We Jazz Festival, Helsinki

Electronics, world music and free improvisation were in the ascendancy at Helsinki’s main jazz festival, although David Friedman played Misty

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Performance artist Ka Baird was the most startling performer at We Jazz, Helsinki, 2022. Photo Claudio Höhne

Free improvisation overlapped with electronic and transcultural music during We Jazz 2022, which brought some 40 artists from a dozen countries to a wide array of venues. Musicians from the US, Australia, Turkey, Israel and Europe played alongside a strong Finnish contingent led by Linda Fredriksson, Verneri Pohjola and Aki Rissanen.

Rissanen introduced the knotty, hypnotic new trio Designers featuring bassist Joachim Florent and drummer Will Guthrie, who each played solo sets as well – as did many other members of visiting bands. Lest anyone get bored, there were also films, discussion events and workshops, DJ sets and a traditional brunch with live radio broadcast featuring festival director Matti Nives.

The most startling guest was New York performance/electronic artist Ka Baird. She hosted a week-long residency with a new collaborator each evening, including Fredriksson and Brooklyn trumpeter Chris Williams. Baird’s solo set on the final weekend was a revelation, a full-body extravaganza using microphones built into her all-black outfit, a theremin-like glove, near-beatboxing and robotic laughter. Her aggressive flute solos over metallic electronics and drones that could almost be free jazz – and certainly exhilarating improv. That was one of a couple dozen sets packed into the final weekend at atmospheric old industrial facilities: a former streetcar repair shop and the Suvilahti gasworks.

The festival opened in an ornate setting, a Russian-built opera house from the 1860s, and Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen. After 30 years together, his quartet runs like a well-oiled machine, telepathically communicating through improvisation. There was less of that during the contemplative nine-part suite from his latest album Naked Truth, though, which tested my attention span. Cohen’s burnished tone was lovely throughout, conjuring up the vulnerable side of Miles with subtle use of a mute. A dub foray was not entirely convincing, nor was his recitation of a poem. The encore was more soul satisfying: a fanfare-like celebration of Ravel’s Piano Concerto In G Major, backed by Barak Mori’s understated arco bass.

The evening (and festival proper) began with the most acclaimed Finnish jazz artist of late, saxophonist Fredriksson, whose solo debut album Juniper came out just over a year ago. Its strong songs have grown in intensity over a year of gigging, bringing to mind Charles Lloyd’s long, shape-shifting odysseys and Albert Ayler’s anguish. At times, Fredriksson’s sound on various saxes suggests Norwegian fjord jazz with a warmer tone. The quartet members are all top notch, especially keyboardist Tuomo Prättälä, best known for funk and pop projects but also a powerhouse jazz improviser. On Moog and piano, his solos climbed to elevated spheres that seemed sure to crash into a ceiling – yet he always found an elegant escape hatch.

There was a more relaxed, cosy mood a few nights later at Harju 8, a bar in bohemian Kallio that offers sidewalk jam sessions on summer nights. Now it was packed and steamy inside as snow piled up outside its windows. The headliner was American vibraphonist David Friedman, who’s played with Wayne Shorter, Chet Baker, Tim Buckley, Yoko Ono, Aretha, Chic and Jazzanova.

“I feel like we’re all in a big hotel-room bed together – and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that yet,” a bemused Friedman said to the young crowd surrounding him just a few feet away.

He and his German trio quickly put everyone at ease with a warm-up jam, followed by a new piece, Semblance Of Serenity. “I have no idea what that means, but if you do, please let me know,” he quipped. A tune he recorded with Baker, 3 + 1 = 5, was more hard bop than cool, at times verging on an electronic sound without effects. A solo encore moved Misty beyond lounge cliché to something more sublime.

The local Kokko Quartet played a broader-ranging set, inspired by Indian travels, Ethiopian jazz, folk and classical – uncategorisable like all the most interesting bands. Kaisa Siirala led on saxophones, bansuri (Indian wooden flute) and occasional vocals, while keyboardist Johanna Pitkänen also turned in tasty solos and compositions such as the bewitching Orientaal from their recent third album.

Also drawing on Asian and other far-flung influences was Uusi Aika, whose name could be translated as “New Age”. Their fresh debut on We Jazz Records also blends jazz with folky, classical and ambient strains. Their Suvilahti set had a mellow living-room feel, with sitar player Antero Mentu seated on the floor. Drummer Amanda Blomqvist played bells and exotic percussion while adding wordless vocals in a duet with saxophonist Otto Eskelinen, who also played a bamboo flute for a drifting, enchanting spiritual jazz vibe.

A more menacing set by Brooklyn baritone saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson followed, more impressive than his solo We Jazz gig four years ago. This time he had a perfect foil in drummer Berke Can Özcan, and less emphasis on spoken word and electronics, although various gadgets added moody, droney atmosphere.

Underwhelming were Little North, a young Copenhagen trio somewhere in e.s.t. / GoGo Penguin territory but not as intense as either. Pieces from their second album, due in January, were pleasant but non-descript.

They were followed onstage by [Ahmed], a heavier quartet led by English pianist Pat Thomas and inspired by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who brought Middle Eastern and North African influences to the Monk and Blakey bands. Yet the quartet’s slowly shifting slabs of sound and incremental repetition sounded more like a weightier version of the Necks or a chugging diesel train. With Seymour Wright’s long slow blasts on alto and a low rolling rumble from the rhythm section, the drone gradually took on shape and grew a jagged backbone – but was ultimately too repetitious and monotonous for these ears. So were horn duos featuring drummer Jason Nazary – also from Brooklyn, as is saxophonist and “loft jazz” pioneer Alan Braufman, who played a searing set with a local rhythm section.

In an intimate side venue at Suvilahti, Berlin saxophonist Silke Eberhard joined Chicagoans Ben LaMar Gay on cornet, wooden flute and shakers and Mike Reed on drums. Reed experimented with placing rattling objects on a drum head and striking his cymbals with colourful little handbells. Sometimes he took on a rhythm section role and seemed to mediate between the two horns. They genially sparred and spiralled, Gay channelling Don Cherry with a mute, shakers and playful vocal gulps. This free improv was gleeful, moderately controlled chaos – full of joy, melody and mutual listening. After such an array of groups across the continuum of intense-and-challenging to pleasant-and-forgettable, this trio struck the golden mean.

We Jazz Festival, Helsinki, Finland, 27 November-4 December, 2022