Tampere Jazz Happening, Finland: November 2-4, 2001

Tampere, Finland is located on about the same latitude as Whitehorse in the Yukon. A three hour train ride north of the capital of Helsinki, it is the last city one leaves before venturing into Finland’s true north. In November the climate is a transition into the sunless winter and is not the most attractive time to visit the country. Were a Canadian music fan to pull out an atlas of the world and dream about where to find a creative music festival, Tampere would probably be the last city she would consider.

And that would be a mistake, for the programming of the Tampere Jazz Happening is several notches above superior. The fifteen concerts of the Happening take place over the course of a weekend, each of them solid musical creations, not a clunker among them. There was a good dose of the superb -but rarely heard in North America- Finnish musicians. There were musicians with decades of creative music-making behind them and there were musicians in their thirties. Some musicians were heard in different ensembles: Larry Ochs played with both the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the John Lindberg Ensemble; Swedish percussionist Raymond Strid played with the Barry Guy New Orchestra and one of its sub-units. And there was more than one musician from that other under-appreciated musical outland, Australia.

Finns knowledgeable in this music seemed to enjoy the Sam Rivers Trio and Milford Graves’ solo percussion concerts the most. Rivers and Graves were the Laughing Buddhas of the Happening. Their experience and chops allow them to negotiate any musical volte-face they desire. Their sets were full of charm and wisdom, frequently provoking merriment from the audience. While percussing at high volume and velocity, Graves vocalized his enthusiasm for healing disease through music. Every Finn psychologically prepares for disappearance of the sun during their winter, and I imagine their inner-spirits were bolstered by the musical joy that Rivers and Graves dispensed.

The musician I personally enjoyed the most was Andrew Cyrille. I witnessed Cyrille during sound check with the John Lindberg Ensemble. His personal demeanor seems to be quiet and reserved, spending most of his time tuning the kit and patiently waiting for other matters to be sorted out. But once the music starts happening, watch out.

Andrew Cyrille is a dream weaver on the drums. His sense of time is as finely tuned as an atomic clock: he goes through extraordinary changes in a short lapse of time and still comes down squarely on the “one.” I say this not because other drummers do not have good sense of time but because Cyrille does it with consummate ease, each stroke or foot movement clearly and decisively articulated. As far-out as his music-making can get, he coruscates the musical landscape making it immediately accessible to a novice or an experienced listener. Rare for a drummer, he is a superb melodist. During his solo on the Jimmy Garrison composition “Ascendant” he restated its melodic content several times. His coloring of the music through variations of rhythm, choice of drums and cymbals, sticks or brushes makes him pianistic in the sense that his musical palette is just as broad and limitless as that grand instrument.

But the Tampere Jazz Happening is not only made up of outstanding individual musicians. I found the Happening to be a consortium of superlative composers, and that is why this review will concentrate on the compositional aspects of three musically diverse concerts.

Ori Kaplan Quartet (Kaplan, composer, alto sax; Roy Campbell, trumpet/flugelhorn; Andrew Bemkey, piano; Geoff Mann, drums)

Some leaders might think it is courting disaster to open a concert with an introspective composition provoking powerfully unsettling emotional responses. But that is what Ori Kaplan did with “Ash”. The composition moved through five distinct movements, each creating complimentary colors and moods and Kaplan dedicated it to the victims of 9/11.

“Ash” begins with Bemkey standing at the left end of the concert grand piano, his left hand playing the deepest bass chords, his right hand scratching and manipulating the strings to create overtones. With the left hand playing the fundamental, he moved the right hand up the keyboard with accelerating velocity, first playing well-spaced chords, then individual notes with all five fingers until he reached a climax. Supported by the Mann’s drums, they moved into a brief march rhythm to end the section. It was thrilling to hear a young pianist holding down the extreme bass of the instrument all the while improvising in a contemporary fashion with the right hand in the tradition of an Earl Hines.

At close to minute seven, the trumpet and alto entered in an exact unison line over the almost military tattoo of the drums. Campbell and Kaplan played in a quavering, almost weeping fashion that hovered emotionally on the line between weeping and despair. Then there is a return to the piano solo techniques that opened the composition.

Twelve and half minutes into the composition, the horns once again come in playing a similar unison as in part two, but with this difference: after playing the unison line several times they reach a diremption. The unison develops into Kaplan and Campbell each playing independently and freely of each other. Both are playing at the top ends of their horns. The emotional suggestion is one of the wailing than comes from profound despair. In later songs he played at Tampere, Kaplan used this same two-horn counterpoint device to permit soloing within the context of the composition. It struck me that this was a perfect method of allowing Campbell, with his massive chops and longtime improvising experience, the freedom to roam where his will took him.

Kaplan then took a two minute unaccompanied solo acting as a transition to the anthem that ends the song. This denouement suggests resignation and healing, a conclusion to a series of soul-searing devices. The anthem sounded familiar, but I could not place the melody. When asked, Kaplan responded that it was his own composition, that it came to him in a dream. “If it sounds familiar, that’s the way anthems work,” he said.

“Ash” seemed to me the deepest composition of his set. While some of his writing methodology seemed to repeat itself in other songs, it should be noted that Kaplan was probably the youngest band leader in Tampere. His latest CD is Gongol, The Ori Kaplan Percussion Ensemble (Knitting Factory Works). In spite of his short track record, he works regularly in his home-base of New York City with tempered musicians like Roy Campbell. I’d go out of my way to listen to Kaplan’s artistry again.

Nada featuring Karaikudi R. Mani (Eero Hämeenniemi, piano and composer; Karaikudi R. Mani, composer and mridangam; Pentti Lahti, alto sax; Heikki Nikula, bass clarinet; Sampo Lassila, double bass; Markus Ketola, western drum kit; Balasai, bamboo flute; Durgabrasad, gottuvadyam)

The number of musicians who dabble in the music of cultures other than their own is uncountable. There is even a marketing name for this dalliance: “World Music.” Yet to imbibe the music another culture, to compose a symbiotic music, is truly difficult. There are only two naked pathways: a musician can either make a foreign idiom’s influence known subtly through one’s own voice, or one can become proficient in it. Duke Ellington had the first approach: he listened hard while he toured Asia. Uninterested in the direct integration of what he heard, he deliberately composed the “Far East Suite” long after he had returned to the United States.

Finnish composer Eero Hämeenniemi has another solution to integrating different musics. He is the artistic director of Nada, a Finnish ensemble fluent in jazz, classical, and new music. He leaves Finland’s winters behind and goes to India teaching and adsorbing Carnatic music, the classical music of the south of that musically diverse country. Hämeenniemi’s collaboration with one of the principal Carnatic musicians, Karaikudi R. Mani, began in 1996. Their first major performance was with the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1997, a composition titled “Layapriya” featuring four Carnatic percussionists. In 2001, Nada and Mani’s Sruthi Laya ensemble cut the Twins (Alba) CD in Chennai, India. It was this well-practiced music that was presented in Tampere. Both of the composers contributed pieces.

In his Finnish-language announcement of “Music for Mani”, Hämeenniemi joked that the title was not “Music for Money.” The suite begins with a slow piano introduction building into a long melodic statement at fast tempo. Beautiful interplay among piano, alto, and bass clarinet developed the melodic material, and led to alto and flute solos. Pentti Lahti’s and Balasai’s solos shared the characteristics of playing at the tonal top-end of their instruments at high speed. A physical thrill could be felt sweeping though the audience during each solo. Lahti’s seemed more improvised but Balasai’s seemed written given his complex rhythm changes and interplay with Mani.

The climax of the concert was Mani’s “Spicy Joy.” The basic structure of the song is a series of four complex variations on the melody. The first three sandwich bass clarinet, gottuvadyam, and flute solos, while the fourth segues into a ten minute percussion exhibition called tani avarthanam. A short re-capitulation of the fundamental melody ends the composition.

There are only a handful of jazz players whose first instrument is the bass clarinet. A few musicians may rent one as a color instrument for the odd performance. But it is Heikki Nikula’s first instrument and it was a pleasure to hear the instrument played with consummate artistry and flawless technique. On “Spicy Joy” he took his solo at an easy-swing cadence, the long tones rendered extra-stretchy as if he were drifting down a shady tree-lined Lazy River.

With the completion of the fourth melodic variations and the solos begins the tani avarthanam. The first soloist is Mani for almost two minutes. His instrument is the mridangam, a large lap-top double-head drum. When Markus Ketola enters almost two minutes later he starts with highly controlled bass drum touches. Ketola is the opposite of ostentatious: in this music the cymbals are used sparingly and lightly as if the strokes were placed as commas, not as exclamations.

When Ketola finished, Mani entered with a vocal technique called Konnakol or the recitation of rhythmic syllables. In this case, the konnakol replicates the strokes right out of Ketola’s just-finished solo. Then there are konnakol-drum alternates, and finally a melding of the whole into concurrential recitation-drumming in exact rhythm at prestissimo velocity.

The percussion ends with the two musicians playing in counterpoint and finally in exact unison. I’ve been covering jazz now for over twelve years and heard plenty of “percussion-discussion” but have never before heard such an extraordinarily high level of musicianship between two drummers. The whole tani avarthanam sounded to my ears as if who-plays-when was pre-planned, but the actual playing improvised. Hämeenniemi disabused me of this idea when he told me that the section was through-composed, that “it was too complicated to be improvised.”

The reader may wonder why I have confined my technical comments to the musicians of the Nada section. The fact is that I am incapable of unraveling the magnificent melodies that Mani has woven. His percussion work was omni-present, confounding in its complexity. Yet he never dominated to the detriment of the whole.

While leaving the technicalities to more astute observers, let me make this comment: The voicings of the three breath instruments with the piano and gottuvadyam (akin to a slide guitar) were gorgeous. Their various combinations always made one feel as wafted through the air on a light breeze, a transport to tranquility. In soloing, the Finnish musicians did not try to completely cross the border and play in an Indian style (the one exception is Ketola, a student of Carnatic music). In the written music, the execution was flawless. The combination of the two cultural forces resulted in music of the highest integrity.

Barry Guy New Orchestra (Guy, composer and bass; Marilynn Crispell, piano; Evan Parker, sax; Mats Gustafson, sax; Hans Koch, clarinet, sax; Johannes Bauer, trombone; Herb Robertson, trumpet; Per Åke Holmlander, Tuba; Paul Lytton, Raymond Strid, percussion)

Composition: Inscape – Tableaux (Intakt Records CD)

When the New Orchestra had settled on stage, Barry Guy made a straightforward announcement: “’Inscape – Tableaux’. One piece. Prepare.” Short of taking a deep breath, however, there was not much one could do to stabilize the metabolism for the singularity of the opening orchestral tsunami, an extraordinarily high-pitched voicing of piano, trumpet, saxophones and percussion metal, followed by a low punctuation of piano, bass, tuba, and drums. This dense and all-consuming sound wave repeated itself four times, with Bauer, Robertson, Holmlander and percussion make rapid-fire statements in between. The hour-long, seven part composition was filled with high energy, complex and relentless blowing, and lush moments of lotus-blossom beauty by some of the most renowned improvisers in western music.

Guy told me, “I like to think of these pieces as symphonies in the sense they are self-contained, have a huge span, and are not tunes-improvisation-tunes-improvisation. I spend a lot of time marking out possibilities of tensions between different groupings, between solos, ensembles, backgrounds, linking sections and then working the overall concept so that over an hour we are led on a very special musical journey. Which is to make the piece, from my point of view, increasingly interesting and renewing.”

One of the ways Guys achieves this end is through his division of the band in Part V into two distinct units led by himself and Gustafsson. Each conducts his part of the band, but each also has veto power and can take each other’s players out. As part of the structural integrity of the composition Guy also uses a structural device in which he briefly opens windows to give a glimpse of a completely different musical garden which will be fully revealed later in the piece. For example in Part I, Marilynn Crispell and Evan Parker play duo for about seven seconds as a transition into a tuba solo. Ten minutes later when Crispell has the choice of a duet partner, she picks Parker and they continue in the same vein as the previous short clip with Parker circular breathing. Guy calls these initial windows “little memoirs, signposts. And above those signposts can come about another event series of events.”

Part of the “very special musical journey” was the role reserved for pianist Marilynn Crispell. Guy has long had an ambition to write music especially for her. He said, “It is important for the tension of the piece to find moments of repose. She is not always playing slowly, but the idea is to start quiet, introspective, and thoughtful, and then she can take it out to wherever she wants.”

A prime example of such tension-release is Part IV, a bass-piano-drums orchestration of a Guy bass solo called “Odyssey.” Following the passionate blowing of Part III and the division of the band in Part V, it is a zone of tranquility. A conventional and simple song form based on the natural harmonics of the bass which the piano complements, it is one of the most tender ballads in contemporary jazz. Normally Guy moves so fast on his instrument that it is difficult to hear him fully articulating the notes. In this case he reveals with enchanting simplicity why he is one of the contemporary masters of his instrument. Part IV ends with the entire band playing a chorale, which Guy humorously calls “like a Salvation Army band, but better,” and alternately, “a beautiful moment of elation.”

“Inscape – Tableaux” is one of those compositions that has everything: individual finesse, dynamic collective improvising, and compositional authority. It is a repertoire piece for the New Orchestra, played fully through each time and it should not be missed. For contemporary music it has the same import and significance as a work like John Coltrane’s Ascension did in its own time.

Placing the Barry Guy New Orchestra as the closing concert demonstrated excellent timing on the part of Tampere Jazz Happening artistic director Annamaija Saarela. Putting such a large ensemble earlier in the schedule might have unintentionally overwhelmed other significant music.

Overall, I found the Tampere Jazz happening to be a profound musical experience, not only because of the diversity of the music, but because of the creative integrity of each performance. Given its twenty-year track record, one could never do wrong by assisting at the Tampere Jazz Happening. And even if the weather is not the most appealing, the appeal of the music and the warmth of the people of Tampere make the journey inviting.

This article was originally written for Planet Jazz, Montreal.

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