The Finnish city of Tampere could easily fulfil an imaginary coupling relationship with industrial Birmingham. Martin Longley journeyed there to eat reindeer and chase some adventurous jazz music…
Tampere Jazz Happening 2012
Here’s another veteran jazz festival, and one which has been gaining increasing international recognition during recent years. This is a Happening with a personality. A distinct orientation to its programming, and a taste for the more adventurous aspects of jazz. The Finnish city of Tampere has traditionally been likened to Manchester in England, but perhaps Birmingham would be a closer comparison, with its deeply ingrained industrial past. Detroit could be another twinned city, and it’s already a mirror home for a similarly long-running and superior festival.
Everything is quite convenient within the Happening. The various stages are gathered in close proximity to each other, allowing a brief transfer in weather conditions that weren’t quite as freezing as anticipated. No need to ride reindeers across the cobbles: we could just eat those seasonal creatures instead. The Old Customs House Hall provided the main stage, with a smaller space adjoining, Klubi chiefly hosting the late night part of the schedule. Across the street is the café bar Telakka, which was the main home to the indigenous Finnish acts over the weekend.
Thursday evening was low key, just sticking to Klubi and presenting three rapidly ascending young bands. All were prime players at Dublin’s 12 Points Festival, an enterprising forum for young European outfits. The club encouraged clumps of standing viewers close to the stage, thereby immediately heightening the communicative excitement. Even so, the labyrinthine Klubi still has an abundance of tables and chairs scattered around on various levels, for those who were happy to ease gently into these mostly rupturing sounds. The French quartet Actuum opened with a severe jolt, operating at a highly detailed level of aggressive hyperactivity. Their absolute benchmark must surely be the classic Ornette Coleman quartet with Don Cherry. Alto saxophonist Benjamin Dousteyssier and trumpeter Louis Laurain held an inspired rapport, bolting frenetically, or splintering into the very room’s essence of quietness. Bassist Ronan Courty and drummer Julien Loutelier were also precision engineers of dynamic stress-then-release. Other precedents called to mind were John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy Ornette homage combo, or maybe reedsman Ken Vandermark at his most free-form.
The momentum increased further with English crew World Service Project, who are already gaining a strong reputation, at least within the UK. They are part of the nameless movement that encompasses Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland, Trio VD, Troyka, up to fellow newcomers Roller Trio. Rock and jazz which is not jazz rock, in the old 1970s sense. There’s a tougher tone, a more adventurous groping of atonality, hardness and riffing complexity. Prog meets punk, Frank Zappa and King Crimson procreating Rip Rig & Panic and The Pop Group. Keyboardist Dave Morecroft was the ringmaster, sonically and visually directing the band through a minefield of twisting, squirming, jolting and japing contortions. This was clever stuff, but never too smug. Roughshod barnstorming was the chosen method, heavy boots stamping all over charts of finesse. It’s a youth thang, as the WSP sustained great energies throughout a set that left the crowd breathless with concentration. No slackening was allowed. No pauses for thought. Until post-gig, of course. Then the substance penetrated the collective mind.
Sadly, the home posse was somewhat disappointing after all of this nervy action. Finland’s Big Blue (hailing from the small town of Jyväskylä) offered a much more conventional outlook on the jazz form, with a trumpet/piano/bass/drums line-up. They were perfectly adequate, but maybe they should have played first, as a lesson in mesmerising tradition, before the other two bands began to detonate the outer walls of jazz. Anyway, this was an extremely strong starter night for the Happening, just a taster for the wealth of stellar sets to come.
The big-name Americans began to arrive on Friday, with sets beginning at 8pm. Performances alternated between the Old Customs House and Telakka, although the problem with the latter venue as the weekend progressed was that it had a tendency to reach its capacity very quickly, with droves of folks arriving from the much larger hall. This led to a severe bottleneck of crushed bodies, especially near the entrance. It was so uncomfortable that evacuation eventually became necessary.
The Gerry Hemingway Quintet had Mark Helias replacing an indisposed Kermit Driscoll on bass, but the line-up was otherwise comprised of this version’s steady members. The saxophone front line of Ellery Eskelin and Oscar Noriega seemed to be more inclined towards introversion than usual, but Hemingway himself drove each piece forward with his clattery excavations. Terrence McManus is a valuable addition on electric guitar, although he too was less caustic than expected. As an opening set, this was a fine way of establishing an enquiring mood, a diligent reading of Hemingway’s compositions.
Over at Telakka, Jorma Tapio was proving to be the ultimate multi-instrumentalist. Every tune began with a switching from saxophone to bass clarinet, or flute, crafting a broad range to textures, but also interrupting the set’s linear flow. Tapio was an old colleague of the departed drummer Edward Vesala, but his music wasn’t all roiling stormclouds. There was also a frequent lyrical touch, supported by the sensitive playing of the Kaski trio’s other members, bassist Tero Siitonen and drummer Simo Laihonen.
Pianist Vijay Iyer has become so revered on the scene that surely it’s time for the backlash. Although his trio always delivers sets of masterful control, Iyer’s all-consuming appeal to folks from all areas of the jazz sphere tends to alert some listeners to a possible blandness in the delivery of his message. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is found at his most conventional within this band. Oddly, when bassist Stephan Crump is replaced by Steve Lehman for the Fieldwork trio, the conceptual results suddenly become markedly more asymmetrical, pointillistic and generally captivating. The atmosphere was becoming too calm, but the next two acts were set to muddy the waters considerably.
The Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf presented his Diagnostic band, setting out to pummel the mood in a radically different direction. Even since catching them play in New York last spring, there has been a considerable toughening of the set into a road-tested, festival-hardened entertainment machine. This was good news in terms of energy and momentum, but slightly unfortunate in terms of having gathered a few too many stadium-rawk style crowd hectoring techniques. French denizen Maalouf’s tunes, personality and playing can’t be faulted, though, and for every commercialised lick there were compensatory moments of gutsy rocking out, headbanging in an Arabic stylee. Maalouf is just as much into Led Zeppelin as Fairouz, likely to dig Weather Report as well as Goran Bregovic. The highlights of his set, as anticipated, were the bewitching “Will Soon Be A Woman” and “Beirut”, which begins with the subtlest possible gradual growing, then ends up as a storming metal behemoth. Maalouf’s microtonal trumpet is perfect for imparting an Arabic bending of notes, along with the jazz and rock flecks. Flautist Youenn Le Cam provided second trumpet, allowing Maalouf more freedom to roam. He also stepped in with some bagpipes, for some strategic squalling.
Now that we were in the mood for gypsy escapades, the real thing was literally just around the corner. The late night Klubi 1am set was just about to set the dancefloor ablaze. More trumpets too, from the father and son leaders of the Boban and Marko Marcovic Orchestra. Arriving straight outta Serbia, almost half this crew play tenor horns, lined up in a mighty huffing battalion. There were also three other trumpet/flügel players, as if the leaders weren’t already letting off ample solo fire. Yes, this was dancing music, but the paradox is that the more a person quaffed, the less likely they’d be to handle the complex time signatures, but the less they quaffed, and they’d be less likely to try. Either way led to unavoidably exuberant fun, with heads, stomachs and pedal extremities swapping their confused roles with abandon.
The Saturday and Sunday programmes began at 2pm in the afternoons, representing the weekend’s greatest density of sets. Schneeweiss Und Rosenrot opened up with a striking display. This unfamiliar quartet weren’t exactly jazz, but they also weren’t exactly too much shackled by any genre. The song form provided their chief thrust, manifested in an experimental kind of French café chanson. It also sounded like they’d been admiring the old records of Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt. Not in the sound of his voice, but rather in the general feeling. Otherwise, lead vocalist and minimalist keyboarder Lucia Cadotsch possessed a unique charisma, mannered and eccentric, but not irritatingly so, as could be the possible pitfall of such extremity. She was well balanced by ‘conventional’ pianist Johanna Borchert, setting up an electro-acoustic dialogue, and equally contrasting with their vocal styles. The band is made up with members from Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Sweden. That’s a mixture indeed. The music too, but it all ultimately sounded controlled and refined in its diversity and style-mulching meltdown.
The afternoon run continued with interesting sets by Hasse Poulsen’s Progressive Patriots (another multi-land band, this time combining French and German players, but with the US drummer Tom Rainey being the most renowned member) and Sha’s Feckel (more straightforwardly from Switzerland, their reedsman leader Sha most heard as a member of Nick Bärtsch’s Ronin). In their different ways, both combos were dedicated to intricate jazz-rocky compositions that were accurately delivered with force and finesse.
Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures continued the run in the main Old Customs House Hall, entering the evening cluster. This was a larger, festival octet incarnation of the long-running band, featuring Graham Haynes (cornet), Joe Bowie (trombone) and Ralph Jones (reeds’n’flutes). All of the horn players augmented their main axes with a selection of tiny blown or percussed instruments. This was attractive at first, but eventually tipped over into being too overdone, significantly decreasing the time spent with their primary horns. Thus, the parts of the set with less of a rhythmic thrust tended towards an abstraction that sometimes sounded unfocused. When guitarist Kenny Wessell soloed, it was clear that his statement was powerful, but unfortunately it was sonically submerged in the mix. Rudolph himself led from the congas, conducting, prompting, driving and inspiring.
The Jazz Passengers have been officially reunited, although did they ever break asunder? It just seems as though there have been extended hiatus periods. They’ve still been playing together at NYC’s Jazz Standard club on a fairly regular basis. The combo’s leaders, saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, exuded a relaxed, lived-in rapport, like a pair of rascally uncles who’ve been sent to disrupt a staid family gathering. Having the luxury to lounge casually across the stage, and ramble eloquently to the audience doesn’t mean that this is a band without a feel for discipline. They succeeded in making their arrangements sound loose and spontaneous, but the vocal harmonies (from virtually the entire band) were the epitome of conversational good-timing. The title cut of their Reunited album (Justin Time, 2010) was delivered as a marvel of doo wop soul combinations, twinklingly mischievous and slyly ironic.
An attempt to enter the permanently crammed Telakka was, again, frustrating. I heard the Mopo trio, but could only espy stray limbs and head-fragments through the massed bottleneck. They sounded substantially storming, but it was time to cross the street back to the Customs House. Klubi was blessed with a much more conducive environment for late night unwinding. Next year, the festival organisers should consider moving the local Finnish bands into this more spacious location. Either that, or sell fewer tickets for those gigs.
Vying for prime position as one of the weekend’s mightiest performances is that given by the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. Further retrospective significance is now imparted as the German reedsman has recently announced the retirement of this long-running formation. While some sets suffer from an almost unexplainable lacking of urgency, potency or crackle, this seething improvisation was the ultimate example of a show that was riddled with almost uncontainable invention, passion and expression, from beginning to conclusion. The Tentet have been working together for so long that their discipline makes the resulting music sound almost choreographed in places. This is part of the reason why Brötzmann feels that they have now reached their peak. A peak which signals the end of their road agony. Despite these constant ongoing groupings of active players, the sudden intersections, stepping to the sides, ripping right to stage-front, duos emerging, full Tentet eruptions (it’s 10 members besides the leader), every permutation always sounded vital, as if essayed for the first time. Ken Vandermark was in a more reserved state than usual, Mats Gustafsson spent the entire set tensing for his rationed baritone saxophone explosions. It was all concerned with waiting in the wings. When one savage outburst was dispatched, another player was invariably ready to pounce. Fred Lonberg-Holm only unleashed his full amplified cello reserves at one lone stage, but he was constantly there, decorating at lower volumes, responding at apt times. The twinned trombones of Johannes Bauer and Jeb Bishop also raspberried with blooded gobbets, both together and separately.Brötzmann was no laurel-resting leader: his solos were amongst the most energised of all. He too was biding his time to the side, coming forward with steely determination, then surreptitiously implying directions in the general ebb and flow. The symphony of smaller groupings gave way a few times to a fully coordinated crumpling of excess, not least at the very climax of the main extended piece. Surprisingly, they still had energy reserves for an encore that was almost as crucial as the dominant, sprawling body.
Back to Klubi, for its 1am dance set. The Ghanaian singer/guitarist Ebo Taylor was not too flashy, extroverted or overtly crowd-whipping, just relaxed and self-contained, emanating good waves of buoyant brightness. The Afrobeat Academy weren’t entirely as advertised, Taylor’s music being at least equally Highlife in style, or even soukous soaked in places. He’s fostered a pan-African style, almost inwardly performed with Taylor’s calm interior confidence dominating by stealth. He was strongly supported by a ripping horn section and a bold percussion battery.
The Sunday selection once again commenced at 2pm, but had an earlier finishing time of around midnight. The day got off to a slow-immersion start with Danish guitarist Mark Solborg’s trio, doubled by the presence of three guests. So, bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Peter Bruun were joined by previously collaborating trumpeter Herb Robertson, and saxophonists Lotte Anker and Mikko Innanen. The resultant sounds were luminescent, carefully developed and often resonant with stasis, but the music didn’t quite connect or arrest, lurking in the introspective zone without being magical. There were many instances of dropping in and dropping out, but rather than being compellingly dramatic, these had the effect of hampering momentum. It was a suitably thoughtful set with which to ease into the day’s proceedings.
The truly inspirational start came with the pairing of Japanese pianist Aki Takase and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. Takase imposed a vintage jazz vocabulary on the freedom, leaping from rolling boogie woogie to abstract splintering. Bennink likewise set up swinging cymbal and hi-hat rhythms, then detonated them with sudden breakdowns of free tumble. Yes, the impish sticksman was involved in many of his expected antics, but he was more extreme, inflated by the spirit of spontaneous extremity. His repertoire of physical communication leapt back to the days of his youth, in a more exaggerated manifestation. Bennink was in love with the stage floor, sitting or even lying down as he tattooed the boards, or rapped on the piano’s underbelly. Takase’s finger-strength was phenomenal, as she thundered out great cascades of train-rollin’ phrases. Her humour wasn’t as overt as Bennink’s, but she’s his ideal not-so-straight woman.
The most mainstream jazz set of the whole weekend came courtesy of The John Scofield Trio. This was almost a shocking reverse-avant interlude, when surrounded by the largely more innovative artists of the Happening. It took Scofield around 40 minutes before mining a vein of molten lava, and then the set ascended for its closing run. A major problem was the tonal similarity between Scofield and electric bassist Steve Swallow. When one solo concluded, the next was invariably too close in its expressive style, leading to a samey-ness inertia. Having heard Scofield primarily in stoking’n’searing blues, rock, groove and gospel settings in recent times, it almost came as a disappointment when returning to his mellower classic jazz amplifier tone.
The triumphant set of the entire Happening fittingly arrived right at the end of the last day. Percussionist Adam Rudolph presented his larger ensemble, the Go:Organic Orchestra, in the lively surroundings of Klubi. This outfit wasn’t anywhere near as enlarged as it is when Rudolph presents his Monday night residency at NYC’s Roulette venue, and it also appeared in a more electric, funkified make-up. Moving Pictures acted as the core, augmented by a group of Finnish extras that included saxophonist Mikko Innanen. Rudolph had also co-opted several members of Ebo Taylor’s band, presumably in a spontaneous move. Whereas the regular NYC orchestra usually features a host of string and flute players, this medium-sized variant concentrated on horn and percussion power. Rudolph is an inspirational leader. His conducting prompts are vaguely associated with those of Butch Morris, Walter Thompson and John Zorn, but Rudolph usually prepares scored matter, whether written or pictorial. Whatever the nature, he demonstrated that he is one of the finest catalyst-cataclysm conductors in the field. It seemed impossible to transcend the opening (and lengthy) funk convolution odyssey, but Rudolph almost succeeded, dipping into calm space before offering repeated percussion-heavy build-ups. Few are the times that naked funk sweating has been allied so seamlessly with hyper-complex time signatures and dance-forcing earthy-cerebral grooves. Joe Bowie, Graham Haynes and Kenny Wessell were principals in the soloing levitations, with the old Defunkt trombonist also providing lusty vocals. This was certainly one of the year’s most ecstatic performances, in any city, any festival, anywhere.
World Service Project play at The George Tavern, London, on Sunday the 16th of December 2012…