The harbingers of a deep winter had arrived in Tampere, Finland, in early November, with diminishing daylight, temperatures hovering around freezing and the first drifts of snow. But those wintry signs made for a counterpoint to the warmth and vibrancy of the indoor diversions at the illustrious annual Tampere Jazz Happening. The festival celebrated its milestone 35th anniversary this year with intelligence and flourish.
Long known as part of a short list of the world’s notable jazz festivals—renowned for its adventurous spirit and carefully calibrated equilibrium of accessible and “avant” programming—Tampere is particularly distinguished as part of the crop of autumn jazz festivals worth keeping eye, ear and intel on.
The four-day festival takes place in the adjacent outposts of the Telakka and the Pakkahuone, both vintage brick buildings situated near such modern developments as the Torni Hotel, the tallest one in Finland. (The hotel’s Moro Sky Bar offers a stunning panoramic view of the city.)
The 2016 edition was another feather in the cap for artistic director Juha-Matti Kauppinen, in charge since 2002. He cherry-picked a few spotlight-worthy American acts: the Steve Lehmann Octet; hard-blowing saxophonist James Carter and his Organ Trio; the David Bowie-blessed Donny McCaslin Group; the ubiquitous legend Charles Lloyd (sounding stronger by degrees of late, and here with drummer Kendrick Scott kicking artfully alongside him); and bassist Dave Holland’s fabulous new band Aziza, featuring Chris Potter on saxophones.
From the Finnish contingent, a steady flow of bands kept Telakka humming. Highlights included minimalist-minded pianist Aki Rissanen’s trio and the exotic sonics of well-known saxophonist Pepa Päivinen’s band Good Roman.
We also got a triple dose of the exploratory guitarist Raoul Björkenheim—once in a duo with seasoned reedist Juhani “Junnu” Aaltonen and twice with the once-popular ECM recording act Krakatau, recently revived after a long dormancy.
Subbing for the canceled ADHD, Krakatau appeared in a rhythmically super-charged set with Senegal Drums late on Nov. 5, and at midnight stirred up a trance-embracing journey. (Echoes of the late, great Finnish drummer and connection-maker Edward Vesala still matriculate over the Finnish scene; he founded Krakatau, and passed the drum seat to others in its wandering lifetime).
The Nov. 4 program started out bracingly with the formidable all-star Finnish band Jazzlitton Juhlaorkestreri, made up of winners of the Finnish Jazz Federation’s prestigious Yrjö Award, in honor of the award’s 50th anniversary. (Yes, Finnish jazz has some deep and spidery roots.)
Keeping the award connection in focus, a group that included saxophonist Mikko Innanen and guitarist Teemu Viinikainen played tunes by former award winners, and invited this year’s winner, impressive tenor saxophonist Esa Pietilä, onstage for a collectively climactic outro.
The Nov. 6 program on the mainstage boasted sentimental and historical Finnish significance, as young trumpeter Verneri Pohjola performed a special tribute to his late father, bassist Pekka Pohjola, who died eight years ago.
Although his father specialized in fusion and progressive rock (and enjoyed stints with Frank Zappa), young Pohjola wisely opted to re-arrange his father’s music for a more personal, contemporary and toned-down musical context.
The night of Nov. 3 at the Klubi venue belonged to Sweden, in the form of a nicely diversified three-part “Spotlight on Sweden,” an inviting micro-survey of newer Swedish artists on the scene.
Japanese pianist Naoko Sakata (now living in Gothenburg) led a trio that moved fluidly from edgier turf to post-romantic jazz with a Metheny-Mays flavor, while the art-jazz-pop project Nuaia aced a certain melancholic poetry, built around haunting, echoing lyrical and melodic fragments.
Special kudos go out to the sensational young Swedish guitarist Susanna Risberg, who—as heard here with her trio—worked imaginatively within a clean-toned jazz guitar approach. Most importantly, she captured our attention with her unpredictable, nuanced musicality.
The cross-cultural meeting of Norwegian Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet), Eivind Aarset (guitar) and the veteran Jamaican groove dispenser team of Sly & Robbie came off as not fully cooked. It got lost in some aimless atmospherics and late-breaking goofy antics by bassist Robbie Shakespeare, which undermined the entrancing sincerity of Molvaer’s musical approach.
A far better “unlikely musical marriage” was Håkon Kornstadt’s “Tenor Battle”—a project blending his tenor saxophone tone with his own impassioned tenor voice. He has been making the rounds of European and Scandinavian venues and festivals of late and hopes to get to the States soon. For this occasion, he introduced a new, culture-specific addition to his repertoire as an encore in Tampere, by Finnish composer/national hero Jean Sibelius (1865–1957).
In other idiom-synthesizing news, chamber music and jazz—plus other ambiguously identified musical impulses—came together beautifully in the music of inspired pianist-situationist Eve Risser, whose captivating set with her White Desert Orchestra was a highlight at the Happening this year.
Other highlights of the festival arrived with the agencies of both surprise and of reputation-driven high expectations. Australia’s unique trio The Necks duly beguiled, via a slow-building, evolutionary etude over the hour-long set.
The pinnacle for Nov. 4 was more a sympathetic one-two punch segment of the program, enacted by two rhythm-powered saxophonist-leaders.
Lehmann’s intricately interwoven, post-Steve Coleman inventions for octet engaged the listeners’ intellect and inner mathematician. Heard in the thrilling setting of a tight live show, his music asserted a riveting power.
Meanwhile, the next artist on the bill, Norwegian sax dynamo Marius Neset, also injected his music with rhythmic mazes and investigations—sometimes to ecstatic degrees—but also applied a romantic’s love of melodic designs and the art of strategically emotional arc-making.
Joined here by special guest, versatile cellist Svante Henryson (playing cello as cello or cello as electric guitar surrogate), Neset—on tenor and, increasingly, soprano—once again cooked up the new brand of musical heat we’ve come to expect.
Duly warmed, we exited the Pakkahuone and braved the midnight chill with a bolder stride and a lingering glow.