Germany’s Jazzahead! Conference Sports Finnish Accent

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Iiro Rantala (center) performs with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as part of a Finnish showcase during jazzahead! 2017, which ran from April 27–30.

(Photo: © Sybille Zettler / fair bremen)

Come April in Bremen, Germany, the ever-expanding ranks of visitors to jazzahead! have come to expect a multi-cultural experience. This April, the large and growing conference-expo-festival-networking-palooza, well-established in its 12th year, offered jazz people of all stripes ample exposure to—and direct interaction with—jazz artists, labels, festival reps, agents, managers and other jazz-connected parties.

Since 2011, jazzahead! has presented an annual showcase for the music of a “partner” country, providing an opportunity for the selected nation to bring widescale exposure to its cultural scene. This year’s country: Finland, that northernmost locale with a long and rich jazz tradition but one which jazzahead! co-founder/director Uli Beckerhoff rightly observed “is not well enough known in Europe.”

That’s where jazzahead! comes in. It covers the continent with a significant centrality for three days each spring, and never skimps on the music portion of the program, with some 40 half-hour showcases neatly organized into categories (which in this case included partner country night, a “European Jazz Meeting,” a “German Jazz Expo” and an “Overseas Night”).

But wait, there’s more: the dense “Clubnight” program on April 29, in venues “off campus” from the headquarters of the Messe conference center. The runaway highlight of my Bremen visit this year, in fact, was at the “ECM night” in the pristine and historic ambience of the glorious sendersaal (renovated and run by jazzahead! co-founder Peter Schulze), especially the engrossing Django Bates Beloved Trio and the unique, improvisation-meets-classical Tarkovsky Quartet.

At jazzahead!, the cultural compass extends across Europe and beyond, with American representation (guitarist Julian Lage, singer Dee Alexander and bassist Robert Hurst, for instance) and other global points. But clearly, Finland was high in demand this year, also thanks to the special concert at the historic downtown theater Die Glocke by veteran pianist Iiro Rantala and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as well as an award from the European Jazz Network (EJN) given to festival director Juhamatti Kauppinen, the organizing force behind the stellar Finnish Tampere Jazz Happening.

Adding special resonance to the timing of the Finnish focus, the year 2017 marks the century anniversary of the independence of the country, one of whose distinctions is that a composer—Jean Sibelius—qualifies as a genuine and sanctified national hero.

The conference’s opening “Finnish Night” offered an enticing pack of showcase sets, beginning strongly with the innovative and telepathic Kari Ikonen Trio. Wending from that introspective intro through various musical dimensions, the evening closed out in tweaked party mode—as only the Finns can manage—with the cheeky, droll and fun-seeking Dalindèo, in the agreeably funky, retooled slaughterhouse venue known as Kulturzentrum Schlachthof.

One of a handful of standouts in the well-represented piano trio format, the Ikonen Trio—with bassist Olli Rantala and drummer Markku Ounaskari—achieve an ensemble sound that is fresh, subtle, and tickled by gentle surprises. The leader, who has taught at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki for nearly 20 years, touched on the underlying work-seeking mission of musicians performing here, closing his set by inviting the help of a good agent: “For instance,” he said, with a dry Finnish wink of humor, “we have nobody booking us for Antarctica, Northern Siberia… or Europe.”

Later in the evening, the piano trio format again shone and provoked in the form of the dazzling young Aki Rissanen Trio, which effectively delved into some minimalist machinery along its path to re-energize and rethink the trio context.

From the zone where jazz-rock intersects with some more artful and hard-to-categorize notions, Raoul Björkenheim eCsTaSy is one of the more intriguing “electric” jazz bands out there. And the leader-guitarist allows for measured doses of “out there” moments, dissonance and creative disorder, to enliven the guitar-tenor saxophone melody lines and changeable rhythmic strategies. Funk, free play, Ornette-ishness, some kind of Finnish swamp-fusion and the leader’s raw, searching guitar work grace the band’s unique sound.

Other Finns on this night: Tenors of Kalma, led by the multi-instrumentalist and multi-minded flutist-singer-saxophonist-keyboardist Jimi Tenor; and the atmosphere-soaked post-rock/jazz washes of the young VIRTA band (with notable drummer Erik Fräki). A special and highly personal gust of Finnish jazz history blows through the current project led by the impressive trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, as he pays tribute to his later father, Pekka Pohjola, a well-known electric bassist of some international repute.

Another important Finnish musician, alto saxophonist Mikko Innanen, can always be counted on to deliver musical interest and savory twists, as heard in his great band Innkvisitio. Another of his projects, GOURMET, presented its semi-crazed menu at the Schlachthof. Two decades old now, the band has its own stake in the gaming genre of the festive-yet-smart little big band mode, with a distinctive palette including accordion (Veli Kujala), trombone (Ilmari Pohjola) and tuba (Petri Keskitalo, whose woozy left-field solo closed the set on a high note).

While hardly a definitive conclave of Finnish jazz, this “Finnish Night” projected a fascinating glimpse into the country’s music, with all its curious turns, cool jolts of humor and oblique lyricism in the line of jazz. DB




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