Lucia Cadotsch, Verneri Pohjola and Oiro Pena at Odysseus Festival, Helsinki

Wif Stenger dusts off his live-music manners to witness dark, moody jazz on a sunny, windswept Finnish island

Lonna Island. Photo by Teemu Lautamies/Sherpa

The albums of singer Lucia Cadotsch and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola draw strength from the dark side, offering sombre, nocturnal meditations. On Helsinki’s Lonna Island, their work was luminous even in sunshine.

The tiny island hosted the first summer festival from the We Jazz collective. It has held December festivals since 2013 and occasional summer gigs on Lonna. The island was part of the Suomenlinna sea fortress, which the Royal Navy bombarded during the Crimean War.

This time the only British invader was keyboardist Kit Downes, along with other long-awaited foreign guests: Austrian trumpeter Mario Rom’s Interzone, Swedish saxophonist Otis Sandsjö’s Y-Otis and Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch’s Speak Low. The latter band includes Downes, Sandsjö and Swedish bassist Petter Eldh. On Sunday, Downes, Sandsjö and local drummer Joonas Leppänen debuted a new trio with a cumbersome name, 9OÅ.

The two-day event was named after saxophonist Eero Koivistoinen’s 1969 LP Odysseus, a Finnish jazz milestone that earned him a Newport gig that year. Still vibrant at 75, Koivistoinen kicked off the festival on Saturday, playing most of the album with sidemen all born well after the original release, including pianist Alexi Tuomarila. Saturday also spotlighted two of today’s top Finnish saxophonists, Timo Lassy and Linda Fredriksson, who played with Superposition.

Sunday began with Lucia Cadotsch Speak Low. The group’s albums feature subtle, late-night music – not seemingly suited to a bright, noisy festival setting. Huddled in frayed denim jacket against the brisk sea breeze, Cadotsch seemed waif-like, an anti-diva with an understated, laconic singing style – but clearly glad to finally premiere songs from the group’s second disc, released last year by We Jazz.

The original trio, augmented by Downes on Hammond organ, played minimalist, even radical reworkings of standards, alongside a Scottish folk song and Brian Eno’s By This River, played breathily as a trio without keyboards.

Sandsjö is the other main voice in Speak Low, his playing here more restrained and less theatrical than in other bands. He gradually built intensity on slow-burners like Ellington’s Azure, duetting with the screaming seagulls overhead on Wild Is The Wind. On Don’t Explain – the first song the group played together six years ago – he drew on circular breathing for an almost unbearably long single note, always supporting Cadotsch’s sensitive vocals.

Oiro Pena. Photo by Wif Stenger

Next, in an old red-brick mine warehouse – with better acoustics and a mask recommendation – was Oiro Pena, led by multi-instrumentalist Antti Vauhkonen, who plays sax in the fusion band Soft Power. Originally a homespun one-man studio project, Oiro Pena expanded to a nearly proper band for last spring’s vinyl-only fourth album Vili (Jazzaggression). For this rare live appearance, Vauhkonen played drums and added wordless vocals. In a floppy hat, bare feet and often bare hands on the drums, he looked like he’d just wandered in from the beach, but kept the set rolling with finesse.

Johannes Sarjasto was the main soloist on saxophone. His solos ranged from complex Bird-like bop to Pharoah Sanders-style spiritual searching, sweeping the other musicians and the audience along on the journey. He also played the shakuhachi, while bassist Philip Holm doubled on the sewing machine (yes). Beyond the quirkiness and the hazy hippie vibes, Oiro Pena showed off solid musicianship and tantalising improvisation.

The day’s Finnish headliner was Verneri Pohjola’s quartet, featuring Tuomo Prättälä on piano and electronics, Antti Lötjönen on double bass and Mika Kallio on drums and gongs. Pohjola and Prättälä have played together for more than 20 years in groups such as Ilmiliekki and Quintessence, while Pohjola and Kallio have collaborated on a film soundtrack, and Lötjönen is the country’s go-to jazz bassist.

Like Cadotsch’s group, they were finally onstage presenting a 2020 album, The Dead Don’t Dream (Edition). Their music, too, tends toward the dark and wintry, but mostly carried over well to the seaside scene. The main pleasure was the soul-cleansing purity of Pohjola’s horn, always succinct and distilled, occasionally showing flashes of electric-era Miles in the upper register over discreetly burbling electronics from Prättälä. 

The keyboardist’s solos proceeded with surprising yet natural logical flow, taking a Monkish turn on The Conversationalist, a pensive, leisurely discussion among musical peers. Kallio was master of the brushes and rims, beginning The Dead Don’t Dream with ominous timpani mallets. Argirro began with a brooding bass-piano duo that went on for too long before the leader stepped in with a trumpet solo edged with electronic graininess. On Monograph, Pohjola’s understated electronic looping took us into shadowy In A Silent Way territory, pleasingly incongruous in the dazzling light.

For many, like me, this was the first proper festival experience for nearly two years, with old live jazz habits a bit rusty. It was good to revive the forgotten pleasures of enveloping music, sun on sea, smiling faces and drink in hand before the next wave.

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Lucia Cadotsch, Oiro Pena and Verneri Pohjola at Odysseus Festival, Lonna Island, Helsinki, Finland, 25 July 2021