We Jazz Festival, Helsinki, Tampere and Tallinn, 2019

Contemporary European jazz with Muriel Grossmann, Idris Rahman and Koma Saxo across three cities

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From a photo studio to a hotel bar, an old power plant to an art gallery, a tiny café to electronic music clubs, this boutique festival spreads across many intimate venues in three towns, including one night across the gulf in Estonia.

While many festivals revolve around big shows at large central venues, We Jazz opts for a variety of intimate gigs, often at non-traditional spots.

The variety of venues attracts multiple audiences and shuffles the pack, bringing new musical, spatial and social juxtapositions.

The sounds ranged from the easy-going soul-jazz of the Sami Linna Quartet and Jukka Eskola Soul Trio to the ambient jazztronica of 3TM and more experimental work from London saxophonist Idris Rahman’s Ill Considered, Belgium’s MDCIII and guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, who played a surprise set with the Bowman Trio.

There was diversity in the sounds if not much in the 90% white-male line-up – though five acts led by women were steps in the right direction.

Ibiza-based saxophonist Muriel Grossmann launched her new album Reverence with an Austrian-Serbian-Spanish band that drew on African and American roots.

Like her main influence – evidenced by set closer Traneing In – Grossmann plays searching spiritual jazz on soprano, tenor and occasionally alto sax. There were shades of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on Sundown and Union from the new album, with Uros Stamenkovic providing suitable spaciness on cymbals and brushes. 

Chase was a 60s-style rabble-rouser featuring Llorenç Barceló on Hammond organ, tapping the keys like bongos and sliding into them with his elbows.

Later that night, Nordic-German quintet Koma Saxo played a high-energy set edged with hip-hop, free jazz, Four Tet-like electronica on Pari Koma and minimalist repetition on Makten.

The front line assault of three saxophones got a bit wearying at times, but bassist Petter Eldh guided his band into calmer, more sensitive waters such as Koma Tema and a piece by Finnish jazz pioneer Edward Vesala, who died 20 years ago this month.

Like Koma Saxo, Brooklyn baritone saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson recorded most of his latest album at the previous year’s We Jazz festival.

This time he played at an art gallery, accompanying himself with a sampling drum machine and pedal-controlled synth. The one-man band act sometimes got a bit gimmicky but also featured fine duets between his current and pre-recorded selves.

Parzen-Johnson’s wide palette on the sax includes circular breathing, multiphonics and button pops, as well as low deep notes that meld with the keyboard to sound like an electric guitar.

Best was the tantalising intro to Everything Is Everything Else, where he played just a few notes here and there, letting us imagine the rest that he could hear in his head.

Much more traditional was guitarist Sami Linna, who offered pure pleasure for fans of the 60s soul-jazz sound, with just the right balance between crisp and fruity.

He was backed by drummer Dana Hall, a jazz professor from Chicago, while the other three members teach at the local Sibelius Academy – though the sound was anything but academic.

Hall, who’s played with the likes of Horace Silver and Joe Henderson, was in a league of his own, keeping the back burner sizzling behind organist Mikko Helevä and tenorman Jussi Kannaste.

Linna played a tender take on Henry Mancini’s Dreamsville, with a brighter touch than Wes Montgomery’s version, Hall providing lush sonic underbrush.

There were more guitar pyrotechnics that night from fusion supergroup Oddarrang, basically a prog-rock trio augmented by trombone and cello soloists – except that they are much more than that.

Like any good prog band, they have an ambitious trilogy with classical allusions, in this case Trichordon from their latest album, which builds from a minimalist intro to a heroic climax.

At times they echoed rock bands such as Wilco and Sigur Rós, veering into metal territory with Lasse Sakara’s coruscating guitar on 15 Years and B31.

There was more loud prog-fusion from Virta, which hosted a festival-within-a-festival on Saturday night.

The group’s drummer, Erik Fräki, appeared again on the next and final afternoon, as local trio Katu Kaiku played an all-ages matinee in a hall strewn with beanbags and yoga mats.

That suited the meditative sounds of saxophonist, flautist and vocalist Adele Sauros. She was mournful and plaintive as Jan Garbarek on soprano, but also angry and guttural on tenor, becoming more intense after the first few songs.

Mikael Saastamoinen of OK:KO added dark moody chords on electric bass, while Fräki created atmosphere with ethnic shakers, cymbal edge scrapes and subtly frenetic drumming.

Also on the last day, some of the organisers played DJ sets at their record shop, which opened a few weeks earlier. The store specialises in jazz vinyl, built around the 11,000-record collection left by Swiss writer Francis Montfort – a boost for this out-of-the-way city where vintage jazz LPs have long been hard to find and pricey.