We Jazz Festival Fosters Surprise and Discovery in Helsinki


An important event on the Helsinki jazz scene, now in its sixth year, We Jazz has made a point of staging shows in often unlikely places and contexts.

A large self-storage unit on Dec. 7 hosted an unusually sensitive, yet raucous, free saxophone-drum duo comprised of Otis Sandsjö and Jonas Leppänen, and a rangy, sometimes Dada-inspired solo baritone saxophone performance from Finnish reedist Mikko Innanen. It was “pop-up culture” in action.

Surprise and discovery, not to mention radically rethinking venues, are key ingredients for the enterprising festival founded by Matti Nives. We Jazz boldly fills a jazz festival void in Helsinki, an otherwise intriguing music hub, and is linked to a label of the same name. In the past, the festival’s included free improv on a moving tram, with musicians getting on and off, and interacting as they go, as well as this year’s eight-day festival sporting a secret gig (the unveiled secret: Jussi Kannaste and Teppo Mäkynen at antique bookshop Laterna Magica).

We Jazz programing is anything but static, and performances moved from the close quarters of the storage unit to one of Helsinki’s—and Finland’s—nightclub jewels, the G Livelab. The Friday night outing showcased Finland’s tweaked mainstream quartet Ilmiliekki (led by versatile trumpeter Verneri Pohjola) and was followed by the invigorating, visceral energy of UK-based trio Enemy (pianist Kit Downes, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren), which harnessed the power of malleable structure and rhythm, rather than head-solo-head orthodoxy.

The following day, the traveling festival landed—for the first time in its history—in Suvilahti, the large repurposed industrial area property used for Flow Festival, a major indie-esque summer extravaganza. Four different stages around the property were put to good use, including the large space where Dalindèo ambitiously paid tribute to late Polish jazz pioneer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969). Guitarist-leader Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen arranged Komeda’s music for a sextet and filigreed the performance with a documentary on the jazz jazz icon, who also briefly dazzled Hollywood courtesy of music for Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Norway had its say as a pair of performers tied to the Hubro label played back-to-back: Rock minimalist Kim Myhr (joined by as many as four additional guitarists in a hypnotic sonic weave) and the innovative Moskus. A bright light on the Norwegian jazz scene, Moskus (pianist Anja Lauvdal, bassist Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson and drummer Hans Hulbækmo) offers an inspired twist on the piano trio format, displaying creative might and flexibility as it’s expanded its vision over time.

Around midnight, the diversity of Finnish jazz was epitomized by overlapping sets in different rooms: the popular spunky punk jazz trio Mopo (featuring baritone saxophonist Linda Fredriksson), which had organized its own “Mopopocalypse” micro-festival under the We Jazz umbrella, and tenorist Timo Lassy’s fairly strait-laced post-soul-jazz, crowd-pleasing quintet.

The next day, during the the festival’s final performance at the Andorra movie theater, the trumpet-drums duo of Pohjola and Mika Kallio established their easy improvisational rapport with a short workout onstage before launching into the main attraction: a coloristic and cinematic free-play live soundtrack to Eläimen Kuva, a coolly ravishing black-and-white ode to nature, animals and humanity by Perttu Saksa.

On the basis of just a few days, the latest edition of We Jazz fulfilled its core mission of making for an evocative, ever-mobile way to both see and hear Helsinki and its musical landscape. DB

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December 2023
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