Turning up the heat at the Tampere Jazz Happening


Mats Gustafsson

Festival directors often have to unhitch hitches right in the middle of their event. True to form Juhammati Kauppinen changed the running order of the saturday programme of the 3-day long jamboree due to flight delays, which led to Mats Gustafsson (pictured) playing a solo baritone saxophone set at two in the afternoon. It is a mark of the advanced ‘culture of close listening’ that Tampere Jazz Happening has nurtured during its 34-year existence that a near capacity audience at the large Pakkauone concert hall sat in silence as Gustafsson delivered the kind of invigorating, incendiary, at times beguiling performance that most pundits would usually expect to find in a smaller venue at a much later slot deemed suitable for those classed as ‘avant-garde’ artists. This is one of the key moments of TJH 2015 and not only for the novelty of seeing Gustafsson’s image projected, rock star-like, on a big screen for the benefit of the punters sat at the rear of the hall. He has consummate command of the big, lumbering horn, its lower register yielding the sort of weighty, dense notes that evoke ballast on a ship at sea while the upper register shrieks and skirls are rendered with the control of an oar cutting through the surf.  Short, truncated phrases, showers of overtones, finger-drumming on the keys of the horn, and scrapings of the metal mouthpiece on the artist’s strategically grown beard are the main weapons in Gustafsson’s arsenal. But his focused use of two microphones set a few meters apart enable him to enrich his palette of timbres and also heighten the visual impact of the performance as his dramatic, dipped shoulder contortions are supplemented by the swaying between these two poles, almost as if he is playing a game of invisible head tennis in which a state of deuce is absolutely not an option. Team sports on a bigger scale come by way of Gustafsson’s fellow Thing-er Paal Nilssen-Love, whose 11-strong Large Unit, subject of a devilishly mischievous pun by the former, produces a gigantic crackle of energy from the thunderous clashes of brass and reeds and a relentlessly fractious jockeying of two drum kits and basses.

Even more personnel arrive when the 17-piece Ricky Tick big band fill the stage complete with a trio of Finnish rappers – Paleface, Redrama and Tommy Lindgren – whose pulling power is such that all the seating had to be removed to accommodate a surge of ticket sales. It’s easy to see and hear the appeal in any case, as the swinging brass, often veering into soul jazz territory a la Buddy Rich, is well arranged and the three Mcs, whose rhythmic ride over the jagged rocks of the double consonant-rich ‘Suomi’ language, is impressive, exert a magnetic charm on the audience. Music/spoken word collaborations of a very different sort come no more effective than in the compelling duo of Hannu Salama and Hepa Halme who appear at the Telakka restaurant just opposite the Pakkahuone. The former is one of Finland’s greatest contemporary writers, the latter an irrepressibly maverick saxophonist-flautist known to compose jazz with something of an edge and the two are supplemented by several other players of which the standout is saxophonist Mikko Innanen. While not all of the arrangements for the unusually configured sextet [horns, two guitars, two kit drums] work some pieces are compelling because of the bone-dry charisma of Salama, bespectacled, snowy haired and earnest at a school teacher’s desk placed right in the centre of the stage. Further demonstrations of the beauty to be found in the combination of jazz and verbal gymnastics explode in a dramatically different fashion when David Murray’s Infinity quartet featuring Saul Williams play Klubi, a bar with a sizeable dancefloor that attracts a loud and responsive audience. Saxophonist and poet met at the funeral of the legendary Amiri Baraka and they dutifully uphold his legacy with a set which works first and foremost for the mutual enrichment of music and text, meaning that Williams’ words often melodically inflect towards the fluid pulse of the group, the highpoint of which is ‘Burundi’, where his half-rap half-sung delivery is superbly cushioned by the redolent minor harmonies of Orrin Evans’ piano.

Of the other small groups on the bill it is undoubtedly Ilimilieki quartet, something of a supergroup of young Finnish musicians that features trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and drummer Olavi Louhivouri, that wins hearts and minds. Its lyricism is stunning. Full of sultry, afterglow melodies set to time that hovers and glides the music has an immense emotional charge that is enhanced by the virtuosity of the players.

Melancholy of a different kind is heard in the chamber delicacies of the Estonian saxophonist Maria Faust and American veteran Carla Bley whose trio consisting of longstanding collaborators, bass guitarist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard regales the audience with her seductively wayward harmonies and themes that ooze regret and resolution in equal measure, none more so than the spare but oh so poignant ‘Lawns.’   

That trio of respected artists of advancing years delights but Tampere Jazz Happening’s commitment to the next generation is well represented in a special Young Nordic Comets showcase night in which Danish bass and keys duo Bremer/McCoy and Finnish sax-bass-drums trio Katu Kaiku make all the right noises. But it is the extraordinarily mature Norwegian saxophonist-composer Mette Henriette who hits the heights with a set that uses slow tempos, if not outright stillness, to generate wave upon wave of power. Doing that in a more kinetic way is the pulsating Young Mothers, an ensemble led by her compatriot Ingebrigt Haker Flaten that comprises American musicians showing there is an improv-thrash scene in Texas one has to come to Finland to discover. That’s why Tampere is a Jazz Happening.   

– Kevin Le Gendre