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

 Sunny

Drummer Sunny Murray, who passed away on 7 December, will forever be associated with the 'New Thing' movement of the mid-1960s, given the decisive contribution he made to the music of several of its most revered spearheads, above all Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. Born in Idabel, Oklahoma but an adopted New Yorker, Murray was a self-taught musician who developed his own idiosyncratic style of playing, which saw him use the drums to create startling textures and thunderously powerful percussive figures rather than keep straight time. His originality was a perfect match for the aforementioned innovators, both of whom were intent on challenging prevailing concepts of harmony, melody and rhythm, certainly as it was enshrined by the bebop school. Murray's work on Ayler's classic trio sets Ghosts and Spiritual Unity was pivotal in extending the expressive range of his instrument and was highly effective in a small group setting, where openness and spontaneity were at a premium.

Murray went on to play with many other acclaimed improvisers and composers such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, though his recordings as leader, first and foremost An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker) and Homage To Africa, both cut for BYG in 1970, are notable statements. He spent a great deal of his career in Europe, striking up creative partnerships with French pianist François Tusques as well as British musicians, saxophonist Tony Bevan and double-bassist John Edwards. The appearances Murray made with the two aforementioned players on stage and in the studio – see their 2004 CD Home Cooking In The UK – were also important insofar as they gave new audiences an opportunity to experience firsthand the energy and charisma of one of the original architects of what is referred to as 'free jazz'. In the final stretch of his career Murray proved irrepressibly adventurous, working with the likes of the Afro-Cuban oriented ensemble Sonic Liberation Front as well as Louie Belogenis. Sunny's Tine Now, the documentary made by Antoine Prum in 2008, is an excellent portrait of a rich, complex personality as well as an audacious musician.

– Kevin Le Gendre

The Jazz FM Awards will return in 2018 at Shoreditch Town Hall London on 30 April, International Jazz Day. Last year's ceremony was the national jazz station's highest profile to-date, attracting a wealth of wide media attention, as well as some controversy, thanks to the presence of Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, who won Album Of The Year for their LP, Blue and Lonesome (based on a public vote), while their drummer Watts picked up The Gold Award, in recognition of his life-long love and commitment to jazz, notably with his renowned Tentet.

The remaining awards went to a wide range of highly credible jazz artists, ranging from US players such as former David Bowie saxophonist Donny McCaslin and innovative drummer Jaimeo Brown, to leading UK names such as vibes master Orphy Robinson, fiery British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and pianist Nikki Yeoh.

The awards will once again be produced by Serious, with the nominees announced in early 2018, and will cover the diversity of the current jazz, blues and soul scenes – honouring established stars and emerging talents alike. Jazz FM CEO Jonathan Arendt commented: "2017 has been a remarkable year of stellar live performances, inventive collaborations, and exceptional recordings. We are delighted to be working with the brilliant producers at Serious to reflect this all in the Jazz FM Awards 2018, returning to the Shoreditch Town Hall, our new venue partner."

Mike Flynn

For more info visit www.jazzfmawards.com

theo-irwin-hall

Jazz Jantar is one of the less well-known Polish festivals, but it has been running in the northern port of Gdańsk for two decades, and is housed by Klub Zak, an arts centre that has roots stretching back 60 years. It also spans 10 days, presenting mostly two (but sometimes one, or three) sets each evening, displaying a notable good taste via its trio of programmers. 'Jantar' refers to amber, for which this coast is renowned (but it's also Portuguese for 'dinner', appropriately). The Zak sound is well-balanced, the room darkly atmospheric, and there's a buzzing café bar just across the foyer. Before your Jazzwise scribe arrived, folks had already been enjoying sets by Steve Lehman, Peter Brötzmann and our own Dinosaur, but there were still six more nights of heavy pleasure in store, before the fest finished.

The first observation is that mainline American jazz acts are happily seated beside maverick extremists (some of these also being American), and the contrasting blend works out just fine. The Pimpono Ensemble ranges young Polish players across the stage, with drums, twinned basses, tuba, baritone, tenor and alto saxophones, guitar and trumpet, initially free-shaped, then coalescing into linear form. The basses are both bowed, the guitar too, while the horns are holding long notes, until the drummer prompts sudden horn rank unison attacks, guitar figures weaving between their ankles like a disruptive minor. Eventually it all erupts into explosive soloing of the near chaotic variety. A first example of the night's contrasting forms arrives early, as the Stateside trumpeter Theo Croker then leads his funky five-piece into zones that are surely more free jazzed than is usual for this Dee Dee Bridgewater sideman. Perhaps, already, the environmental influences are beginning to bleed? Croker's easy groovin' flow releases a piano solo from the impressive Liya Grigoryan, who plays with creative authority, as a drum tattoo from Dexter Hurcules encourages an extensive solo from the leader, and a stirring alto saxophone chaser from Irwin Hall. These two make up a formidable horn frontline. The set peaks with an immaculate reading of Croker's 'Because Of You', a bewitching number that has an oddly Ethiopian bent.

makaya-mccraven

The following night's double-bill was more closely matched, with a pair of US outfits who each have their own extreme approaches to groove. The Chicagoan drummer Makaya McCraven (above) has an unusual devotion to improvisation that revolves around funky repeats, but these are still prone to extreme abstraction stretches (or stretching). "We're just gonna make some shit up for y'all," announces the leader of a quartet that also includes saxophonist Greg Ward, bassman Junius Paul and multi-instrumentalist Ben Lamar Gay (cornet, keys, electronics, vocals). With 'Above & Beyond', for instance, what's happening is that an original improvisation found on the freshly released Highly Rare album is reproduced as a new variation, now that the crew has learned how to replay it. A post-Art Ensemble rainforest bountifully sprouts, getting into a horn vamp, seeping bass and skitter-groove. Paul's line is heavily ornamented, the horns becoming vocally echoey as the hard drum breaks are released, driving towards the Italian horror-flick soundtrack zone. They climax with 'Three Fifths A Man' (fast-pulse skip drums, with samba solo) and Joe Henderson's 1969 'Power To The People' (insistent beats, with sparking cornet solo).

john-Medeski

Medeski's Mad Skillet operates around an alternative bounce, taking New Orleans parade music as the quartet's starting point. John Medeski (above) twitches between piano and Hammond organ, often in the middle of a phrase, let alone a number, with Kirk Joseph's nimble wah-wah-ed sousaphone hogging a central role. Rollicking and lolopping, they also slide hard, courtesy of Will Bernard's bottleneck guitar solos, against the easy slink of 'Inside Straight', then a pair of his own tunes, soaked in 1950s rockabilly reverb, as Medeski's drooling Dr. Phibes organ laps around the knees of Joseph's distressed sousaphone waddle. It was that kinda nite!

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Anna Maria Biniecka (Theo Croker) and Paweł Wyszomirski (Makaya McCraven/John Medeski)

Being an American jazz singer in St. Petersburg is a full-time job, with diplomatic requirements. Kurt Elling (above) has barely touched down before President Putin asks to meet. A four-hour wait later, Chicago hip royalty is introduced to Russia's pseudo-democratic Tsar for three minutes. Ambassador Satch was the name of a Louis Armstrong European live album, back when this was the Soviet Union and jazz was banned, and Elling knows some things have to be done.

St. Petersburg was announced as UNESCO's prestigious International Jazz Day location in 2018, just before delegates arrive for the nation's first jazz conference, Jazz Across Borders. Elling headlines the latter's gala concert with Igor Butman's Moscow Jazz Orchestra (pictured below), in the State Academic Chapel's gilt-edged Great Hall. Once a more radical saxophonist, Butman is now a music business lynchpin and beloved entertainer, not least as the showman leader of his Orchestra's slick swing machine. He's joined by lauded American pianist/arranger John Beasley and Canadian saxophonist Kent Sangster, before Elling arrives in wide-lapelled, gangster pinstripe. Though his voice at first sounds stretched fronting the big band roar, he luxuriates in Billie Holiday's 'More Than You Know', toying with it like a verbally voracious connoisseur, and relishes punching its booming climax home. Earlier, Butman's young, blind pianist-singer protégé Oleg Akkuratov masters the elaborate, breakneck bop machinery of 'Memories of Charlie Parker', and Alina Rostotskaya sings Russian and Sephardic folk, veering between near-Arabic and operatic styles.

Kurt-Igor-live

Days are spent in improbably stifling rooms elsewhere in the Chapel complex's corridors. The drama of revolutionary Russia's brief embrace of jazz is sighed over on one panel, while Elling workshops good young local singers, hoping for the influence of "different songs that your grandmother sang to you... that should be in the sound of St. Petersburg". Local accents and jazz's fabled sound of surprise are, though, in short supply during a dozen showcases. Armenia's Van Quartet do provide gently pleading, Near East melancholy. Russian classical tradition then becomes a sort of blues for the LRK Trio, whose orderly, conceptual approach also splices techno shuffles to polka folk. Evgeniy Pobozhiy's Quartet have hurtling fusion dexterity, but it's pianist Julia Perminova who adds their jagged edge.

Faces repeat across gigs, suggesting a limited, Butman-approved mainstream talent pool. Perminova is related to Butman, but long before I know that, her engaged resourcefulness stands out in one of the nightly jams where showcase sterility loosens, and real Russian steam builds. There's a Miles-like mural in the riverside window of the White Night club where she's playing, and Elling is called up for more scat detente. The next night, sitting at the back of the JFC club, I focus on the unseen, softly accepting melancholy of Vladimir Galaktionov's trumpet, from a cramped, downstairs stage where young women swing each other round in Saturday night abandon. That's where barriers are broken, and jazz really spoken. There, and in conversations with two equally thoughtful Russians with opposite views on Putin, and Stalin, and with banned Jehovah's Witnesses who give me directions in the culture-heavy streets near the Hermitage. In St. Petersburg, as elsewhere, international jazz has an expansive embrace.

– Nick Hasted

– Photos by Daniil Jerdev

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