Review: Flow Festival, Helsinki

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington stole the show at the 15th Flow Festival, but Terry Riley, 83, surprised with some jazz too, writes Wif Stenger

LA tenor giant Kamasi Washington (pictured right) made a triumphant return to Helsinki’s multi-genre urban party, becoming the first artist in its 15-year history to play two sets on the same day. Rather than playing the main stage, as he has at many festivals this year, Washington and his eight-member Next Step band took the more intimate Balloon 360° stage, which fits an audience of 1,600 in the round. It was packed, with many more listening outside.

Two sets were not a stretch. Washington has plenty of material, having released the equivalent of 8-10 albums’ worth of music over three years. This summer’s massive Heaven And Earth, with its large choirs and string sections, was represented in relatively stripped-down versions, but still sounded huge. Having taken maximalism about as far as it can go, it would be interesting to hear Washington in a minimal setting, say an acoustic trio or duo. As it was, Washington’s solos were heady explorations that reached white-hot, soul-cleansing catharsis, especially in the later set.

The front horn line, including the bandleader’s father Rickey Washington on soprano sax, was slightly ragged at times, as on Re Run from the 2015 debut album, but vocalist Patrice Quinn added saving grace. Ukrainian-Israeli keyboardist Ruslan Sirota replaced long-time keyboardists Brandon Coleman (soon to release his solo debut) and Cameron Graves, who is touring with Stanley Clarke – with whom Sirota has also long played, as well as the likes of Josh Groban and Al Jarreau. Sirota’s solos went on too long for my taste, his rather slick style feeling a bit out of place in this band. Double bassist Miles Mosley produced blazing "electric guitar" solos with a bow, while drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin kept a rolling groove that had dancers up front moving blissfully.

Among mainstream audiences, Washington may be best known for his work with rap megastar Kendrick Lamar. He appeared at Flow the same evening, sparking hopes that the two might appear onstage together, but apparently the schedule – or maybe Lamar’s security – was too tight for that. With headliners like Lamar and Lauryn Hill, Flow now attracts an international crowd of 84,000 over three days, offering more than 100 acts on 10 stages.

Jazz and improvised music have always had a key role at Flow, which began as a warehouse party in 2004, booking the likes of Marlena Shaw and Mark Murphy along with electronic and indie rock acts. Flow’s founder also set up the dancefloor-oriented Five Corners Quintet. That band played the festival for many years and helped revive the Helsinki jazz scene, in which its former members still play major roles. Three of them returned to Flow this year. Trumpeter Jukka Eskola was backed by the UMO Jazz Orchestra, playing new arrangements of songs from throughout his career. The originals range from bossa nova to hard bop to 60s organ soul-jazz, but here ended up sounding rather samey in UMO’s conservative hands. Keyboardist Seppo Kantonen (pictured left with UMO) enlivened an otherwise rather stodgy big-band set, which was bedevilled by gusty winds blowing away the sheet music. Another Five Corners veteran, drummer Teppo Mäkynen, brought his new electronic/ambient project 3TM, which had seemed somewhat aimless a few weeks earlier at Pori Jazz (see JJ's review here). Here, inside a dark tent with a 3-D light and video show, the set was much more impressive, complete with eerie samples of field recordings from around the world. There were searching solos from saxophonist Jussi Kannaste, underpinned by perennial Flow artist Antti Lötjönen on bass – yet another Five Corners graduate.

Lötjönen and Kannaste also appeared in a more mainstream setting with keyboardist Olli Ahvenlahti, who played fusion with the likes of Pekka Pohjola back in the 70s and 80s. Now 69, Ahvenlahti is in prime form and enjoying a career revival. Last winter he released his first new album as a leader in more than three decades, Thinking, Whistling. At the Balloon Stage, he played mostly easy-going songs from that collection, ignited with fireworks by drummer Jaska Lukkarinen. Representing a younger generation of Helsinki jazz was Mopo, who debuted at Flow six years ago as a raucous punk-jazz trio. They’ve since matured – without losing their spirit of irreverent fun. Saxophonist Linda Fredriksson has taken a stronger leadership role in the band and expanded her own expressive palette. The set list was mostly from this year’s Mopocalypse, ranging from opening ballad Niin Aikaisin, based on a Swedish folk tune, to the pedal-to-the-metal climax of Tökkö.

Away from jazz, there was improvisation in the loping Afrobeat of Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius, backed by London’s Heliocentrics, and the quirky ambient folk of Lau Nau. Her set featured a 20-strong choir, a jouhikko (traditional bowed lyre), and recorded birds from behind her rural sauna – all very Finnish. Patti Smith (pictured above right), who is single-handedly defining the role of older woman rock star, revived her 70s and 80s hits with some shamanic spoken-word interludes. Rather than long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye, she relied on Tony Shanahan and her son Jackson in that role.

Another parent-son team delivered the most hypnotising set of the festival: California composer Terry Riley, 83, with his guitarist son Gyan Riley. Having been alternately charmed, baffled or irritated by his recorded works, I expected a dry, beard-stroking recital, but Riley Sr (pictured left) was energetic, cheerful and jazzy. On piano, occasional electronics, melodica and vocals he was a delight and revelation. The duo’s early-evening set, in a former boiler room, was surprisingly crowded – though some people had probably just wandered in to get a cider and escape the rain. They may have been baffled by the minimalist compositions, Indian ragas and free jams that wandered from bluegrass to baroque and jazz. Gyan added a palette of guitar sounds, building to intense crescendos.

When the last improvised piece began to dawdle, Riley père threw on a subtle electronic drone like an invisible, silky cloak. This seemed to pleasantly startle his son and took the jam into a completely different direction. How surprised can you be by someone you’ve improvised with for 30 years? These two seemed to do so several times, then shared laughs about it between songs. Smiles of a summer night.

Photos by Konstantin Kondrukhov, courtesy of Flow Festival

Your Comments:

Posted by Liz U., 20 August 2018, 0:26 (1 of 1)

Ruslan Sirota was too slick....I think there is a complement in that statement!

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