Tampere Jazz Happening October 30-November 1, 1998

©Laurence Svirchev

Certain music festivals stamp their audacious mark by programming the most adventurously valid music available. These festivals tend to be located in places that are well-known only to local residents or the afficionados who make it their business to find niches housing the most sublime musical satisfactions. Such festivals are also identified by their artistic directors, a persnickety group of people who prowl the world in search of innovators. The Tampere Finland Jazz Happening is one of those happily perfect enclaves of eclectic music, a whereabouts that should be inhabited if one has the wherewithal to journey to this remarkable hinterland.

The Artistic Director of the Tampere festival is Aila Manninen. Commanding attention with her bright eyes and forthright manner, she explains how she programs the Jazz Happening. “I want to bring both the grand old men of modernism and the youngsters to the audience, to present not often-heard or not well-known musicians. We also invite the musicians to stay for the duration of the festival because it gives the Happening a family feeling. If musicians have come this far to play for us, then maybe we should allow them to stay for a few days.”

Manninen is exactly right about the family feeling. Between sets, off-stage musicians freely mingle with audience members and sundry journalists in the Tulliklubi bar-room. As one drummer said, “I have enough work that I rarely get the chance to check-out other musicians. Topo Gioia [a percussionist] was making a sound that I’ve been hearing in my head for years but just didn’t know how to execute. I really picked up some good ideas from listening to him.”

So there are many musical reasons to go to Tampere, and it is not possible to review all the 17 concerts that took place over four days. Here then is a review sampling music that moved this writer.

Cecil Taylor’s European Unit
When John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards cancelled their gig, Aila Manninen went over the top and rounded up the Cecil Taylor European Unit. The group consisted of Harri Sjöström (soprano sax), Tristan Honsinger (cello), Teppo Hauta-aho (bass) and Paul Lovens (drums), each one adept in creating the mysticism of improvised music.

And mystical the music was, for Taylor is a venerable shaman. He opened the concert with a solemn ritual, his voice heard before he was seen. Backstage and off-mike, he chanted fragmented phrases like, “if the time that men….” and “they danced around seven bodies.” When he emerged from behind the piano, he was dressed in white, hair dread-locked, and reading his mysterious, barely heard poem.

Lovens began rolling his sticks on the snare and Taylor slammed a cluster of undifferentiated tones with open palm; then Honsinger started bowing bottom-end notes. Sjöström is the player who started a momentum, creating four or five quick tones that sounded just like ducks at feeding time. It was a pattern he would repeatedly return to and vary throughout the hour-long spontaneous composition.

It was a true composition even if, as Harri Sjöström later said, “There are no pre-constructions, everybody is free to play what he wants. It doesn’t feel like a group where someone is leading…it’s like a conversation in a restaurant, having fun, telling jokes, and you can get up and leave if you want to. Every time we play together it’s like a dance with the stars.”

The symphony-like compositional structure became clear from the ebb and flow of the music, phasing through at least 18 sections and ending with a general diminuendo that passes through three false stops and poetry before the concert rendered itself mute.

Sandwiched between the beginning and end was a tour de force. Taylor at age 75 is lightening fast and muscular in his attack. He made full use of the extra half-octave of bass notes on the Bösendorfer 275, but he was also heard to ‘solo’ with both hands at the extreme treble range of the piano. Sjöström and Taylor frequently played harmonic lines together, true call-and-response quick-silvers conglomerating and disintegrating within nano-seconds. Although called the Cecil Taylor European Unit, it seemed that the savant bassist Teppo Hauta-aho was the musician who most frequently impelled the music to change direction and velocity, and who seemed to metamorphize the quintet into multiple choruses of opinions expressed in solos, duos, trios and larger.

With the symphony over, my only coherent thought after expelling a tantric breath was, “Our eyes wide open and our innards reverberating, we have heard a musical equivalent of the Big Bang.”

Pepa Päivinen Trio
The Finnish music scene being completely unknown in North America, it was gratifying to hear four excellent concerts by Finnish musicians. The sound of these groups seemed in this traveller’s mind to emulate the vast forested and rocky terrain that is Finland. In listening to the Pepa Päivinen Trio, I felt almost back home on BC terrain, hearing the big sounds of a big and lonely land.

Päivinen plays a range of huge and small instruments, from bass saxophone to flute. On each instrument he exercised masterly articulation from top to bottom, with immaculate lines that resonated clean air, pure streams of water, and wilderness solitude. Every Finnish bassist at Tampere had a big wood sound, playing for a fluidly full sound rather than for velocity. Hannu Rantanen was no exception. In the same way that rushing streams create complex arrays of repetitive sound, drummer Miko Hassinen was primarily a colorist. With three independent voices, there was plenty of room for trialogues, dialogues, and solos.

A beautiful composition of the late-night set was “Dousing Rod.” Päivinen demonstrated multi-phonic control of the bass saxophone, playing simultaneously independent lines from the top and bottom of the horn. “Toki Tok” (Doggy Dog) opened with a simple, plaintive line from a melodica played by Hassinen followed by a bass solo which built into a full-out driving groove with Päivinen on baritone.

Jazz Standards on Mars
The only group to play compositions of past-masters was “Jazz Standards on Mars” by flautist Robert Dick with the Dave Soldier String Quartet plus a rhythm section. These songs (recorded on an Enja CD) are not really standards at all but rarely-played compositions. Two of them, Jimi Hendrix’ Machine Gun and John Coltrane’s India were recorded only once by the composers, both times in concert settings. Since the instrumentation in the Dick/Soldier group is so radically different from those of Hendrix and Coltrane, a comparison of the versions may illuminate the Dick/Soldier music-making process.

On New Years Eve 1969-70 Jimi Hendrix, a former Army-Airborne paratrooper, recorded his Machine Gun, dedicating it to “all the soldiers fighting in Chicago and New York, and all the soldiers fighting in Viet Nam.” So you better believe that Machine Gun is about of raw combat, jungle and urban.

Dick and Soldier’s Machine Gun rattled its gunfire destruction played out in a series of chilling calls and responses among the four string players. Gerry Hemingway’s drumming re-created that odious military practice, carpet-bombing. And Dick’s flute sound engendered a ghostly parable of that theriomorphic human invention, war. The rendition left me, now a mature man bereft of the companionship of friends who died in Viet Nam, shattered me to the core. Fortunately, Machine Gun was the opening number and the concert proceeded to a meditative India.

When John Coltrane played India on soprano at the Village Vanguard in 1961, he was accompanied by two basses, piano, drums, and bass clarinet. The resulting coloration was divided among the brilliant corners of Coltrane’ metal horn, the dark pulses from the 3 bass instruments and the drummer’s unrelenting drive. The India of John Coltrane was about aggressively assertive explorations while teetering on the edge of control.

In the Dick/Soldier arrangement, the overall colouration is contemplative. “The arrangement,” said Dick, “mixes three basic scalar approaches: Indian raga ‘shri” with free shifting of tonal centres; pentatonic scales also freely shifting in tonality; and playing open without a scalar base.” The tempo was slower than Coltrane’s and Robert Dick’s flute approach was decidedly dreamy. The string section used long tones to stretch and relax the feel; Kermit Driscoll’s bass lines were sinuous. The lessened tension created zones of mystery leaving the mind free to wander into ataraxia until Soldier began his metal violin solo. The pace of the introspection then increased and led to the discoveries of a free improvisation exchange between Dick and Soldier.

Robert Dick showed his flute innovations on his science fiction composition IF. The piece is played using an F bass flute. It is a long instrument and one of Dick’s objectives was to impart the sonic impression of an extremely long flute. He did this by placing four microphones along its length. By controlling the microphones in relation to open keys, he could emphasize the tones and rhythms emanating from particular points in the flute. The instrument resounded with rumbles and growls, clicking keys, overtones, and bent notes. The singular instrument became a series of flutes in stereo, in effect a contemporary re-creation of that most ancient of instruments, the pan-pipe. A virtuoso performance.

A new composer to watch out for is trumpeter Cuong Vu, leader of a group of champions, The Vu-tet. The band was Jim Black (percussion), Chris Speed (b-flat clarinet), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Stomu Takeishi (electric bass). Vu’s compositions were marked by clear structural lines and angular melodies, beautiful voicings and harmonies among the horns, tight ensemble work, and sophisticated rhythm shifts. He also favours a medieval musical device known as ‘hocketting,’ in which different instruments play different tones of the melody, so that it sounds like there are three simultaneous melodic features.

A particularly effective composition was “Million Dollar Punk”, a humourously satiric jab at a bad-boy athlete. The tune opened at slow tempo with harmonized long tones from the horns. As the harmonization broke up into differentiated voices, Cuong Vu began a counterpoint improvisation with Stomu Takeishi. Vu has a soaring, burnished sound and with his relentless attack he never seems to run out of ideas. In this composition, he gradually accelerated the thematic material into a group improvisation. His transitions between composition and improvisation are not obvious but instead carry the listener along until one is plunged into the maelstrom. When the group received extended applause at the end of the concert, Vu thanked Aila Manninen, not only for inviting him to Tampere, but for providing such a nice concert venue. Seems the last time Vu-tet had a gig was when Manninen saw them in a “grungy hole” in New City. One can only conclude that the world needs more festival directors with Aila’s sense of sound.p

Steve Lacy’s The Cry
Steve Lacy’s decades-long experience of working with some of the world’s most outstanding poets, dancers, and musicians has culminated in his most important composition, The Cry. This work is a series of art songs in which the poetry of Taslima Nasrin is sung by Irene Aebi; Lacy’s original compositions are played and improvised by Lacy, Tina Wrase (reeds), Petia Kaufman (harpsichord), Catherin Pfiefer (accordion), Jean-Jacques Avenel (double-bass), and Topo Gioia (percussion). The Cry toured throughout 1998 and will be released this May as a double CD on the Soul Note label.

The Cry is a work of the highest specific gravity, the most significant artistic event of 1998. Lacy has written a complex score, full of colors, emotions, and psychological stories, each song orchestrated for particular instruments and specific musicians. Lacy has coalesced the poetry with his musical conceptions, creating distinctive melodies for Aebi to sing. With the unusual instrumentation, Lacy has created a unique sound pallette, full of soft accordion and harpsichord susarrants and penetrating reed accents. If one adjective were used to describe the scope of the music, it would be “Ellingtonian.”

Yet there is another component:the courage to speak out. The Cry is an artist’s salvo against oppression. Nasrin’s poetry is essentially about choices: should a woman accept the forces that bind her into a slave of men, or can she overcome and establish her entity as an independent, free human being?

For speaking thoughts that openly criticized Bengali society and the Islamic religion, Nasrin had a fatwah put on her head. Lacy the Paladin has had the moral fortitude and artistic integrity to create and tour a literary work that decries such oppression. In so doing he has condemned all censorship of the progressive human spirit.

An example is the song, “Agression.” It is the story of a person who has no self-determination, always following the counsels of others, yet painfully aware of her dilemma. The last line of the poem is, “In tremendous fear I secretly go on living.” In her first delivery of the poem, Aebi recites a humorous interpretation of the words. She then formally sings the poem through in cadence with the tones of Lacy’s soprano saxophone. Topo Gioia takes a percussion solo which culminates in forceful kettle-drum beats. He is then joined by Catherin Pfeifer playing short agressive bursts of accordion. Tina Wrase imports growling and screaming on bass clarinet. The net effect of the music and words was a powerful psycho-drama of a anguished person existing in extreme paranoia.

By presenting a range of music from the master innovators Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy to the younger musicians like Cuong Vu who are discovering the fute, the name “Tampere Jazz Happening” is no underestimation of reality. It was a truly happening event.

This article was originally written for Planet Jazz, Montreal.

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