A curious sight catches the keenest of eyes on the staircase of the Pahkahuone, the central venue of this fine festival recently crowned with an innovation award by the European Jazz Network. To mark the passing of several inspirational figures in the world of creative music, there is a shrine on the windowsill with candles and portraits of Geri Allen, Misha Mengelberg and Muhal Richard Abrams, entre autres.
In the middle of the group is a far lesser known name, Ilkka ‘Emu’ Lehtinen. He ran a record shop in Helsinki, Digelius, but was a familiar face and much loved presence among both listeners and players at Tampere for his unflagging energy and warm hearted generosity. The stall he manned with his colleagues every year at the festival has a book of condolences that swells with signatures throughout the three-day event.
Fittingly, Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, when appearing as a guest with Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs’ trio, dedicates ‘Emu The Birdwatcher’ to Lehtinen, unleashing a tidal wave of applause. The song also underlines why Pohjola picked up the prestigious YRJO award for outstanding contributions to Finnish jazz, as his depth and richness of tone, which strays into flugelhorn territory, and misty but resonant lyricism, blends well with the poise and composure of Gunnlaugs’ trio, which, at times, has a touch of Carla Bley about it.
The focus of listeners in the large auditorium says much about the listening culture that the festival has fostered over its 35-year history, but then again the proximity of the smaller venues, Klubi and Telakka, a cosy restaurant on the same square, means that punters don’t have to overcome any great logistical difficulties to see as much music as possible. Unlike at larger events, there is no mad rush between sets.
Among small groups who also go down well New Zion Trio, comprising pianist-keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Hamid Drake, is perfect for a mellow Sunday afternoon. It’s an instrumental dub-roots reggae band, with the hypnotic sway of the rhythm section enhanced by shimmering acoustic crescendos and crackling reverb that invoke Monty Alexander and Jackie Mittoo. Equally atmospheric, though markedly different in approach, is Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, whose post-Reich repeated figures and percussive ripples have an edginess lurking underneath a very poised, calm surface, while Norway’s Trail Of Souls, featuring vocalist Solveig Slettahjell and guitarist Knut Reiersrud, also creates its own dark-to-light intensity with a twisted slow blues. Of the other singers on show it is Dhaffer Youssef and Lucia Cadotsch who stand out for entirely different reasons. The former soars, propelled by a truly stellar American trio, while the latter simmers, engaging in lithe, subtle interplay with bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Otis Sanjo, that is a fine advert for the excellence of the Berlin jazz scene. Cadotsch’s fellow Swiss, trombonist Samuel Blaser also leads a brilliant international group enhanced by the presence of American alto-saxophone hero Oliver Lake and French pianist Benoit Delbecq, which provides an invaluable reminder that the conceptual space between avant-garde and the blues can be tantalisingly small.
If this is a highlight of the programme then the appearance of The Fifth Man, an ambitious project headed by Evan Parker and John Russell, is a showstopper for numerous reasons. Both the iconic saxophonist and guitarist are on superlative form, probing at the perceived sonic limits of their respective instruments, and as they construct an ever shifting kaleidoscope of sound in the company of expressive double-bassist John Edwards and wily laptop manipulators Matt Wright and Walter Prati the audience obliges with the deepest unbroken concentration.
In complete contrast comes mass head-nodding to the relentlessly hard rhythmic attack of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, which, as idiosyncratic as it is, nonetheless re-channels the spirit of past masters in pleasingly lateral asides, as the sly quote of ‘Giant Steps’ proves. As for the Finnish saxophone stalwart Eero Koivistoinen, he invokes the spirit of John Coltrane in more direct ways. To the wildest of applause.