April in southern Finland is a time of rapidly lengthening daylight and often crystalline blue skies heralding spring. This year though relentless gray skies and bitter winds made the appeal of a long weekend of top class jazz an even stronger motivation to ignore the lingering patches of snow and get on with life, and art.
The program for the 31st year celebrating jazz in this rather prosperous western suburb of Helsinki has been broad as ever, though lacking the temporary marquee this year it looked less of a concentrated festival and more of a local event. However once inside any of its five local and one downtown Helsinki venues, the depth of international artistry was obvious with headliners including French singer Cyrille Aimee, Dianne Reeves, and the redoubtable NYC Project of Joel Frahm and Eric Niceberg.
Every year the program has included a mix of international artists, alongside a dose of locally resident musicians. Indeed it was the wealth as well as the breadth of local musicianship that was most prominent in the opening evening’s show, and is nowadays a remarkable feature of the event. None more so than the first half of this program, where 60 children of the local Tapiola Youth Choir sang pieces composed primarily by two of its own former singers, guitarist Jarmo Saari and composer and singer Anna-Mari Kähärä. These nine pieces incorporated all the innovations of modern choral performance from stomping, clapping and vocalizing, alongside masterly control as well as youthful exuberance -and executed by some singers as young as 9 years old.
The second part of the program was mainly filled by another premier (in addition to two of the songs in the first part), this time by former local music student Marzi Nyman. As a guitarist his accomplishments go back to the 1990s backing for the high-powered Finnish pop duo Nylon Beat and have continued in this millennium alongside pianist Iiro Rantala in his own Trio and many more line-ups. However one aspect of Nyman’s skill is in bringing a broad palette of musical culture to the general public, from live performance on summertime children’s TV to celebrity talk show appearances. His Trumpet Concerto, performed by the highly respected Jukka Eskola, was something of a pastiche of classical styles played by the local Tapiola Sinfonietta, but combined with traditional and contemporary jazz musicianship. Along with Nyman’s bright yellow shoes, as well as his sudden performance alongside the soloist on the traditional Finnish piano accordion, his style was maybe shocking but absolutely refreshing.
The opening concert finished with the choir squeezing in front of the orchestra for two songs, one composed by Saari and the other arranged by Kähärä. All this in the elegant 600 seated modern hall, while underneath in the club venue Louhi, three cutting edge Scandinavian acts entertained a more marginal audience: the Danish Old Man’s Kitchen added edge to classic jazz tunes, saxophonist Mikko Innanen and pianist Aki Rissanen rewrote their own rules of iconoclassicism, and new arrivals Helsinki-based OK:KO showed how subtle composition can ensure that less is more. A very good start to the Finnish festival season.