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Report: Flow Festival, Helsinki 2022

Brandee Younger, Alfa Mist and Orchestra Baobab delighted crowds in a 360-degree setting, alongside four distinctive Finnish saxophonists

US harpist Brandee Younger delivered the most stunning jazz set of this multi-genre festival, which returned after three years with a lighter-than-usual jazz offering. Set in an old gasworks, the event began with a discussion of the cultural sector during the pandemic featuring Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who later mingled in the crowd.

Most of the jazz-oriented acts performed at the open-air Balloon 360° stage, generating intimate parties, with listeners dancing and grooving close to the performers on (nearly) all sides.

Brandee Younger provided a cheerful history lesson with pieces by her predecessors on the instrument, Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. She gracefully extended their tradition into the new era, making a convincing case for the harp as a powerhouse for improvisation.

Younger’s prowess and predilections are evident from the range of artists she has played with, from Pharoah Sanders and Jack DeJohnette to Ravi Coltrane, Makaya McCraven and BadBadNotGood – as well as R&B stars Lauryn Hill, John Legend and Kanye West.

Younger and her bassist husband, Dezron Douglas – who released an endearing lockdown album from their living room in 2020 – were joined by drummer Allan Mednard. The rhythm section provided solid, subtle support, never overpowering the harp. Not that Younger’s harp playing is only delicate; she was forceful and propulsive on extended solos.

On a stripped-down version of Spirit U Will from last year’s Somewhere Different, Douglas switched from stand-up to electric while Younger delivered her longest solo, ranging from floating ethereality to flat-out rocking. On Tickled Pink, the rhythm section supplied the grounding while her harp offered pure sonic bliss. 

There was more R&B-inflected bliss from London keyboardist Alfa Mist, who also has strong ties to jazz and hip-hop, influenced by producers such as Madlib and J Dilla. Mist’s sound picks up where groups like Brand New Heavies left off, taking acid jazz to a more mature, sophisticated place with hints of prog rock, boom-bap and trip-hop. 

While Mist’s four albums feature an array of guest vocalists, the live show showcased his hungry young quintet, along with his low-key rap vocals on pieces like Mind The Gap and Organic Rust. That one turned into a long trippy jam, then stopped on a dime. Shaking off the studio sheen of his albums, Mist hit the sweet spot.

So did saxophonist Linda Fredriksson, who has deservedly won every possible domestic accolade for last year’s solo debut, Juniper, after a decade with Mopo. That gleefully genre-busting trio debuted at this festival in 2012.

Fredriksson also plays with the raucous Ricky-Tick Big Band and local supergroup Superposition, which features the same rhythm section as their Juniper band: drummer Olavi Louhivuori and bassist Mikael Saastamoinen. Compared to those bands, the Juniper quartet is more introspective, showcasing Fredriksson’s lyricism on baritone and alto sax and as a composer.

Besides the leader, Louhivuori is the most electrifying member of the quartet, never showy but building fire as needed. At one point, he crushed handfuls of straw under a mic on his drumhead to provide a textural setting for a breathy, intimate Fredriksson solo – then switched to a funky, sparse solo that fused dub and blindingly fast drum ’n’ bass, leaving the surrounding audience gasping. Yet it was Fredriksson who shone brightest, often starting with a tender melody, smouldering up through chaotic Trane-like sunstorms to deeply felt resolution.

Compared to this emotional rollercoaster, sets by two of Finland’s most established saxophonists seemed somewhat pat and predictable.

Jimi Tenor was the featured soloist with the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra, performing his extended piece Terra Exotica from their second joint album, released last year. Tenor’s blend of jazz, electronica and kitsch earned him a cult following on the New York and Barcelona hipster scenes of the 1990s before thrilling collaborations with Afrobeat veterans in Berlin. He’s still a strong, flamboyant composer and performer on his eponymous tenor and flute. But there’s been little fresh from him in recent years, or from UMO in decades, though new American bandleader Ed Partyka has loosened them up and broadened their horizons a bit.

The big band features occasional flashes of brilliance amid the formulaic sequence of solos. Bringing a bit of fresh air to the band, an all-male bastion for nearly half a century, was guest stand-up bassist Kaisa Mäensivu. And Tenor brought a bit of tropical exotica in his silk-brocaded djellaba and floral flute solos over arrangements that nodded to the likes of Henry Mancini and Les Baxter.

Compared to this bombastic, playful extravaganza, another veteran saxman, Timo Lassy, delivered a minimalist set with long-time drumming partner Teppo Mäkynen.

Lassy, Helsinki’s first-call saxophonist, has expanded his range in recent years beyond his early honking retro sound. Together and separately, he and Mäkynen have explored freer jazz sounds as well as electronic experimentation. There were few surprises, as they played a similar set at the Odysseus festival two weeks earlier, but this set showed the breadth of their improvising skills without the safety net of other band members.

Lesser known than these other Finnish saxophonists but just as impressive was Heli Hartikainen. This 29-year-old from eastern Finland offered a startling multi-media work entitled Chronovariations in a vast boiler hall built for the power plant in 1909.

Combining live looping, pieces of scrap industrial metal and surging waves of reverb and delay, she and sound artist Esther Calderón Morales created an astonishing wall of sound against a wall of swirling lights and video art. 

Hartikainen explored the myriad sounds that can be produced by a sax, including popping the keys for a percussive effect that Morales looped and treated to create complex layers of sound.

All the sounds apparently originated from her tenor sax, shape-shifting from a rich, warm sound to a rough-edged keening, at times echoing the more soulful side of John Surman or Jan Garbarek (ECM should snap her up while they have a chance).

After that mind-expanding journey, the festival’s most irresistible show was from Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, whose roots go back to a Dakar hotel nightclub in 1970. Now featuring the grandsons of some founders, the nine-man orchestra brought to mind multi-generational bands like the Neville Brothers and Buena Vista Social Club.

Like those venerable institutions, they feature a variety of charismatic vocalists and dancers, and serve up a tasty musical gumbo of Caribbean and African flavours. In Baobab’s case, it’s a lilting, melodic blend of Wolof and Mande griot music with Cuban son, cumbia, ska, psychedelic rock and jazz jams starring a line-up of horn players.

After years of being kept apart by a virus, we were brought together in just the right way by Baobab’s infectious grooves, swaying and dancing in the round with dazed smiles. Is Orchestra Baobab the best live band on the planet? Not sure, but it felt that way at times on that hot Saturday night.

Flow Festival, Suvilahti, Helsinki, 12-14 August 2022

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