Pori Jazz 2003

Pori Jazz 2003

by W. Royal Stokes, photographs: Erika Else

copyright © 2003 W. Royal Stokes, photographs: Erika Else

Founded in 1966, Pori Jazz is one of the older jazz festivals abroad, preceded in Europe and Japan by a dozen or so such gatherings. However, only one country anticipated Pori Jazz by a substantial number of years, namely, France, with its 1948 and 1949 events in, respectively, Nice and Paris. Thus Finland can lay claim to being among the pioneer nations in recognizing the international appeal of the art forms that it has annually showcased for nearly four decades. The plural of "art forms" is the operative word here, for at Pori Jazz one encounters not only jazz in all its myriad forms, but blues, r & b, soul, funk, gospel, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, world music, and such pop forms as retro swing, rap, disco, sampling, and hip-hop.

While many current festivals go far afield in their offerings in order to swell the audience, embracing not only forms that are peripheral to jazz but idioms that some would say bear no relation to it, Pori Jazz makes up for this dilution of a pure jazz program by including representation of every era and style of the art form of jazz from early New Orleans to the latest in avant garde and experimental efforts. The formula is successful, for Pori Jazz's attendance has in recent years ranged from 130,000 to 150,000, about evenly divided between ticket buyers and those checking out only the free performances.

For this veteran of jazz festival reporting who had never before been so far north in Europe, a two-week stay in Finland was an exciting, even exotic, adventure. The people are gracious and helpful, most everybody one comes into contact with speaking English and always delighted when addressed with a word or two in their own (non-Indo-European) language. The weather was superb. Even the initial two days of rain and cool nights met our expectations of a milder clime than that of a Washington, D.C., summer, and then a heat wave moved in, raising the degrees from nights in the 50s and daytime 70s to overnight 70s and sunny highs of 85 F. and 90 F.

Of course, Pori, a city of 80,00, has a number of other attractions besides the wide spectrum of musical choices one is exposed to at its principal yearly cultural event. A side trip by bus, a half-hour journey through farmland and evergreen forests, to the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia is a must excursion. I heard from one who had the temerity to take a dip therein that the water was frigid, but I much enjoyed the sea air and a morning stroll through the dunes. The city's architecture is a fascinating blend of Eastern and Western European styles and it boasts several art museums, in one of which we viewed a showing of the 100 sketches that Salvador Dali penned as illustrations of Dante's Inferno. Shops of all sort abound and there are many eateries, from cafeterias to fine restaurants, including a rathskeller in the bowels of City Hall. One should take advantage of the many varieties of fish available on restaurant menus. If you order salmon soup don't add an entre because it's a meal in itself. We were regular customers of the public open-air farmer's market around the corner from our Hotel Vaakuna for our daily ration of fresh bread, local cheeses, and the tastiest strawberries in the world.

Much of the musical action takes place on the temporarily laid-out Jazz Street, a four-block complex of a hundred or so bazaar stalls, tented shops, food concessions, and the non-ticket venues Groove FM Stage, a beer garden seating hundreds, and Jazz Street Stage, which accommodates an equal number on benches and as standees. There is no entry fee for Jazz Street and the area is thronged from late morning until its closing at 2.a.m. On side streets were several restaurant and club venues.

The New Orleans Original Players on Bourbon Street

A half-dozen blocks from Jazz Street was another main center of the festival, Bourbon Street. Encompassing about two blocks, it required a gate fee of 20 Euros (about $22), which provided access to several restaurants and small clubs and the huge DNA Stage tent, with its nightly-changing 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. programs of four big-name jazz, blues, and pop acts. Holding forth there, for example, were Boz Scaggs, Lucky Peterson, Keiko Matsui, and Sam "Soul Man" Moore. Admission to Bourbon Street's Jazz Center, a club that seats 1200, was 50 Euros Thursday night, 35 the succeeding two evenings. Again, this was for a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. stakeout for the likes of, in one evening, Regina Carter, Buena Vista Social Club, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Throughout the night the brass- dominated New Orleans Original Royal Players periodically marched up and down Bourbon Street stirring up the crowd with early-20th-century jazz classics

Also commencing on Thursday were the afternoon-through-evening programs of the huge outdoor Kirjurinluoto concert park, which one approaches from Jazz Street via a foot bridge across the Kokemäenjoki River. With benches for a thousand or so, a lawn area accommodating another 20,000, a huge screen, and daily-changing programs offering four or five groups that provided something for all tastes, this venue is for fans, family picnickers, and partying groups. The varied offerings at Kirjurinluoto included James Brown, Wayne Shorter, Los Hombres Calientes, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Lucky Peterson, Sam Moore, Marcus Miller, Curtis Fuller, Keiko Matsui, The Roots, Quintessence, the Don Johnson Big Band, and the New Orleans Original Royal Players.

Indoor concert and club venues included the Getz Club, Cafe Jazz, the Church of Keski- Pori, and the Pori Theater, all a few steps from Jazz Street, and the Promenadisali concert hall, a couple of blocks from the open market alluded to above. In addition, some restaurants and hotels featured festival combos nightly.

Wayne Shorter on the Kirjurinluoto Concert Park Stage

Needless to say, with ten or more performances every day, some of them running simultaneously and many being one-time acts, it was not possible to see and hear all of the music available during the nine days of the festival. To clarify one aspect allow me to point out that, while the music commenced on Saturday the 12th of July and terminated on Sunday the 20th, the main portion of the festival began on Wednesday evening with a Promenadisali concert of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, featuring Brian Blade, John Patitucci, and Danilo Perez, and the commencement of the Kirjurinluoto and Bourbon Street programs on, respectively, Thursday afternoon and evening. From the opening Saturday through the close of the festival, the free stages, nearby restaurants, and the several clubs were the scenes of afternoon-through-evening musical fare of all description.

The two free stages were the forums for a great many Finnish groups and we took advantage of their presence the first five days of the festival to check out a number of them before the big names hit town in mid-week. Most had only one time on stage and then disappeared from the festival. Thus a major benefit of Pori Jazz was this very opportunity to hear world-class music performed by some whom one would rarely encounter elsewhere, namely, these homegrown Finnish musicians and combos. We concentrated on these groups throughout the festival to the exclusion of groups and musicians whom we have frequently enjoyed at other overseas gatherings and back home.

Notable in this regard was a set on the Groove FM Stage on our first Sunday led by pianist Matti Aalto, a Pori native, whose orchestral approach to the keyboard rendered with freshness several standards including "The Girl From Ipanema" and introduced us to a 1929 Finnish jazz composition, "Muistan Sua Elaine". Bassist Jouni Hokkanen stretched the role of his instrument far beyond its time-keeping role in his inspired exchanges with the pianist and Harri Lehti provided crisp support at the drums. The threesome impressed as a working trio and, in fact, have played together for two decades.

Later that afternoon we checked out another Finnish group, the J. Nowak Quintet with singer Ewa Kaarela, a solid mainstream combo with trumpet and tenor saxophone. Ms. Kaarela belted out blues-drenched favorites like Ray Charles' "I Love Him So" and the two horns added a big band sound to the proceedings.

Jan Simmons on the Groove FM Stage

The Jan Simmons Band, with a mix of nationalities that included several Finnish musicians, mounted the Groove FM Stage early that evening and blended the sonorities of the past four decades in the powerful solos of tenorist Manuel Dunkel and the horn- like runs of guitarist Niklas Winter. Pianist Jari Kanninen's contributed expansive and harmonically bold statements and bassist Simmons and drummer Jukkis Uotila drove this steaming quintet with passion and high energy.

Duke Heitger, Tom Saunders, and Evan Christopher of the Steamboat Stompers

Highlights of the festival for this long-time lover of early jazz styles were the several sets we caught of the New Orleans-based Duke Heitger Steamboat Stompers, who turned up on one stage or another every day of the festival and were clearly an audience favorite. The leader's trumpet voice, one of the brightest of current traditional jazz brassmen, led the quartet through its repertoire of historic fare with flair and jaunty swing. Clarinetist Evan Christopher has for several years been attracting attention as an inspired virtuoso on his instrument. His tone, somewhat reminiscent of the great Edmond Hall, yet thoroughly individual, is wonderfully woody, and his seemingly effortless ease with startling turns of phrase marks him as highly inventive.

Audience at the Jazz Street Stage, a free stage featuring many Finnish bands

We had the opportunity to see the Stompers on the two free Jazz Street stages and then in the basement club room of the Steak and Whiskey House, a quality restaurant across the street from our hotel. The band was especially hot that evening, perhaps inspired by the presence of some of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who vociferously commended the quartet's efforts at the conclusion of each number.

Tom Saunders' bass saxophone -- and occasional bass fiddle -- and John Gill's banjo and guitar made for a perfect rhythm section, with the latter supplying period vocals that delighted. "Snake Rag", "Snag It", "That Da Da Strain", and "If You Knew Susie" were some of the Stompers' offerings.

Petri Lehtonen, Jukka Kuuri-Riutta, and Rauli Viitala of the Finnish Konservatorion Big Band on the Jazz Street Stage

On Tuesday evening we hung out at the free stages and heard, first, the Konservatorion Big Band Goes Movies, which is just what this orchestra of youngsters did, smoothly, zealously, and with well developed arranging skills covering cinematic themes from, for example, Back to the Future and Ghost Busters and rendering "Stormy Weather", which was sung by Lena Horne in the 1943 film of that title. Janne Virtanen did splendidly on the vocals.

Ted Curson sitting in with the Marian Petrescu Band on the Groove FM Stage

Here's an aspect of the Finnish summer I did not yet mention, to wit, the long days. The reason it occurred to me at this juncture is that I just now noticed in my hand-written notes that, at Groove FM Stage, we caught a boiling set of the Marian Petrescu Band at 9 p.m. Yet I distinctly recall watching the group, with guest trumpeter Ted Curson (a long-time Pori Jazz regular), under a strong sun. Of course! The Finnish sun does not set in July until midnight! And it comes back up three hours later! Anyway, with Ray Blue on tenor and the leader at the piano, the combo acquitted itself well on "Blue Monk", "Blues Walk", and "Georgia" in a hard bop fashion with Curson delivering vocals and doubling on flugel and pocket trumpet.

Kärt of the Toivo Unt Trio, a Finnish R & B Combo

On Wednesday afternoon we were amazed at the ruminative hour-long solo piano piece by Australian Marc Isaacs, who was, he told me after his Groove FM Stage set, "playing music in my head." Removing to the Jazz Street Stage, we found in Kärt of the Torvo Unit a singer who was at home combining an array of materials, including bossa nova, samba, cabaret, and scatted bebop heads. She accompanied this with the visual appeal of constant rhythmic movement of hands and body.

Surely, one feature of Pori Jazz 2003 that lent to it a welcome uniqueness was the Ultra Music Meeting, a series of performances by French combos in the small and acoustically perfect Pori Theater. To describe the astonishing sounds we heard over the course of three nightly visits to this wonderful venue as cutting edge, avant garde, or experimental would be to not do justice to the remarkable musicians who participated in this visionary program. For, in some respects, they were truly revolutinary. Pori Jazz Artistic Director Jyrti Kangas is to be commended for bringing these musicians to his festival.

Marc Ducret, Eric Echampard, and Bruno Chevillon of the Ultra Music Series in the Pori Theater

Guitarist Marc Ducret, playing solid-body electric instruments and throughout employing sound-altering foot pedals, dealt in duel-like high-velocity exchanges with bassist Bruno Chevillon, the two propelled by the roaring drums of Eric Echampard. Barefooted all, the trio often exchanged fleeting expressions of pure joy or erupted in muffled cries of ecstasy as they navigated the churning seas of their improvisations. Ducret has absorbed everyone from Charlie Christian to Jimi Hendrix to Fred Frith, crossing the sound barrier in the process. The trio's selections included "Somewhat Uneasy", "You Are Lucky", and a full-throttle, unidentified encore.

Finnish 5-Row Chromatic Accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen of the Ultra Music Series at the Pori Theater

Logging onto Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen's website and learning of his pan- European popularity and many rave reviews and the dearth of press passes at frequently sold-out performances, we feel blessed and privileged that we commanded center front- row seats at the Pori Theater for the astonishing hour-long number that his lone Pori Jazz 2003 appearance consisted of. It was truly an hour that we shall never forget. Puhjonen, in duo with Ducret's brilliant and utterly dynamic drummer Eric Echampard, proved himself, in the course of that hour, to be truly an innovator on his instrument and in his conception of improvised music. Layering chords upon chords and building to crescendos of melodic and harmonic extravagance by means of a seamless production of gradually mounting orchestral body from his instrument, pedaled special-effects such as loops, sampling, and playback, and guttural vocalizations, moans, and insect-like buzzes via a tiny mic resting upon his left cheek, Puhjonen rocked back and forth demonically on his stool, his face often contorted in emotional pain. So distraught did he appear in his final ten minutes or so onstage, as he hurled himself forward onto his feet into a crouch several times, pumping the accordion and manipulating its keys and buttons as though possessed by a spirit (as well he may have been -- the program parenthetically included as among his musical styles "shamanistic trance"), I thought that he would wrest the accordion from his shoulders by its straps and smash it on the stage.

Kimmo Puhjonen's performance proved to be a riveting musical and surreal theatrical experience, a multi-dimensional display of totally original, astonishingly eccentric, and unabashedly uncompromising artistic genius. I can't think of any performance of recent years that has so moved me. Allow me here to praise drummer Echampard for his extraordinary drive, virtuosity, and creativity under what clearly must have been murderous pressure to stay abreast of the headlong idiosyncrasy of his musical companion. We look forward to Kimmo Puhjonen one day soon taking the continental U. S. by storm.

Of the Ultra Music series at the Pori Theater, we also caught Triade, with Finnish guest alto and soprano saxophonist Mikko Innanen; Gaguik Mourandian, intriguing master of the ancient Armenian kamantcha, a gourd-like hand drum; bass clarinet virtuoso Denis Colin; and singer Gwen Matthews, a wordless singer of stunning emotional impact. Because of our increasingly crowded schedule at week's end, we missed a couple of other Ultra Music combos of no doubt impressive prowess and creativity. The series' final evening, a reprise of some of the acts described or alluded to above, was kicked off by a six-member ragtag Finnish band that invaded the theater after peeking through its side doors, forced its way through rows of seated audience, and occupied the front row and then the stage, prone and supine, all the while playing off-key mock march music. It was a hoot, and a fitting way to introduce another evening of off-the-wall progressive art music.

Friday took us to the Promenadisali concert hall for the double bill of pianist Lenni-Kalle Taipale's trio and, as opening act, the Texas Christian University Jazz Ensemble, a polished and swinging 20-strong unit with many fine soloists and a drummer who brought down the house with an avalanche of a finale. Pianist Taipale, whose many appearances on TV and the concert stage have garnered him pop-star status, played to and chatted between tunes with his admiring audience, a sizable contingent of which was teenaged and female. His offerings, for the half set that we endured, bordered on and frequently crossed over into New Age meanderings.

James Brown on the Kirjurinluoto Concert Park Stage

James Brown Fans at Stage Front Kirjurinluoto Concert Park Stage

Not to disparage in any way James Brown's talents and significance, but the overwhelming reception accorded him simply astonished me. His show provided the Thursday evening entertainment at the Kirjurinluoto Park venue. It took the stage crew forty minutes to set up after Wayne Shorter concluded his set. When the screaming announcement of "JA -A-AMES BR-ROW-OWN!" blasted from the speakers at 8 p.m., the entire seated audience of a thousand or so not only rose to its feet but stood on the benches, and thousands of those reclining on the lawn to the rear rushed forward and filled every square inch of the aisles and the areas in front of and on both sides of the stage. And they remained standing for the entire show, beaming with joy and screaming encouragement to this legendary performing artist. It was nothing less than pandemonium. And of course the Godfather of Soul and his revue delivered.

Keiko Matsui on the Kirjurinluoto Concert Park Stage

Another popular Kirjurinluoto act was Saturday's offering of the sextet of Japanese pianist Keiko Matsui, on her first visit to Northern Europe. Performing a program of mainstream jazz and New Age original materials on electric and concert grand piano and a hand-held guitar-like keyboard, Matsui first charmed her audience with her native courtesy and then stunned them with her pianistic skills and deftly arranged scores for her band numbers "Moonlight Sailor", "White Owl", and "Doll" and then with her gorgeous solo feature "Kapa", which she said was inspired by the mountains and landscape of her country.

Emma Salakoski of Quintessence, a Finnish Band that Mixes Funk, R & B, Rap, and Jazz

On Sunday afternoon we betook ourselves again across the river to check out the Finnish band Quintessence, whose singer Emma Salokoski, aided by two back-up voices and a quintet that included a trumpeter, blended r & b, funk, rap, and pop as she cruised around the stage with cordless mic.

The Superblue Duo on the Groove FM Stage, a free stage set up as a beer garden

An evening blues session on the Groove FM Stage by Superblue concluded Pori Jazz 2003 for us, sending us back to the Mississippi Delta as the two guitarists took metal bar to strings and carried off Robert Johnson licks and slides in accompaniment to their vocal drawls on vintage blues.

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