McBride, Iyer and Artemis ignite Helsinki’s Savoy JazzFest

There was stomping explicit and implicit at the Finnish capital's own Savoy, aided by others including Nils Petter Molvær and Rebekka Bakken

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Johan Lindström amd Nils Petter Molvær at Savoy Jazz, Helsinki 2022. Photo by Minna Hätinen

Under the shadow of war, it’s a privilege to gather for musical comfort. So said artistic director Jukka Eskola as Savoy JazzFest opened, speaking against a backdrop of yellow and blue lights.

This was especially true after months with few live events. The event at the 1937 Savoy Theatre began four years ago but has had a slow start during the plague years. Now expanded to five nights (March 2-6), this year’s SJF concentrated on American mainstream, contrasting with the more European experimental bent of the city’s other festival, We Jazz.

The festival proper kicked off with pianist Renee Rosnes’ New York-based Artemis, now a sextet with a slightly different line-up than on its 2020 Blue Note debut.

Nicole Glover began the set on a mystical note playing a hulusi (Asian gourd flute) before switching to saxophone. She has skilfully taken over that seat from Melissa Aldana, but is not as distinctive a player. Her feature on Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing, backed by Noriko Ueda’s bowed bass, was pretty but didn’t leave much of an impression.

Much fierier was Anat Cohen’s clarinet. She dazzled on Ueda’s composition Stepford with a klezmer-tinged solo by way of Benny Goodman that might trace its roots to an ancient Ukrainian shtetl. From there, young English trumpeter Alexandra Ridout took us down to New Orleans with a bluesy solo.

Behind the three front-line soloists, leader Rosnes kept things humming with a relatively low profile, offering a lanky, loose-limbed take on Monk’s Brilliant Corners. She shone particularly during a trio segment, when ferocious drummer Allison Miller reined in her power. Miller also offered exquisite hand drumming to begin Life Does Not Wait, a Latin-flavoured number from Rosnes’ 2021 album Kinds Of Love.

The most successful all-women jazz band since the 1940s Sweethearts of Rhythm, Artemis came across as more a showcase for top-flight soloists than a cohesive band, though.

Friday: Rebekka Bakken/UMO, Manu Katché

The stage and house were even more crowded on Friday as the 16-piece UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra hosted Norwegian singer-songwriter Rebekka Bakken. She delivered a set of Tom Waits tunes, refreshingly delving into lesser-known nuggets from beyond his 1970s and 80s heyday.

Like Dylan and Cohen, Waits is often better interpreted by female singers. Without the burden of direct comparison to a composer’s own idiosyncratic delivery, the focus is more on the songs themselves. Beneath his gruff, gritty image, Waits is deeply steeped in the American Songbook heritage – and Bakken made a convincing case for Waits’ songs as an extension of that tradition.

Bakken’s voice is much purer than Waits’, but has the gumption and power needed to bring his streetwise characters to life. This came most naturally on Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis, a finely hewn first-person character study of a woman who turns out to be a tragically unreliable narrator – and whom Bakken embodied onstage.

The traditionally conservative UMO sounds punchier now under US director Ed Partyka, who took over just before the pandemic began. On Just The Right Bullets, they rose to frenetic, almost-free interludes suggestive of the Mingus big bands.

There was controlled mayhem on Everything Goes To Hell from 2002, led by Mikko Mustonen on tuba. Mikko Mäkinen’s melancholy baritone sax solo on the 40-year-old Broken Bicycles perfectly suited its simple Kurt Weill ambience. 

Less convincing was French drummer Manu Katché, best known as a session musician for the likes of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel. His Scope quartet came across as rather uninspired rock/fusion sidemen with an electronic edge. Guitarist Patrick Manouguian showed glimpses of personality, adding some nearly Grant Green-like runs and a liquid, spacey solo over a dubby beat.

Katché tried to change things up with occasional vocals, but he’s not much of a singer or lyricist. Sometimes It Feels, a duet featuring heavily treated co-vocals with keyboardist Alfio Origlio, slid incongruously into slick 1980s Alan Parsons Project/10cc territory.

Duets with videos of guest vocalists screened above him were just clumsy – though the clip of Senegalese vocalist Fada made me want to hear him in person someday.

Saturday: Vijay Iyer Trio, Nils Petter Molvær

The festival reached a peak on Saturday evening with pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest trio featuring bassist Linda May Han Oh. Hearing that Tyshawn Sorey, the drummer on last year’s Uneasy, would be replaced by an unfamiliar name was a slight disappointment – but I needn’t have worried.

Iyer’s drum chair has been held by three of the most fascinating American drummers in recent years: Sorey, Marcus Gilmore and Justin Brown. Those are huge shoes to fill, but 28-year-old Jeremy Dutton from Houston left no doubt that he was up to the task, making him the festival’s most positive surprise.

Focused like a Zen master and commanding an array of rhythms, styles and effects, he applied a fine-tuned turbocharger under the trio. The three unified to form crashing, undulating waves of sound, pushed onward by Iyer’s mesmerising improvisation through a seamless 60-minute set.

While it can be quite ornamental and is rarely dissonant, Iyer’s playing is yet still utterly contemporary and avant-garde in its own way. His only overt nod to tradition was Night And Day, which he used as a springboard to catapult into more exalted spheres.

At least from the front row, Oh’s bass was at times nearly drowned out in the mix by her high-charged bandmates – but was singing and musical on several solos, particularly one over Dutton’s delicate brushes and cymbals and a limpid moonlight sonata impression from the leader.

Iyer never ceases to amaze, even after seeing him four times, each with a different line-up and setting. “These are intense times. We brought some intensity to you, but we also listened to you. And you sounded good,” said Iyer at the end, adding a prayer for “peace and compassion”.

The evening ended with a different sort of intensity from Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, delving into his electronics-soaked 2021 Stitches.

The brooding dark-ambient sound was underpinned by Johan Lindström’s pedal steel, an instrument whose possibilities are not used enough outside of blues and country. Behind near-techno beats, Lindström’s playing was reminiscent of BJ Cole’s Transparent Music and Bill Frisell’s country outings, at times turning eerier to evoke the cries of wild beast or a train in the distance.

Drummer Erland Dahlen added variety to the overly uniform sound, playing various bells and a wooden xylophone that, coupled with Molvær’s treated trumpet, echoed Jon Hassell’s “fourth world music” – but with a more menacing edge.

Driven by Jo Berger Myhre’s heavy electric bass, the quartet built to shatteringly loud crescendos, closer to shoegaze bands like Swans or My Bloody Valentine than clichéd ECM Norwegian fjord jazz – though there was plenty of that sombre, icebound beauty as well.

Sunday: Christian McBride Inside Straight, Jukka Eskola

Sunday night brought a much warmer party onstage with bassist Christian McBride’s all-acoustic Inside Straight, and the fullest, rowdiest house yet. McBride has played Helsinki often since a string of early 90s visits with the late Roy Hargrove who, as he recalled, had a “special friend” here.

A genial host with a rich speaking voice familiar from his NPR show Jazz Night In America, McBride has a cheerful camaraderie with his musicians onstage. Still, this band means business. Driving it all is veteran Carl Allen, slamming gleefully at the drums with a big grin, deft as a prizefighter with unexpected, perfectly aimed Blakey-like blows.

McBride said that he formed this hard-bop band in 2007 around vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who was in his mid-20s at the time. His swinging on the vibes was matched by pianist Peter Martin and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, replacing Steve Wilson who appeared on the live album released last year. 

Shaw, like McBride a Philadelphian and graduate of the Roy Haynes band, picked up the soprano for a laidback solo on the lilting Used ’Ta Could. Martin’s fluttery flights of fancy suggested a kinship with Chick Corea, with whom McBride also played. They paid tribute to him with an impassioned version of Tones For Joan’s Bones from his 1968 debut.

The band honoured another of McBride’s former bandleaders, Freddie Hubbard, with his basketball-inspired Theme For Kareem, McBride slithering up for jump shots over Allen’s bouncing drums.

On Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady, McBride played a long bowed solo with a deep, nutty sound like aged Gouda. That led to a lovely moment when the five band members, smiling and in locked eye contact, all seemed to play as lightly and sparsely as they could without losing their thread.

McBride, who learned his craft playing with so many of the late greats, has mastered the old-school routes to excitement and ecstasy on the bandstand without ever sounding dated. There was never a dull moment in this perfectly balanced set. The Savoy was stompin’.

The festival wrapped up with a cool-jazz after-club around the corner, led by trumpeter Jukka Eskola. He handed over the baton as artistic director for the next few years to bassist Kaisa Mäensivu, whose years on the Manhattan scene should come in handy as she assembles next year’s programme – though this will be a tough act to follow.