April Jazz 2019, Espoo, Finland

What a difference a venue makes – Wif Stenger finds setting is key as he sees Joshua Redman, John Scofield and more near the Finnish capital

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The posh suburb of Tapiola, site of the Helsinki area’s only jazz festival, is now easy for city dwellers to access thanks to a new Metro link. Location was key at the 33rd annual April Jazz festivities, sprawled across an array of venues. 

At an art museum, German multi-instrumentalist Sid Hille performed an intimate, experimental afternoon concert on keyboards, theremin and an array of percussion.

The architecturally brutal Tapiola Church hosted a Sunday recital by Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, while trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and drummer Mika Kallio accompanied a documentary film at Haltia Nature Centre and a nearby hotel hosted nightly jam sessions.

Most shows were at the Espoo Cultural Centre’s two concert venues – bringing to mind how crucial setting can be. 

At the main Tapiola Hall, a bright-white classical concert hall with a formal atmosphere, sold-out headliners John Scofield and Joshua Redman played safe, entertaining shows that never pushed the audiences out of their comfort zone.

Scofield, starting a European tour that brings him to London and Dublin in May, played a set like a comfortable old jumper, warmer and cuddlier than the angular late-70s work that prompted Miles Davis to hire him. His semi-hollowbody Ibanez churned out an easy-going blend of blues and country-flavoured jazz, with some over-long noodling perhaps inspired by his outings with American jam bands. Like Bill Frisell – also born in 1951 – he’s settled into a pleasant, amiable sound that doesn’t vary much through a show or album. 

Sco was ably backed by stalwart drummer Bill Stewart, by his side for 40 years, and stand-up bassist Vicente Archer, who’s played with Wynton Marsalis and Robert Glasper. Missing was a sparring partner to push him into the danger zone, such as keyboardist Gerald Clayton from the last autumn’s Combo 66 or the phenomenal Larry Goldings from the previous Country For Old Men tour. 

Redman’s set too was solid but unsurprising – besides occasional mid-solo shouts and awkward stage banter. Warming up on Surrey With The Fringe On Top and moving on to the post-bop original Back East, his tenor sounded rawer and livelier than his dry studio sound. On Jimmy Dorsey’s I’m Glad There is You, he turned velvety and unabashedly romantic as Ben Webster, supported by Reuben Rogers’ walking bass and drummer Gregory Hutchinson’s silky brushwork. Hutchinson offered solo fireworks on Second Date before the trio brought down the house with Led Zeppelin’s The Ocean, which had the punch of John Zorn’s reworkings of hard-bop classics.

Next door, it was a much more intimate scene at a dimly lit 300-seat bar venue with candlelit tables in front of a low stage, allowing listeners to feel involved in the onstage interaction.

The acts were less well known but more groundbreaking, from Norwegian pianist Eyolf Dale’s challenging third stream to Austrian band Synesthetic 4, which played a quirky experimental set with hints of Frank Zappa, dub and klezmer. Clarinettist, vocalist and composer Vincent Pongracz – wearing a flower mask – pushed the boundary between scat and rap between squiggly solos (pictured left by Mika Kirsi).

Finnish acts included singer Aili Ikonen, backed by a two-guitar-and-sax trio. It created a fluid, floating backdrop for her vocals, which have become much more inventive and confident since her earlier years of Ella Fitzgerald tributes. This time the material ranged from Joni Mitchell to Michel Legrand, peaking with an eerie, whispered re-imagining of The Windmills of Your Mind.

Last but not least was Berlin-based pianist Alexi Tuomarila, formerly of Tomasz Stanko’s band. He marked the imminent release of his trio’s fourth album, Sphere … except they weren’t actually the Alexi Tuomarila Trio. 

Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen, long-time partner of drummer extraordinaire Olavi Louhivuori, was replaced by Eero Tikkanen of Helsinki punk-jazz trio Mopo. He gamely tried his best while shuffling sheet music, as guest trumpeter Kalevi Louhivuori, the drummer’s brother, delved into gimmicky electronics. The main course, though, was Tuomarila’s powerful, rapid and complex keyboard work, which built magnificent cathedrals of sound. 

Elsewhere, the festival’s offerings ranged from returning favourite Bobby McFerrin, Danish pianist Katherine Windfeld and Nigerian-American vocalist Somi to Scotland’s Trio HLK featuring percussion pioneer Dame Evelyn Glennie.

April Jazz, Espoo, Finland, 24-28 April 2019