At Tampere Jazz Happening, History and Revolution

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Certain salient historical legacies stand out in Tampere: It’s where Lenin and Stalin plotted the Russian Revolution before firing it up in St. Petersburg, and the city’s industrial heritage has earned it the reputation of being the “Manchester of Finland.”

The Tampere Jazz Happening, now in its 37th year, relates to those historical points with its carefully plotted revolutionary agenda, balanced with some accessible sounds, and a centralized base of operations at the Old Customs House and the Telakka, rustic brick-clad buildings dating to the early 20th century.

Tampere’s weekend-long festival, which ran Nov. 2-4, always is preceded by an evening of music from a designated visiting country, and this year, the focus was on Austria. Kicking things off with gusto, elastic trumpeter Mario Rom’s Interzone, a chordless Austrian trio, swirled around genres. But properly opening the festival on Friday was the presentation of the Yrjö Award, a Finnish jazz prize this year bestowed on drummer Jussi Lehtonen, his quartet then offering a short set of post-bop and soul-jazz.

Tampere’s festival, long steered by director Juhamatti Kauppinen, also serves as a compact and smartly-curated showcase for Finnish sounds. It’s a scene of great variety and strength, though often underexposed internationally, and ranges from the punk-spiced free-jazz of Black Motor to the elegant mid-’60s Miles Davis-inspired classicism of trumpeter Martti Vesala and his Soundpost Quintet. Standing out among the slew of bands performing was another punk-jazz outfit, MOPO, a trio led by baritone saxophonist Linda Fredriksson, and here joined by sly Finnish sax wizard Mikko Innanen, who easily slotted into the fold.

One recurring theme at Tampere had to do with innovative angles on large ensembles. Even the most straightforward big band at the festival, Timo Lassy & Ricky-Tick Big Band Brass, deviated from the norm by slicing out the traditional sax section: The only saxophonist on the stand was Lassy. Heading further out in perspective, Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra mixed reeds, strings, rhythm section and vocals by flexible singer Mariam Wallentin while poised between free blowing catharsis and structured tunes.

For Kaja Draksler, a Slovenian pianist and composer, her octet setting loosely followed a chamber jazz logic, with diversity of textures creating a sound larger than the sum of its parts. Playing music from 2017’s Gledelac, Draksler folded the poetry of Robert Frost and a disarming wash of Handel’s baroque propriety into an ever-shifting musical tapestry.

De facto leader Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye currently are the only original members touring with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, perhaps accounting for its Tampere set feeling unfocused at times, dour and distracted, and lacking the band’s classic and critical blend of freedom, humor and ritual. But suddenly, amid a long solo section by Mitchell and with only 10 minutes left in the set, the saxophonist broke the somber ice by abruptly turning to trumpeter Hugh Ragin—deferentially silent during the bandleader’s solo—and blurted, “Are you going to play anymore tonight?” That old Art Ensemble joy and border-crossing abandon then returned, right at home in a city once literally an incubator for revolution. DB



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