The Tampere Jazz Happening – after six years away, it’s good to be back. This 34th edition (I remember the 23rd, does that make me old? – don’t answer that!) is yet another wild and varied mix of international ‘names’ and some of the best of Finnish music-making. Thursday night’s Young Nordic Jazz Comets was kind of a sampler showcase, with an up-and-coming band from each of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway but it’s the Friday evening when programme really kicks off…

Mats/Morgan Band
Mats Öberg – keyboards, harmonica
Morgan Ågren – drums
Gustaf Hielm – bass
Stefan Jernståhl – keyboards, guitar

First on the main Pakkahuone main stage is the twin-keyboard quirk of the Mats/Morgan Band. Referencing influences such as Frank Zappa and King Crimson, it’s rhythm-heavy, often OTT (in a good way) and quite full-on eccentric. FZ famously posed, “Does humor belong in music?” and there’s a sense of in-your-face fun here that Mats/Morgan’s answer is, “Well, of course it does!”
The drum sound is huge, the rhythm samples are bold and the bass transmits a special vibratory pleasure to the whole hall (no, I don’t know what that means either, but it did, it did!)

©Maarit Kytöharju
©Maarit Kytöharju

The Zappa inspiration is evident in the sudden shifts and changes between sections and just the sheer sense of daring on display. In a way, it’s very ‘obvious’, music in which all the joins are showing but at the same time, that’s all part of the charm as it teeters on the edge of what you should (and shouldn’t) be able to do on stage anymore. I started out liking it, and after about 20 minutes I was loving it. And when they added some trumpet samples and took a left turn into 70s Miles fusion fun, that was just the cherry on top. Nice harmonica solo, too.

Tampere New Jazz Collective
Antero Salonen – trumpet
Jykä Ahola – trumpet, flugelhorn
Masa Orpana – sax, clarinet
Petri Nieminen* – sax, clarinet
Tuomas Heinonen – sax, clarinet
Jouni Suuronen – French horn
Petri Juutilainen* – trombone
Eero Kolari – tuba
Hessu Heinonen* – keyboards
Ville Rauhala* – bass
Tomi Hyttinen – percussion
* compositions

Inspired by the festival, this is a new venture consisting entirely of local musicians and composers (Tampere is a small city but has a vibrant music scene). Crammed onto the tiny stage in the Telakka bar, the eleven musicians give us a lot of the familiar big band elements – unison riffing, stop-start rhythmic play, strong ear-pleasing melodies, swelling horns – but arranged into mostly fresh and engaging shapes and forms. A showcase for Tampere itself and besides, it’s always good when somebody sneaks a tuba in!

Sosa, Gurtu & Fresu
Omar Sosa – piano, keybords, Fender rhodes
Trilok Gurtu – percussion, drums
Paolo Fresu – trumpet

Before the performance, Gurtu said, “We have rehearsed but it will sound nothing like the rehearsal.” The focus here is ‘instant composition’ rather than improvisation for improvisation’s sake and that’s exactly what we get: melodies emerge, as does structure and thematic repetition and evolution. As you might expect, there’s also a fairly awesome level of technical ability on display to go with the musicality – Gurtu’s fingers are a blur of precision, Sosa’s groove is deep and infectious, and Fresu’s phrasing is controlled and subtle (and his tone is a balm).

Kasperi Sarikoski & Nuance
Kasperi Sarikoski – trombone
Jere Haakana – guitar
Artturi Rönkä – piano, keyboards
Vesa Ojaniemi – bass
Jonatan Sarikoski – drums

With a predominance elsewhere of the usual saxophones and trumpets, it’s rather nice to hear the softer, deeper resonance of the trombone as sole horn. Couple that with the electric guitar and Fender rhodes and the sound palette certainly stands out. Compositionally, there are pop and ambient influences here, plus the retro Helsinki jazz of recent years and the result is quite cinematic in places and has its own particular character. The moods include romance, melancholy, upbeat and swinging and even a little aggressive and edgy… At times the overdriven guitar plus keyboard evokes something of a 70s fusion vibe (I know “fusion” is a dirty word but isn’t it time we reclaimed it?) and then suddenly it’s all 80s synth work (I instantly thought, Twin Peaks) contrasting with stuttering staccato guitar and trombone vibrato…
There’s an quiet experimentalism at work here but always balanced with a concern for what will engage the audience – the goal is very much to catch the ear and tap the foot.

Ricky-Tick Big Band & Julkinen Sana
Paleface – rap
Redrama – rap
Tommy Lindgren – rap
Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen – compositions, guitar, electric piano
Ari Jokelainen – alto sax
Petri Puolitaival – alto sax, flute
Antti Hynninen – tenor sax
Ville Vannemaa – tenor sax
Linda Fredriksson – baritone sax
Teemu Mattsson – trumpet
Tomi Nikku – trumpet
Kalevi Louhivuori – trumpet
Jose Mäenpää – trumpet
Heikki Tuhkanen – trombone
Kasperi Sarikoski – trombone
Jay Kortehisto – trombone
Jussi Vuorinen – bass trombone
Janne Tuovinen – double bass
Abdissa “Mamba” Assefa – percussion
Jaska Lukkarinen – drums

Sometimes two elements that you think shouldn’t mix, do. Yes, hip-hop/rap and jazz have been blended many times before, but putting your rappers in smart 1950s tailoring and pairing them with a 17-piece swinging jazz orchestra… that’s not so common. The idea sounds odd. The reality looks odd. It actually sounded exactly right. One of those, why-did-no-one-think-of-this-before concepts. Judging from the crowd response as they were introduced and came on stage, Paleface, Redrama and Lindgren are pretty well-known here and their rapping was note-, word- and mannerism-perfect. The band? The band swung hard. For the final concert in the main Pakkahuone hall, this was the perfect party.
But the evening was far from over… In fact, the spoken word vibe was only just beginning.

Hannu Salama ja Vapaat Radikaalit (The Free Radicals)
Hannu Salama – poetry
Hepa Halme – sax, flute
Mikko Innanen – sax
Esa Onttonen – guitar
Arttu Tolonen – guitar, electronics
Pekko Käppi – jouhikko, drums
Markus Ketola – drums

There’s a long tradition of jazz and spoken word performance, this is the Finnish 2015 version. Hannua Salama is an award-winning novelist and poet who by all accounts has deliberately denied any attempt to classify his work. The same can be said of Hepa Halme, as a musician he has tried to dodge any categorisation or pigeonholing. In that sense, they’re a perfect match.
As Salama sits at a table front and centre and reads, the sextet provides not a backdrop but another voice, complementing and conversing with the spoken lines.
The music ranges from ambient moods to a lurching semi-big band theme (which is revisited a number of times) to stripped-down blues to sci-fi soundscapes…
Salama’s voice is rough, raw, life-soaked and beautiful the way a piece of splintered granite is beautiful – solid and natural, it simply is.
Linguistically, my Finnish extends to “Good morning” and “Thank you” so I didn’t understand a word of it. Nevertheless, I was gripped.

David Murray Infinity Quartet & Saul Williams
David Murray – sax
Orrin Evans – piano
Hamid Drake – drums
Jaribu Shahid – bass
Saul Williams – poetry

Finally, 01:00am and it’s off to the final venue – the Klubi – for the final performance. Murray and Williams purvey the jazz and spoken word marriage from the other side of the Atlantic; arguably the side on which it originated. I must admit, I only saw a short segment (due only to sleep deprivation) but it was clearly a sublime pairing. Timeless free jazz and flawlessly delivered political wordsmithery (think Gil Scott-Heron updated to 2015). Oh, and Hamid Drake on drums which is always worth losing sleep for.

So… a great start to the weekend and something of a personal endurance challenge, seven bands in one evening and only 45 minutes sleep in the last 42 hours (serves me right for having to travel from Barcelona!) All great stuff but personally, the highlights were Mats/Morgan, Kasperi Sarikoski & Nuance, and Hannu Salama ja Vapaat Radikaalit. Roll on Saturday…