Review: Flow Festival, Helsinki

Helsinki's eclectic Flow Festival treats jazz as an important component in an array of urban arts, writes Wif Stenger

Helsinki’s Flow Festival offers a head-spinning galaxy of urban arts – including a tasteful array of jazz, which has been an integral element since the first Flow in 2004.

This year’s headliners included Roy Ayers, Joshua Redman (pictured right) and BadBadNotGood, along with a stellar line-up of hometown heroes. The three-day festival (11-13 August) brought 25,000 people a day into an atmospherically-lit former gasworks from 1909, interspersed with gardens, gourmet food stalls and art installations.

Between live sets at the Bright Balloon 360° Stage, jazz fans gravitated to the nearby Vinyl Market tent. There DJs from the UK, Estonia and Finland spun new releases and reissues from labels such as London’s Jazzman, which were also available on the spot.

The Vinyl Tent hosted the weekend’s most electric moment: an impromptu acoustic jam session featuring saxophonists Timo Lassy and Eero Koivistoinen with US vocalist Joyce Elaine Yuille. That came after a violent thunderstorm struck when they began their scheduled set, damaging the Balloon Stage and forcing cancellation of the show. Instead they later played an unannounced, unplugged jam session in the adjacent Vinyl Tent to an enthusiastic crowd of sodden storm survivors. The charismatic Yuille warmed them up with singalongs and dancing, with the saxmen from two generations – Koivistoinen sprightly at 71 – turning up the heat.

Roy Ayers, who is about five years older, was also in fine form the day before. As his quartet took the stage with 1973’s Red, Black & Green, it was immediately clear that this would be more of a funk party than a chin-stroking jazz set. Ayers was a charming showman on vibraphones and vocals, backed by melodic electric bass solos from Donald Nicks and crowd-pleasing antics from drummer Larry Peoples.

Ayers’ slightly strained vocals suggested late-era Bobby Womack, but the former subtlety of his vibes work was lost amid the heavy groove. By the time keyboardist Jamal Peoples played the well-known synth riff that opens Everybody Loves The Sunshine, Ayers was wearying. He sat down to rest as his muscular band played a long jam on the 1976 soul classic, but there was no rest among the mass of dancers.

Ayers drew a capacity crowd of young festival goers, thanks partly to name recognition through frequent hip-hop samples of his records. Likewise BadBadNotGood, who started as a jazz band in Toronto, attracted a huge audience due largely to their hip-hop links. BBNG have ties to the Odd Future collective, which also included this festival’s headliner, Frank Ocean. They also appear on the latest Kendrick Lamar album, as do Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, who appeared on the same stage here last year. Yet while the seating for that stage was more than doubled this year, most of the crowd wanting to see BBNG couldn’t fit in. Those who did were treated to another fun, funky set interspersed with cheerful banter and skilful jazz solos.

Much more serious was saxophonist Joshua Redman's Still Dreaming, a quartet assembled to carry on the tradition of his father Dewey Redman's Old And New Dreams from the late 70s. That group in turn was made up of Ornette Coleman alumni, so the wings of history hover over this new ensemble – especially considering the members' own pedigrees, including drummer Brian Blade's work with Wayne Shorter. With his beatific smile, Blade (pictured left) provided much of the warmth in this group, balancing the otherwise somewhat dry, chilly sounds from the leader and cornetist Ron Miles. They lightened up, quoting from Perdido and Simple Gifts on bassist Scott Holley's New Year, before reinventing Don Cherry's Mopti and Redman Sr's Rush Hour. This was athletic, spare hard bop with forays into Coleman-style free jazz – but always accessible, with nothing too weird to alienate this mostly young crowd in the late-afternoon sun.

Like Redman, local trumpeter Verneri Pohjola paid tribute to his father’s work in the 1970s and 80s – in this case bassist-composer Pekka Pohjola, best known for playing prog-rock and fusion with Mike Oldfield and Wigwam. Again there's a hip-hop connection, as a 1974 Pohjola sample features heavily on a hit by DJ Shadow. Verneri Pohjola's band stayed close to pure jazz, though, using his dad's compositions as the basis for eloquent improvisation.

While Pohjola’s concert was packed, the other Finnish jazz bands weren’t so lucky: besides the cancellation of Lassy’s concert, promising teenage bop trio Milo & Moses were relegated to the first slot on the first day and Black Motor’s cerebral free-jazz was partially drowned out by headliner Lana Del Ray on the nearby main stage during an 11pm slot. Still, Black Motor soldiered on, their new saxophonist Jouni Kannisto looking calm and academic behind a music stand. The subtle interweaving of Simo Laihonen's minimalist drumming and Ville Rauhala's bass thrumming were pure pleasure.

Still, it was all a bit too cerebral and odd for this time of night, especially the more difficult material like Branches, the title piece off their last album featuring the eerie-sounding Indian nagaswaram. Kannisto later switched to flute for Lähempänä Taivasta from another album released last spring. This was all moving, but a difficult battle with Del Ray crooning and 15,000 people partying right outside the small venue’s open door – but jazz is part of the mainstream flow here, not hidden away in a cubbyhole.

Pictures by Kondrukhov Konstantin, courtesy of Flow Festival

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