The Jazz-Espa series, of which this is the 16th, takes place every summer in the Esplanade area of Helsinki, a green strip off the city centre which starts with the Swedish Theatre at one end and ends with the City Market, and has some of the capital’s most elegant buildings surrounding it, such as the Kämp hotel, bar and restaurant, the Savoy Theatre, and a number of prestige department stores such as Stockmann. Just before the market, near the port, the Espa Stage is an outdoor area with a proscenium arched stage where various concerts take place from June to August. Things began this year with a series of classical chamber concerts celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish national composer Jean Sibelius, and continue with Etno Espa, a series of folk and world music concerts. They are all free, and usually happen twice daily, at 4pm and 5.30, lasting around an hour, with seating on a first come-first served basis. Organised by the Finnish Jazz Federation, the Finnish Music Foundation and the Helsinki City Cultural Office, with support from the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatorium, and the nearby Kappeli bar and restaurant, more than twenty of Finland’s top jazz ensembles were featured this year, most of whom have recorded albums, and some with careers stretching back several years.
Jazz Espa began on July 27 with some heavy hitters – the Nordic Trinity, a sax-guitar-drums trio comprising three musicians from three different generations: Finnish sax and flute supremo Juhani Aaltonen, who turned 80 this year, but still plays with consummate grace and style, guitarist Mikko Iivanainen, who plays with numerous other ensembles, including his wife’s, the vocalist Johanna, and drummer Mika Kallio, who also fronts percussion trio Kallio Slaaki, which foregrounds gongs, and has toured and released a solo album as well. Nordic Trio formed in 2004 and has released five albums, one featuring compositions by the late great Finnish drummer and percussionist Edward Vesala, with whom Aaltonen played regularly up until his death in 1999. Alternating between tenor sax and flute, it is a relatively rare appearance for Aaaltonen, but a forceful one, despite his relative frailty. He has been active in Finnish jazz since the 1950s, and played in the rock fusion group Tasavallan Presidentti (President of the Republic) in the 1970s, when they toured the UK, playing at Ronnie Scotts and the Marquee in London and the Cavern in Liverpool, and again in Finland when they reformed in 2005-6. But he is most noted as a jazz musician, playing saxophone and flute in numerous combinations.
Next up was internationally celebrated trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, whose recent album Pinball, on the UK Edition label, has had considerable acclaim, along with his regular quartet, but joined in a ‘head to head’ by fellow trumpeter Jukka Eskola, who toured Australia with his trio in June 2014, reprising a duo who were first seen last year in Helsinki at the Mbar. A few nights earlier Pohjola played another ‘head to head’ on the terrace at Helsinki’s downtown Mbar as a duo with electronics with barefooted drummer Tatu Rönkkö, originally from Kuopio in Eastern Finland, who has recently made a splash on the Helsini music scene as part of the trio Elifantree, with Pauli Lyytinen on tenor saxophone, and Turkish-Swedish Anni Elif Egecioglu on wild English vocals. He is also a member of a new group called Liima, with three of the members of Danish group Efterklang. Rönkkö also performs monthly solo events in people’s kitchens, using available pots and pans, furniture and utensils, in a novel type of percussion event. He also features on Aaltonen’s most recent recording, To Future Memories, on the prestigious Helsinki-based TUM label, along with Vesala’s former wife Iiro Haarla on piano and harp, and her current partner, double bassist Ulf Krokfors.
Aura Flow is a newly-formed quintet from Turku, named after the river that flows through this south western city, and featuring veteran pianist Jussi Fredriksson. They released their debut album last year, but Fredriksson features in other bands, including his own trio, who also have Mika Kallio on drums, and perform on the Espa stage a couple of days later. As in most jazz scenes, there are a lot of musicians alternating between different bands in Helsinki, and also other cities. Another notable feature is that while all the announcements tend to be in Finnish, almost all track titles are in English, almost the only exception being the Kokko Quartet, which has a female pianist and saxophonist/flautist, and are touring Australia in December. Named after a giant eagle in the Finnish saga the Kalevala, an important influence on numerous musicians from Sibelius to black metal bands, the Kokko Quartet on this occasion including percussionist Ricardo Padilla, of the Finnish Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. They consist of Kaisa Sirala on sax and flute, Johanna Pitkänen on piano, Timo Tuppurainen on double bass and Risto Takaka on drums, and incorporate Indian, Cuban and Arabic stylings, with Padillo playing daf, a Persian frame drum, and darbuka, a goblet drum, among other instruments. They also draw on more familiar Scandinavian and Finnish styles, and their debut album Like A River has rather programmatic liner notes, describing one track as in the style of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek, others in the style of Indian ragas, and inspired by Siirala’s trips to India, as well as being influenced by films and Finnish nature. Nonetheless they are tight, proficient musicians, with a lively variety of tracks composed by Tippurainen as well as Pitkänen and Siirala.
The redoutable Dutchman Henk van Leeuwen and his Australia Northern Europe Liaisons, who have brought a number of Finnish and Scandinavian musicians to Australia, including the Norwegian Tord Gustavsen, Finnish piano virtuoso Iiro Rantala, and Verneri Pohjola, is responsible for their visit
The Martti Vesala Soundpost Quintet plays their trumpeter-leader’s compositions, also featuring his flugelhorn, and a saxophonist and flautist. They claim 60s influences such as Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, which they combine with ‘the eloquent sounds of Nordic Jazz’, but lack the distinctive electric fusion groove of their models, sounding a trifle bland in comparison, and more like Davis’ more straight ahead 1950s compositions.
The Teemu Akerblom Quartet, led by their bassist, are a new outfit, combining mainstream jazz and free improv, with two sax players, bass and drums. They sound a bit cautious, and maybe have yet to find a distinctive voice. 1+2+3+5=4, on the other hand, are a totally improvising, wildly unconventional quintet, featuring noted sax player Mikko Innanen, trumpeter Magnus Bro, percussionist Joonas Riippa, who has recorded with Verneri Pohjola, pianist Aki Rissanen, and electric guitar and electronics by Pekka Tuppurainen. They are one of the highlights of the whole event, pulling no punches in their chaotic, undisciplined cacophony, producing an exhilarating noise which not even the rain could dampen.
Adele Sauros is one of the few female saxophonists in Helsinki, and her quartet came second in the annual pan-Scandinavian Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition in 2014, when they also released their debut album. She is also involved in one of this year’s YNJC finalists, the trio Katu Kaiku (Street Echo), along with a bassist and percussionist, who produce a distinctive combination. Another Finnish female (baritone) sax player is Linda Fredricksson, who is part of the trio Mopo (Moped), a brilliant ensemble who incorporate wild sounds, including vocalisations and additional instruments such as a rubber pig. I’ve written about them before in my review of last year’s Helsinki Flow Festival, and they are featured in a special Sunday event on the terrace of Mbar called Jazz Piknik. They do a Kids’ Concert in the afternoon, and another set in the evening, following versatile veteran saxophonist Eero Koivistoinen another former collaborator with Edward Vesala, active since the 1960s, with a quartet featuring pianist Alexi Tuomarila, who has also released a couple of albums on the UK Edition label (http://editionrecords.com/). Fredricksson returned as ‘Superpony’, the sole female member of the Northern Governors, a seven-piece jazz-funk supergroup who sing in English and have released two albums. They whip up a storm, getting the audience on their feet. Their presentation is almost cabaret-like, and they’re not afraid of being a bit corny, but they are lively, good-humoured and above all great fun, and soon have the audience on their side. They were the highlight of this whole event.
Then it was back to the Espa stage the following Monday for another round, with quartet Mighty Mighty playing the compositions of Kari Setalä, with a trumpet and tenor sax. They released their hard bop debut album ‘See the Light’ last year on Schema. The day after it was the turn of the Johannes Sarjasto Quartet, with the leader-composer on a wild alto sax, and the suave bass player from Mopo, Daniel Sommer, here doubling on electric bass and a musical saw, to great effect. Then Jussi Fredriksson is back again with the eight piece Koko Jazz Orchestra – not to be confused with the Kokko Quartet. They are named after the eponymous Koko jazz club in Kallio, where most of these combos play, and feature two saxes, trumpet and trumbone, a drummer and percussionst, and were founded by drummer Jussi Lentonen in 2012. They have an album featuring the music of Lentonen and Fredricksson. The Jari Perkiömäki Organic Baritone Quartet are influenced by George Benson’s lineup, and even play some of his numbers, as well as Jimmy Smith’s, featuring guitar, baritone sax and Hammond organ, but they’re much funkier than Benson’s often bland combination, and really blow up a storm. The Trio Urho came out of the Sibelius Academy, where a number of prominent musicians on the current jazz scene studied, as well as the Pop and Jazz Conservatorium, and are a tenor sax/flute-bass-drums combo.
The final day features the renowned UMO Jazz Orchestra, founded exactly 40 years ago. Eero Koivistoinen was a leading figure in the 70s and 80s, and over the years they have recorded 26 albums and performed with Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, McCoy Tyner, Maria Schneider, Michael Brecker, John Scofield and Lenny Pickett, as well as Kenny Wheeler & Norma Winstone. Later they’re playing with Brazilian maestro Hermeto Pascoal at the Helsinki Festival, but today they’re led by pianist Kirmo Lintinen, and play an all-Finnish program featuring pieces by Koivistoinen and others. One of the tracks they play is the title track from the 2001 album Transit People, executive produced for Naxos Jazz by Australian pianist Mike Nock. The title sums up the nature of the orchestra, which not only has a regular turnover, but has also toured around Europe, Canada and the USA. Crowding the stage with about twenty members, and producing a forceful volume, they provide a suitably booming conclusion to what has been a showcase in contemporary Finnish jazz.