Helsinki in December looks ominous when your plane touches down. At noon, the world is dim in the fog. Black sky descends to the ground. On the train into town from the airport, all the buildings are the same shade of gunmetal gray. The train station is a landmark designed by famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, but you hurry through it on your way to your hotel. It is very cold, though apparently not cold enough to turn the sleety, stinging rain to snow.
But in ensuing days, you discover that Helsinki in winter offers consolations. Every block has a cozy coffee bar serving world-class espresso. December’s gloom is brightened by Christmas lights. Apartment windows often contain a single Christmas candle. Every Finn you meet welcomes you warmly, in idiomatic English.
And then there is the We Jazz festival (Dec. 2-9), now in its sixth year. It is the brain child of Matti Nives, who looks too young to run a jazz festival. He also operates the We Jazz record label. Nives does not book many famous names. He tilts toward the left-of-center Finnish scene, but his reach often extends to the Nordic countries and sometimes to the U.K. and U.S.
We Jazz is a festival that has been described as an “installation.” Nives and executive director Katariina Uusitupa are interested in matching the music to special, usually intimate environments. They curate experiences. One night contained what the program called two “surprise performances.” A small audience was led up a flight of stairs at Pelican Self Storage, into a space that was large for a storage unit, but tiny for a music venue. They sat on stools, tight against a drum set where Joonas Leppänen awaited. Beside him, Otis Sandsjö of Sweden began playing his tenor saxophone, in soft waves of sound, in oscillations, in textures. Leppänen reacted with spontaneous gestural percussion. It was a unique jazz encounter, to sit so close to a creative drum colorist and to hear how complex a single saxophone note can be. The second surprise, in the extreme intimacy of the same storage unit, was a solo baritone saxophone recital by Mikko Innanen. He is a first-call player in Finland who is involved in many diverse projects, but probably few as wonderfully weird as this installation.
Later that night, the music moved from the unprecedented setting of Pelican Self Storage to the comfort zone of a nightclub. G Livelab in central Helsinki has a superb sound system with 74 loudspeakers by Genelec, the top-end Finnish audio company. The piano is Italian, a Fazioli, a brand few clubs can afford. In this high-class environment, the music was, by We Jazz standards, civilized. Verneri Pohjola played with Ilmiliekki, a quartet that has been together since 2001 and sounds like it. Pohjola is Finland’s best and busiest trumpet player but is not well known outside Europe. His pianist, Tuomo Prättälä, is sometimes into romantic impressionism, sometimes into kicking ass. They played Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in a cool, cryptic version that built and built and hit a wall and stopped. The other band on the bill was Enemy (pianist Kit Downes, bassist Frans Petter Eldh, drummer James Maddren), a U.K. trio whose work is highly arranged and orchestral but given to sudden attacks.
One long night at the festival took place in an old industrial park several tram stops from the city center, in a gritty space with time-worn concrete floors and exposed pipes and ducts overhead. Ääniwalli looks like an abandoned factory or warehouse. It is now a venue that usually presents electronica or punk. There are signs in Finnish and English that specify the penalties for “bad behavior.” There was no bad behavior on the We Jazz night, unless it was musical, in the wild onslaughts of bands like Jaimie Branch’s Anteloper and Otis Sandsjö’s Y-OTIS. Six bands played in two different rooms, with staggered start times. The program put the full breadth of Nives’ taste on display. There was the pop-jazz of Ernie Hawks and the Soul Investigators. Ernie played simple flute figures in a fringed suede jacket and danced in circles. It was Herbie Mann without the sex. There was Perussastamala, an exhausting one-man electronic band. (These two acts made you think of a statement by Nives: “A successful festival must be willing to risk failure.”) There was the refined, understated lyricism of bassist Richard Andersson’s fine trio, NOR. And there were two American bands that were as close to headliners as this festival gets.
Anteloper is Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Jason Nazary on drums, and both on electronics. Branch has called herself a “gearhead.” But as she manipulates her knobs and switches, she exerts creative control. She has a plan. She shapes the shock and awe of her noise into a vast electronic orchestra. It was a rush when she finally put her trumpet to her lips and sang within the maelstrom. You wish she would play her trumpet more. Nazary, with his acoustic drums and his electronic black boxes, generated thundering rhythms like a marching regiment. Branch fired trumpet fusillades or issued single notes that, digitally sustained, hung above the Ääniwalli crowd.
Logan Richardson and his band Blues People played one of the great sets of the festival. It opened with an alto saxophone wail, a commanding summons that silenced the room. Richardson called it “an offering to the masters,” and inserted excerpts from an interview with Charlie Parker. He has the ability to generate large quantities of complex spontaneous content, but unlike many players with such chops, he understands the power of reduction and concentration. A Richardson solo (like that on “Hidden Figures”) is often a series of soaring trajectories. He bears down on stark repeated phrases until they become mantras and rituals. In Ääniwalli, he burned his long calls into the night. A secret weapon in this band is Igor Osypov from Ukraine. He reiterates Richardson’s cries in guitar notes like knife slashes. The final tune was “Anthem for Human Justice,” plaintive like all Richardson music but somewhat brightened by fragile hope.
Saturday night’s activities were held in another industrial park, Suvilahti, a former energy production area, now a cultural center. Two huge gasometers still tower over the property. Several spaces in the complex were used for a staggered schedule of seven bands. There were two piano trios, one predictable (Aki Rissanen), one challenging (Moskus). There was a fascinating sonic collage by Kim Myhr of Norway using four guitarists and three drummers. There was a Finnish baritone saxophone trio called Mopo, as manic as Mats Gustafsson’s The Thing but more innocent and fun.
The most important event of the night was a multimedia presentation of pieces by the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda. A Finnish sextet, Dalindéo, led by guitarist/arranger Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen, played in front of a large screen with filmed images from the short life of Komeda, who died at 38 in 1969. There was a complicated and even tragic backstory to this project. It was supposed to be a joint venture by We Jazz and an organization in Poland, where the project was conceived (and the film assembled) by Michał Gawlicz. But Gawlicz died suddenly in October 2018 (at the same age as Komeda), only a few weeks before the festival, and the funding support out of Poland was withdrawn. The We Jazz organization had to proceed alone. It was the largest production they had ever undertaken. Before the music began, Pöyhönen announced, “This is the last time this project will ever be performed.”
It was beautiful. Before the haunting, unexplained images of the grainy film, Dalindéo played Pöyhönen’s arrangements of Komeda songs like “Sleep Safe and Warm” (the theme from the Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby), “Svantetic,” “Theme from Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Crazy Girl.” The band executed the spare, clean charts with precision and passion. Tenor saxophonist Petri Puolitaival and trumpeter Jose Mäenpää were especially impressive. In the last 20 years, there have been several important Komeda tribute albums, like Tomasz Stańko’s Litania and the Komeda Project’s Crazy Girl. But there have been no tributes as complete as the one at We Jazz. Together, Dalindéo and the film captured the qualities that make Komeda songs reach into the hidden heart: all those minor chords of mystery and pathos, all that dark Slavic romanticism.
The last night of the festival contained two more interactions between music and film. A young, talented, disciplined Finnish ensemble, Bowman Trio (Tomi Nikku, trumpet; Joonas Tuuri, bass; Sami Nummella, drums), played without amplification in a tiny space in a pristine white downtown art gallery. Behind them, a repeating loop of television clips showed bad news (Brexit, Trump’s election). In this concert, the video images felt superfluous.
But the final event of the festival proved once again that film and music together can create revelations neither can achieve alone. Verneri Pohjola and drummer Mika Kallio improvised music to Perttu Saksa’s film Animal Image. The opening shot was a slow pan over a vast, empty, silent snowscape—silent until Pohjola’s long trumpet call and the murmur of Kallio’s gong. The next image was also overwhelming in its enormity and barrenness, a heaving ocean. Confronted by the dynamic sea, Pohjola’s trumpet erupted. The film soon arrived at its true subject, the animal world and its relationship to nature and to man: A horse in a frozen landscape that appeared incapable of supporting life. Birds in flight: goshawks, crows, owls. A bear in a forest. Then the sea again, consuming the screen, and trumpet lines majestic and austere. Pohjola’s sustained creativity over the 40 minutes of the film was extraordinary.
The Animal Image event, like the Komeda tribute, had a poignancy that came from finality. It took place in the Andorra, a lovely old palace of cinema that will soon be torn down. The inspired collaboration of Pohjola, Kallio, and Saksa provided a fitting end to a unique jazz festival.