Like Alice Coltrane, Iro Haarla is a keyboardist, harpist and widow of a free jazz pioneer. Her music, too, is spacey and ethereal yet has a deeper, darker dimension that’s sometimes overlooked. In Haarla’s case, the prettier side was evidenced on her previous albums for ECM with a Norwegian-Finnish quintet. Though her new album is on the edgier Helsinki label TUM, it starts off by ticking all the boxes for a Nordic ECM release: moody, melancholy, sparse and nature-evocative. There’s subtle tension beneath the beauty, though. By end of the long second track, those tensions have grown into a traffic jam or an argument, which then gets satisfyingly sorted out. Throughout the hour-long set, the ensemble creates finely etched backgrounds for contemplative solo, duo and trio statements.
The sextet includes two veterans of Sound & Fury, the band led by Haarla’s late husband, drummer Edward Vesala, in the ‘80s. That band is still going strong, having released an album of brutal unrecorded Vesala compositions in 2013, with uncompromising arrangements by Haarla. Also in the sextet are Haarla’s current partner, bassist Ulf Krokfors, and rising trumpet star Verneri Pohjola, who recently signed to Edition Records in the UK, and whose father, bassist Pekka Pohjola, was Finland’s leading jazz figure of the ‘70s and ‘80s alongside Vesala.
You might want to wait till autumn to listen to this one, though. As the murky grey/brown cover suggests, this is ponderous, solemn stuff. One of the song names, “Sad but True”, would have been a fitting title for the album.
While Woody Herman’s Herd, unleashed in the ‘40s, was a raucous big band, this Helsinki Herd is a pocket-sized flock. The vibes-driven trio, which won the 2011 European Jazz Competition, teams up on its second album with Finland’s premier jazz vocalist of the moment, Aili Ikonen. The effervescent blonde scat singer is one of the country’s hardest-gigging musicians, appearing at nearly every jazz festival and club while starring in a musical in Helsinki. This was one of three albums she dropped in 2013, including a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and an avant-garde song cycle with Sweden’s Norrbotten Big Band. She’s also sung with the Northern Governors, Kvalda, Korpi Ensemble and Yona.
Like Herman’s band, this Herd freely mixes pop and jazz in a crowd-pleasing yet credible way. The summery playlist ranges from Finnish pop songs of the ‘60s to translations of American standards and Horace Silver’s “The Preacher” (which becomes the “Jazz Bug” of the title).
Most of the unpretentious arrangements are by vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, whose loungey sound dominates the instrumentation, along with a couple of arrangements by Ikonen. The centrepiece is her cool, clear sound with its big range and supple swoops. Ikonen sounds more athletic than expressive on the fast numbers, but shows more profundity on ballads like “Kotkan poikii ilman siipii” and “Muistatko Monrepos’n”, a bittersweet post-war ode to the old Finnish city of Vyborg, now part of Russia.
Finland’s most exciting jazz band at the moment has never really been a jazz band – and is even less so on their second album. Mopo’s 2012 debut Jee was a gleeful joyride, acoustic jazz played at warp-speed echoing the goofier side of punk rock, with random shouts and sound effects. That earned a coveted critics’ award for the band’s leader, saxophonist Linda Fredriksson – and attention from media eager for a change from the dry, academic Finnish jazz fraternity. On this second album, there are no concessions to mainstream acceptance. Rather there’s more noise, more ferocious free improv and rock. There are also more vocals, including one track from indie-rock singer Stina Koistinen. And there are heavier themes such as the eloquent elegy “Luonto kutsuu” (“Nature Calls”), inspired by a toxic mining leak. “Ei, se ei ole hattu, minä vain ajattelen” (“No, It’s Not a Hat, I’m Just Thinking”) echoes John Zorn’s abrupt leaps from abrasive to absurd to melodic. The song begins with short blasts of free jazz, followed by a cello-like bass solo that starts to sound like a Chinese erhu violin before Fredriksson introduces an almost heartbreakingly poignant sax theme. An impressive sophomore effort, although Jee remains the most accessible introduction to Mopo – besides their fun-filled live sets.
Über-chilled pianist Toivanen’s two previous albums have been pleasant but mostly-unmemorable trio outings in the sparse Nordic tradition. His first solo album, too, starts off so subtly that you might almost forget that it’s playing. Soon enough, though, Toivanen demands your attention as he concocts experiments on a prepared piano, sounding at times like the more avant-garde efforts by Keith Jarrett or Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus. For the most part, though, this is meditative stuff, gentle minimalist repetition – closer to Glass or Satie than mainstream jazz. Starting sleepy then gradually awakening, this disc is an eloquent early-morning companion. Rise and shine.
Writing about music may be like dancing about architecture – but dancing is as valid a way of interpreting Oddarrang’s architectural music as any. Or is their music more like architecture about nature? Or nature as a metaphor for human emotions? Such are the thoughts that bubble up while listening to In Cinema at an appropriate volume with eyes closed, or played live with film accompaniment. For the past decade or so, Oddarrang has been one of Finland’s most compelling bands of any genre, but never have they sounded so assured, masterful and stirring. In Cinema is much more exciting and dynamic than its predecessor, 2012’s excellent Cathedral, which now seems a bit cautious in comparison. Closer now to ‘post-rock’ groups such as Sigur Rós and Mogwai, Oddarrang takes the listener on an exhilarating flight.
Oddarrang’s leader and drummer Olavi Louhivuori also plays in a quartet led by tenor saxophonist Esa Pietilä that’s much freer – hence the name Liberty? The loosely-composed first set of this double disc is relatively lyrical and gentle, sometimes suggesting the creaking of a ship’s rigging or a cook clattering around below decks. The all-improvised second disc is uneasy listening that crosses fairly stormy seas. Pietilä, with his dry, convoluted, reedy sound, pushes the rest of the band out of their comfort zone, particularly two mainstays of mid-generation Finnish jazz, pianist Aki Rissanen and bassist Antti Lötjönen, a veteran of Five Corners Quintet, Timo Lassy Band, and dozens of other outfits.
Liberty Ship bassist Antti Lötjönen reunites with two other Five Corners Quintet alumni in Timo Lassy’s quartet. Suave tenorman Lassy has become a mainstream symbol of jazz in Finland, appearing on billboards, TV shows and film soundtracks. His bold, swinging sound, by turns honking and romantic, echoes greats like Ben Webster and Cannonball Adderley. This live set solidifies that reputation with a groovy set that pleases young hipsters without ruffling the feathers of traditionalists. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but plenty of rowdy retro fun, shouting back and forth with a hometown crowd at Helsinki’s small Dubrovnik club, a cosy side room at an underground cinema owned by the filmmaking Kaurismäki brothers. His band includes the unbeatable FCQ rhythm section of Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen, along with welcome cultural variety from Ethiopian percussionist Abdissa Assefa and Greek keyboardist Georgios Kontrafouris. Most of the tunes are by Lassy and/or Mäkynen – but they sound as vintage as the covers of French crooner Sacha Distel’s “La belle vie” and Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things”.
Another Five Corners graduate, trumpeter Jukka Eskola, turns in a light, summery collection with a quintet backed by the Proton String Quartet. Though the song titles point to India, Thailand and Austria, the sound is firmly based in the Brazilian-American pop-jazz collaborations of half a century ago. Yet while the album may sound like light fluff on the first few listens, it gradually reveals more complexity. While strings often upped the cheesiness factor of original bossa nova, Proton’s presence here gives this feathery music more gravitas. So do the other players’ impeccable chops, particularly Peter Engberg’s spot-on acoustic guitar and the stand-up bass work from Ville Herrala, who released a much more challenging album last year with his free-jazz trio PLOP. “Tensions” brings to mind Henry Mancini’s soundtracks, which likewise balanced pop pleasure and more profound craft. And though “Wien” is sung in Japanese by Chihiro, it’s still picture-perfect ‘60s bossa. The final track, "Ricky-Tick", pays tribute to the 5CQ’s ground-breaking record label, now sadly defunct.
The Ricky-Tick tradition lives on in this 17-member group led by keyboardist and guitarist Valtteri Pöyhönen, who scored crossover hits last year with this line-up and his sextet Dalindèo. Actually this second RTBB album features 20 performers, including three of Finland’s most established rappers: Paleface, Redrama and Tommy Lindgren, known collectively here as Julkinen Sana (which loosely translates as “Public Message” or “Public Speech”). Jazz and rap have interfaced for more than 40 years, since the first LPs by the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Later efforts have usually spliced hip-hop with electronic jazz. This time, though, the witty Finnish and Swedish rapping is over straight-ahead acoustic swing in ‘30s and ‘40s style. Powering it all is a 13-strong horn section, starring solos from Mopo’s Linda Fredriksson and trumpeter Kalevi Louhivuori of funk-jazz big band the Northern Governors.
This half-female and quarter-American band has scored some success on US radio with its fusion sound, led by Elna Romberg’s smooth vocals. Her English phrasing and scatting are natural-sounding – unlike her attempt at rapping on “Katharsis”. Keyboardist Rob Dominis, who’s played with US fusion bands and Finnish pop stars, also a natural touch, although some of his ’70s-style synth sounds are a bit corny. Yet alongside these pop touches, this new band also tackles an ambitious “world music concerto” touching down in China, Israel, Australia, Brazil and the US. While not entirely successful, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, especially on the Finnish jazz scene. This is a band with oodles of potential – watch this space.
Kuva: Matti Korhonen / Olli Sulin