convincingly had music score written all over. Never rising above medium tempo, I couldn't help but think of the mesmerizing Hot Spot soundtrack (featuring Taj Mahal, Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker). Their music always seemed to strike a note of familiarity that sometimes could be pinpointed, such as the eerie resemblance of "Ihan Ensin Aivan Suoraan to "Spanish Harlem," and most other times simply coming across as a welcoming, accessible and fun listen much better suited for a bar than theatre lobby scene.
Trombonist Nils Wogram provided perhaps the most "jazz"-oriented set of the festival with his Root 70 group that included German NYC-based drummer Jochen Rückert and New Zealanders Hayden Chisholm (alto and melodica) and Matt Penman (bass). With a parallel aesthetic to the Roswell Rudd-Steve Lacy group (though with alto substituting soprano obviously), this group's dynamic featured improvising over a solid foundation of swinging compositions. Wogram also is a master of multiphonics, a technique certainly in his German blood with one of the technique's pioneers being the late trombone maestro Albert Mangelsdorff. His performance of this extended technique was best exhibited on "The Myth . With false endings that kept the audience on the edge of their seats, Wogram and Chisholm showcased an impressive harmonic familiarity that culminated in Chisholm's Tuvan-like throat singing high-pitched whistle to complement the trombonist's sustained, arm fully extended last position, buzzing notes on trombone. And showing his versatility in timbres, the trombonist replicated a didgeridoo on "Y13", opening unaccompanied before the band eventually joined. Why he has yet to record solo, surely an inviting concept he would be a confident and successful player of, is a bit perplexing, though an obvious challenge, and hopefully a goal to be fulfilled before too long. An extraordinary and still young and certainly under-regarded talent on his instrument, Wogram maintains a tonal center and swings like mad, proving he also has both the fluidity and chops of a J.J. Johnson-influenced player who can manage absolutely any tempo. Though Penman and Rückert played vital backing roles, it was the horn frontline that most impressed through this set, Wogram especially.
And perhaps the best and most logical double-billing was the Swedish group Oddjob and Helsinki's The Stance Brothers, each spinning their takes on "acid jazz." Nominated for a Swedish Grammy for their album Luma (Amigo Musik), the Oddjob quintet's unifying sound (and attire, too - all were coordinated in blue cocktail suit attire and ties) was due in no small part to the fact they have been together for a decade, though their sound was certainly a throwback to several decades previous.
Oddjob consists of Peter Forss (bass), Per "Rusktrask" Johansson (alto, clarinet, congas and percussion), the Donald Byrd-influenced Goran Kajfes (trumpet, congas), Daniel Karlsson (piano and keyboards), and Janne Robertson (drums). Unlike with the Buster Keaton Orchestra, the space's loud and non-ideal acoustics did not complement their more extroverted style, and the high board mix given to them was far too generous, but their crafty King Crimson cover of "Moonchild served as a splendid miniature that came towards a set's end of highly enjoyable " '60s Blue Note style dancefloor jazz (as fittingly described in the festival program). The audience interestingly preferred to stand fairly motionless, though, in awe of the bebop-rooted aural onslaught that Oddjob hints at on record and confidently accomplishes live.
From the latter, a festival highlight was the original "Roll Call," exciting drum breaks interspersed with a list of shout-outs to jazz drumming giants. The Stance Brothers was led by drummer Teppo Mäkynen, whose alias on the program as "Byron Breaks didn't fool the locals for a moment: he's the well-known leader of the Helsinki-based Five Corners Quintet (you may recall their big-selling album from a few years back that was so successful Blue Note Records picked it up). His bouncy hair and photogenic always upbeat expression and style respectively recalls Summer of Love '60s beach rock bandstand TV shows and drummer Max Weinberg of Conan O'Brien's Late Night show.
And as for the brothers, they were actually not Stances but Mäkynens, with bassist/brother Esa; rounding out the quartet was guitarist Didier Selin (and occasional percussionist) and organ/keyboardist Mikko Helevä. Relying more on a metronomic beat, the drummer nonetheless spurred on an irresistible vibe that, like Oddjob, washed over a listener to the point that one easily forgot all about dynamics, or lack thereof. We were all just along for the ride, however long and similar the sights and sounds becameand that was all right. "Roll Call," featuring the drummer front and center, was one of those tunes that could have gone on for another half hour without complaint. The musicians picked up handheld percussion (from shakers to bongos) similar to Art Blakey's Ritual recordingand a literal roll call attendance was ranted off by the leader behind the drum kit, interspersing exciting breaks and fills between yelling out the names through an effected mic the names of Max Roach, Philly Joe (Jones), Kenny Clarke, Sonny Payne, Ed Blackwell and on down the line, in what seemed at least a hundred or so drummers. A mounting of momentum of drums and percussion swelled and flowed over the excitable and excited crowd, with each name a new level of intensity pushed a quicker tempo to its brink. The tune should actually have either been the closer or ended rather than having segued into what became an undesired letdown with the musicians on their primary instruments. It was anticlimactic admittedly, and as disappointing as it would have been for the band to suddenly sink their teeth into a ballad. I can't imagine them playing one or even wanting tojust simply not their forte.
A young festival still, UMO has the promise to be one of Europe's finest true jazz festivals. Though they certainly haven't and hopefully won't give in to more popular tastes as has their Finnish counterpart in Pori, their work is certainly cut out for them to locate an appropriate location for their festivalnot to mention jazz club, one that will ideally have the advantages of the Church of the Rock without the disadvantages of the Bio Rex. Here's hoping for those ever-jazzy Finns!
Nordic Trinity by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Klaus Suonsaari photo by Maarit Kytöharju/imagekitchen.fi
Sylvie Courvoisier photo by Maarit Kytöharju/imagekitchen.fi
Church photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Marilyn Crispell photo by Maarit Kytöharju/imagekitchen.fi
Ernst Reijseger Ensemble photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Markku Peltola photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Nils Wogram photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Oddjob photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene
Mikko Helevä of the Stance Brothers photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene