Binker & Moses Captivate With Calypso-Influenced Improv At Helsinki's We Jazz

As Finland celebrates its centenary as an independent state this year there are perhaps a few more flags in the national colours of blue and white to be seen around the country's capital Helsinki than was previously the case. Be that as it may, a more vivid sense of what Finland or Suomi means in musical terms can be gauged by several of the artists who represent the country during this year's We Jazz, the latest edition of this well-curated week long event. Interestingly, many of the groups are piano-free models in which reeds often play a prominent role, but the creative breadth of the current Finnish jazz scene is best encapsulated in the enormous contrast between two drummer-composers.

Joonas Leppanen leads Alder Ego, an impressive young quartet whose saxophone-trumpet frontline has distinct echoes of Ornette and Ayler, and its appearance at the Helsinki Contemporary art gallery in the centre of town is a smart choice for the quality of the acoustic as well as the overall beauty of the space, which suits the thoughtful, melodically expressive material. Olavi Louhivuori, on the other hand, is arguably the wildest of wild cards. Known first and foremost as the founder of Oddarang, one of the first Finnish signees to Edition Records, he has always been liable to spring surprises on audiences, blurring boundaries between jazz, electronica, pop and rock. His Immediate Music project is no exception to the rule, taking him deep into a compellingly mutant soundworld that meshes his strident percussion with the incendiary if not intensely raging synthesisers and sound effects of Teemu Korpipaa and the primeval folk howl of Pekko Kappi's bowed lyre. Although a small, delicate looking piece of kit almost like a miniature washboard with a neck, the latter is deployed with extreme but utterly focused violence. Kappi proves himself to be a whirlwind of ideas throughout the set, responding to the surging momentum provided by Louhivouri with a series of dramatic buzzsaw eruptions enhanced by freewheeling distortion and gravel and granite textures produced when he brings the bow to his mouth and hollers into the bridge with demonic abandon. Despite this red-light sound and fury the trio has well judged dynamics and settles as seamlessly into streams of ambient introspection as it does geysers of incandescence.

Louhivouri's gig also marks an interesting point of comparison with a key British guest at the festival, Binker & Moses. The saxophone-drums duo is on sprightly form and finds favour with a responsive audience that quickly relates to its raison d'etre: strong themes that are given extensive deconstructions in which the full improvisatory skill of each player comes to the fore all the while retaining the communicative intent of the music. The perfect example is the sumptuous calypso 'Fete By The River', whose Rollins-like leaning has those in front of me swaying shoulders and hips from the opening bars and then lending a close ear to the intricacy of Moses Boyd's double-into-treble-into-half-time rimshots. Although the Caribbean character of B&M's music is a mark of distinction it is instructive to hear how their modus operandi – the primacy of the song as well as the solo – is shared by other Finnish bands, with the trio being the line-up of choice, as in Jaska Lukkarinen, Tepppo Makynen's 3TM and, perhaps most engagingly of all, Mopo. The group has potential mainstream appeal because of the catchiness of the bulk of their material, the strong rhythmic foundation created by the drums-bass unit of Eeti Nieminen and Eero Tikkanen, and the powerful themes and improvisations of baritone/alto saxophonist Linda Frederiksson. The venue for their performance, Aaniwalli, a slightly non-descript space in an industrial park in Helsinki, is definitely the least endearing location used during the festival, a shortcoming compounded by surly doormen perhaps more accustomed to ejecting drunken techno fans than ushering jazzheads towards the door.

A much more inviting venue for other key gigs in the festival is the Andorra, a basement cinema in a bar owned by the Kaurismaki brothers, Finland's most feted film-makers. Decked out with movie memorabilia on the walls – the choice one being an arresting portrait of Matti Pellonpaa, regular contributor to Aki Kaurismaki's works, and whose downcast demeanour is said by some to capture an element of the national character – the building has an auditorium with red velvet seats with just the right sense of grandeur for a performance by Maria Faust's Sacrum Facere, a horn-led octet whose contrapuntally rich, deeply melancholic sound, often inspired by the sometimes harrowing tales of her native Estonia, strikes a chord. A few days before that the Copenhagen-based saxophonist played a solo double bill with Danish pianist August Rosenbaum, whose classically- inflected soundscapes impressed, so to see her in more orchestral mode is satisfying. Having said that the group led by the German-American drummer Jochen Rueckert is a timely reminder that a quartet can still be a thing of beauty, particularly one sporting a frontline of guitarist Mike Moreno and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Their set is full of intricate, harmonically mazy constructions, in which lengthy lines and whimsical changes are the order of the day. Yet the music sings as much as it swings and swerves. The audience is all whoop, holler, and un-Kaurismaki smiles.

– Kevin Le Gendre

Photo by Maarit Kytöharju

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