Most jazz cruises skim through moist Caribbean parts, proffering smooth American sedatives, but Finland can offer a somewhat contrasting adventure.
Turku is the country’s oldest city, nestled at the mouth of the Aura River, to the west of Helsinki. Its prime promoter is Flame Jazz, powered by the keyboardist Jussi Fredriksson, and twice a year they run a 24-hour cruise from Turku to Stockholm and back. The Flame Jazz Cruise has been expanding, and this 13th edition was sold out, at a 2000 capacity.
The musicians literally have an hour to load onto the Viking Grace ocean skyscraper, set up their gear and soundcheck. Then two stages alternate for the evening session, returning the next day for a 1pm afternoon run. The Saturday nightfall sequence involved a complete blackout, the sense of an actual cruise motion was dulled, so smooth-running was the boat, so dark the window surround. The Sunday programme took on a completely different character, with splendid views of the Finnish and Swedish coasts. Saturday was drinking party funk nite, while Sunday streamed into zones of avant accessibility and ambient improvisation.
Playing last on the Saturday, the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble unified Finnish funk and pan-African styles, including Congolese soukous and Afro-beat, even though their singer/percussionist/tenorman co-leader Noël Saïzonou is from Benin. Their line-up boasted a roughhouse baritone saxophone, and frequent rocked-up guitar solos from the other main dude, Janne Halonen. Their glitzy, bombastic sound was well-suited to the full dancefloor of enthusiastic post-midnighters, climaxing with a percussion duel and an Afro-latin flavour, including frantic call-and-response vocals.
The six-piece Gourmet have been together for around a decade, fronted by saxophonist Mikko Innanen, who is usually known for his extreme blurting control. This band has a line-up well suited to pastiche, embracing areas of Balkan, free jazz, surf rock, German cabaret and New York klezmer, with trombone, tuba, accordion and a liberally twanging electric guitar. Suitably, they played in the Retro Bar. Innanen switched between alto saxophone and a needlepoint sopranino, striking suddenly with several extreme solos, delivered with a savage high-note precision. Gourmet would then jar back into a tightly manoeuvred, boozy complexity, or a brisk trad trot. They achieved the rarely achieved aim of being appealing to a wide audience, while slipping in repeated backstabs to the expected. Trombonist Ilmari Pohjola had a sideline in avian whistling, whilst accordionist Veli Kujala added to his vocabulary by violently bouncing his instrument on his knee, as Innanen stole away his music stand at a crucial moment. ‘What Can We Do When The Sky Falls Down’ was suited for a Wes Anderson caper scene, segueing into a drift of fatalist melancholy cheer, then returning to a madcap acceleration. There was a post-Zorn/Morricone cowboy interlude, and a solo tuba splurt, as Petri Keskitaloappeared to be verbalising a text that was spread across his music stand. The horns came back for a free alto-‘bone scrapple over a supposed superhero theme toon, the Gourmet sound consistently reeling with gluttonous genre appropriation.
Following soon after, in the much larger Vogue room, the duo of trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and percussionist Mika Kallio played music from the recent Animal Image album on Edition Records. This demanded a complete calming down of the crowd, into an attentive, quietened state, a condition that was soon found by the vast majority. Acting as a communal ritual, following long hours of quaffing and gobbling, the sparse sounds were accompanied by a film backdrop, sometimes featuring suitably oceanic scenes. Your scribe found himself with the ultimate vantage point, watching live players and images from the side of the room, just below a pixel-rupturing video screen, where close details could be caught. Then he could rotate on his swivel chair to gaze at the real life ocean panorama of small islands with their looming electricity-generating windmills. Pohjola’s effects pedals further enlarged the language, whilst Kallio laid out his impressive collection of gongs and prayer bowls, making deep resonances grow out of his tiers of vari-sized cymbals. Around half way through, the pair began to construct a rhythmic momentum, peppered with hot-oil trumpet, and the ringing of bigger bells, woodblocks and foot-pedals assisting our collective glide through this seductive dream archipelago.
– Martin Longley; http://jazzwisemagazine.com
– Photos by Matti Komulainen