May 28, 2024

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Live review: The Finnish festival ranged from funk to free with Tower of Power, Mavis Staples, Vijay Iyer and south Londoners Ruby Rushton: Photos, Video

The Finnish festival ranged from funk to free with Tower of Power, Mavis Staples, Vijay Iyer and south Londoners Ruby Rushton.

Though it’s one of Europe’s oldest jazz festivals, dating back to 1966, Pori keeps up with the latest directions in the field while booking pop stars to bring in the punters. On the jazz and soul fronts, there were familiar names from previous years, including Vijay Iyer, GoGo Penguin and Tower of Power. There were, however, none of the elder statesmen of jazz and composer-pianist Carla Bley, 82, had to cancel due to ill health. Instead, there was a tasty selection of up-and-coming and mid-career artists, from free jazz and fusion to more electronic, funky varieties.

Thursday kicked off on the main stage with the feel-good 60s groove of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Led by that most soulful of keyboard instruments, the Hammond B3, this Seattle band is pure retro – and pure pleasure for the ears and feet. Lamarr’s trio played a free show later just outside the festival area, yet still on the same leafy island. In uncharacteristically hot weather of 30C, the shade of old trees, river breezes and shorter drink lines were all welcome.

Delivering another satisfying set of roots music was Mavis Staples (pictured above right by Tomi Palsa). She dipped into material from throughout her six-decade career, including the Staple Singers’ 1967 arrangement of Stephen Stills’s For What It’s Worth, as timely as ever in these politically divided days. Staples was in energetic, cheerful form. So too were the 50-year-old Tower of Power, with a charismatic new vocalist, Marcus Scott, who is about half that age.

Also surprisingly cheery and lively that evening were Burt Bacharach, 90 (pictured left by Riika Vaahtera), and Nick Cave, 60. While decidedly not jazz, both led stellar bands that entwined improvisation, blues, gospel and film music for profoundly moving experiences. Searchingly spiritual, too, was saxophonist Mikko Innanen’s 10+, a no-holds-barred big band. Between blasts of Peter Brötzmann-like free-for-all, there were tender moments from trombonist Jari Hongisto, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and others.

Another large band that didn’t let the audience off easily was the Vijay Iyer Sextet, a much more complex creature than Iyer’s trio, who’ve played here before. Iyer, stalwart bassist Stephan Crump and new drummer Jeremy Dutton kept lower profiles behind the three fierce horns up front. Iyer stepped away from the spotlight as an improvising soloist, putting more focus on his compositions. While one might expect a bigger band to work better in a festival setting, though, the sextet’s more written-out music is considerably thornier and more challenging, making it better suited to a concert hall.

Friday got off to a rainier but impressive start on the main stage with Ruby Rushton, an electronic jazz-funk quartet skippered by London saxophonist and flautist Ed “Tenderlonious” Cawthorne. Featuring Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, the set reflected the welcome rediscovery of early-70s spiritual and funk-jazz – including the prominence of the flute – among the newer urban generation.

Less convincing were Moonchild, an LA band with similar electronic, funk and hip-hop influences. Last year the group released its third album on Brighton indie label Tru Thoughts. While Amber Navran charmed the crowd with her breathy, behind-the-beat vocals (plus occasional sax and flute), other group members looked distracted and bored on the last date of their European tour – perhaps thinking of the many solo and side projects awaiting them back in California.

Back on the smaller Lokki stage, there was loud fusion and R&B from Terje Rypdal and Robert Glasper’s R+R=NOW (featuring guest vocals from Moonchild’s Navran), as well as more contemplative sounds from two domestic trios.

Joona Toivanen’s meditative, minimalist piano explorations worked surprisingly well in the outdoor setting, despite the cries of birds and party people. Toivanen (pictured right by Antii Nahri) answered the call of the wild, plucking the lowest strings of his instrument to suggest foreboding, distant thunder – before the rain intensified. Another piece began as a subtle duet with drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who scratched the edges of his cymbals and added delicate brushwork. The leader’s brother Tapani Toivanen joined in on bass, adding chunky counterpoint before the pianist distilled and resolved it all, repeating a simple, lullaby-like figure.

3TM, a new project by drummer Teppo Mäkynen, offered an electronic, ambient sound that sounded too listless and meandering for this setting. The chilly, reserved interplay between Jussi Kannaste’s saxophone and Mäkynen’s electronics echoed the fjord jazz of neighbouring Norway, while the latter added samples and dubby effects like bouncing ping-pong balls.

Yet another free-flowing trio rounded out the night: Manchester’s GoGo Penguin, who take cues from electronica, trip-hop, indie and progressive rock. There were glimpses of Pink Floyd and Sigur Rós as their songs built in intensity to cathartic climaxes. The band’s trademark sound has not changed much since they appeared on the same stage three years ago. Drummer Rob Turner and pianist Chris Illingworth discreetly replicate electronic and dub effects; a new way of playing acoustic instruments rather than just a gimmick.

Someone in the crowd wore a Kraftwerk T-shirt featuring Mensch-Maschine – an apt description of the drummer in particular, an exquisitely controlled man-machine. Turner led the trio with the regularity, power and minute variations of pounding surf. The band conjured up vast landscapes – then suddenly dangled listeners over edge of a cliff before snatching them back to safety.

As I headed south, the festival continued on Saturday with a tribute to Joni Mitchell and a welcome focus on female-led bands, including British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, singer Aili Ikonen and the winners of this year’s festival prizes.

The New Talent award winner was young New York-based double bassist Kaisa Mäensivu, who appeared with her group Kaisa’s Machine. The Ted Curson award went to ECM pianist, harpist and composer Iro Haarla (pictured above left), who has collaborated with the likes of Tomasz Stańko, Edward Vesala and Juhani Aaltonen since the 70s. Haarla has also just recorded an album of works by Carla Bley, whose absence was filled by singer Emma Salokoski – yet another powerful female voice.

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