Review: Tampere Jazz Happening

The 2017 edition of this Finnish festival keeps Pascal Dorban transfixed with adventurous programming, an international lineup and lakeside saunas

In southern Finland, the first weekend in November is both a time of religious celebration and a chance for jazz aficionados to enjoy one of Europe’s oldest jazz festivals. The Tampere Jazz Happening was given an award by the European Jazz Network for its adventurous programming and celebrated its 36th edition this year, with a powerful programme spread over four days jam-packed with music. Drawing 5,300 visitors and filling venues to 98% capacity, the 2017 edition of the Happening was all about power and energy – embodied in this instance in the powerful sound of the bass saxophone, an instrument rarely seen or heard on stage. This one belonged to Lithuanian master Liudas Mockunas, a member of the band Heavy Beauty, who added his improviser’s touch to a jazz-rock project that also features in this year’s London Jazz Festival. Heavy Beauty appeared on the first evening of the festival alongside two other music projects, highlighting Finland’s neighbour Estonia in honour of the country’s centennial anniversary.

From Friday onwards, 15 international projects performed alongside seven Finnish acts in the three venues that hosted the hugely popular festival. A few names in addition to the usual suspects honouring jazz festivals throughout Europe this year included: Shabaka Hutchings (pictured above right) with his two bands; Tony Allen, a familiar guest of the TJH who performed a lovely tribute to his all-time hero Art Blakey; Dhafer Youssef’s wonderful latest project with his new US band; and plenty of music from Switzerland, another country that was well represented. The spotlight on Swiss acts on Saturday and Sunday displayed the organisers’ care in selecting diverse projects like the Erik Truffaz Quartet, Samuel Blaser’s latest project with saxophone player Oliver Lake, Jojo Mayer/Nerve, Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile and a great vocalist newcomer Lucia Cadotsch, whose gig closed the festival on Sunday evening. Together with her two partners, Otis Sandsjö on saxophone and Petter Eldh on drums, Zürich-born Lucia Cadotsch’s trio is truly unique, showcasing the personality of each musician rather than simply backing the vocalist, as is so often the case.

The festival traditionally hosts the YRJÖ awards ceremony. This year, the most prestigious prize awarded to a jazz musician in Finland went to trumpet player Verneri Pohjola (pictured left). Alongside his duet with drummer Mika Kallio, which performed following the ceremony, Pohjola was also a guest of the Sunna Gunnlaugs trio on Saturday. The Icelandic pianist displayed all her compositional and performance talent in a warm-hearted gig. Speaking of warm-hearted gigs, the performance of Tunisian born Dhafer Youssef on Sunday afternoon is definitely worth a mention, notably for the spontaneous onstage hug in the middle of the concert between a jazz fan and the whole quartet.

As a likely future candidate for European Capital of Culture, Tampere really makes it happen, and the Tampere Jazz Happening is certainly the best example of the many cultural attractions this industrial city has to offer. And speaking of what Finland has to offer, another of my personal favorites would have to be saunas by the lake. Indeed, the icy water after 10 minutes of sauna heat really gave me a boost after four days of festival and 25 most enjoyable concerts.

See you next year, Tampere.

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