Polar Jazz: European jazz redefined

By Chris Parker

London-based saxophonist Ed Jones, a keen observer of — and participant in — the Finnish jazz scene since his 1997 tour of Scotland with trumpeter Mika Mylläri, had a straightforward ambition in organising Polar Jazz, a five-date series of concerts featuring collaborations between UK-based and Finnish musicians: “It would be nice to think we could break down barriers with European players and let British audiences hear how varied they really are.”

With festivals such as those held in Cheltenham and Bath (the latter providing one of the gigs on this particular tour) featuring increasing numbers of European musicians, the barriers Jones mentions are slowly being dismantled, but the idea undoubtedly persists in many British listeners minds that the last word on European jazz is a three-letter one: ECM. This seductively simple idea not only conveniently glosses over the richness and variety of that label’s output — for every so-called ‘typical’ piece of chilly lyricism wrapped in a picture of a frozen lake there are two or three hard-blowing sessions and the odd jazz concerto or opera — it also fosters the extremely damaging notion that artists are more easily conditioned by accidents of birth than by individual imagination and inspiration.

Wheeler and Mikkonen

The first collaboration of the series, between Canadian-born, UK-resident trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the Samuli Mikkonen Trio (the leader on piano, plus bassist Jorma Ojanperä and drummer Markku Ounaskari), given that much of Wheeler’s considerable reputation rests on his poised, lyrical albums for ECM — Gnu High and Deer Wan in particular — might have been expected to confirm rather than confound the above-mentioned clichéd expectations. In the event, however, despite the fact that a number of Mikkonen’s compositions drew on natural beauty (Island) or seasonal change (Autumn) for their inspiration, the overall group approach ran the gamut from broodingly meditative through briskly propulsive to roilingly intense.

Wheeler, of course, is possessed of an instantly recognisable sound, on either trumpet or flugelhorn: fragile-sounding yet surprisingly robust, plangent yet infused with great improvisational energy, his considered but always highly emotive solos tellingly leavened with characteristic high-note flurries and startling descents into low-register musings.

Complementing such mercurial, idiosyncratic playing requires considerable delicacy and finesse, but Mikkonen’s superbly interactive trio responded with subtlety, precision and commendable commitment throughout. Ounaskari in particular proved able to switch between the hushed reverence of brushes and explosive stickwork with impressive ease, so that the whole of Wheeler’s emotional range was displayed, whether the quartet was pushing vigorously through a standard (If I Should Lose You), meditating on one of Mikkonen’s pleasingly allusive themes or scurrying through Wheeler’s own compositions.

Mylläri and Jones

The same rhythm section was called upon to do a very different job for the second night of the series: play behind two of Finland’s most eloquent jazz soloists, trumpeter Mika Mylläri and his front-line partner, saxophonist/bass clarinettist Jari Perkiömäki. Faced with what was clearly more familiar fare, they relaxed perceptibly, and the result was two sets (for the second of which the quintet was joined by Ed Jones) of attractively informal yet consistently tight and occasionally downright volcanic band originals addressed with tightly controlled but none the less fierce energy.

The bulk of the quintet’s set was devoted to a Mylläri suite, Northern Lights, intelligently arranged to showcase not only the band’s individual and collective prowess, but also its composer’s skill in deploying both dynamic and rhythmic variety over nearly an hour of carefully structured music. Interspersing relatively straightforward, free-blowing theme-solos-theme pieces that received wisdom insists are the natural terrain of 1960s New Yorkers recording for Blue Note rather than twenty-first-century Finns entertaining Londoners in the Vortex Jazz Bar, with quiet paeans to natural beauty incorporating Sámi joiks, Mylläri’s suite, while drawing naturally and affectingly on specifically Finnish influences, both spiritual and musical, was ‘world music’ in its truest sense: open-eared, accommodating, vibrant and wholly accessible.

Ed Jones’s arrival on stage, while encouraging the core quintet to move wholeheartedly into hard-blowing mode, compromised the band’s poise and elegance not one whit. While his blustering, swaggering tenor sound sparked the band, and provided an intriguing contrast with the slightly more circumspect solo-building of Perkiömäki and the virtuosic, fiery Mylläri, the tricksy three-way interchanges featured in such pieces as Bernards Place Burning 1200 Degrees and the storming closer, Out of Chaos, demanded — and received — all the sharpness, clarity and attention to detail of a classic Jazz Messengers session.

Burn

For the climax of the Vortex-based portion of Polar Jazz, a collaboration between the Mika Mylläri Quintet and the Ed Jones Quartet performing under the collective title Burn, Mylläri signalled his intentions from the off by donning dark glasses. Electric instruments — a bass guitar (Geoff Gascoyne) and keyboards (Jonathan Gee) — were also in evidence, and the addition of Joness drummer Winston Clifford to the percussion section raised the suspicion that music reminiscent of post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis might be on the cards. This territory, despite the fact that it was opened up over thirty years ago, has recently attracted a number of new explorers — Mark Isham, Gerard Presencer, Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith prominent among them — and its hospitality to an approach utilising everything from sampling (provided by Ville Hyvönen) to traditional musics was exuberantly demonstrated in ninety minutes of viscerally exciting playing.

Although a number of Mylläris trademark punchy three-horn themes were sporadically allowed to set the music’s pace and mood, the set’s success with a vocally enthusiastic full house rested mainly on the less formal boiling-funk jams to which they gave rise. Indeed, such was the hypnotic intensity of the music created from a seething stew variously involving bass clarinets, a plethora of keyboard sounds, and a growling, rumbling didgeridoo — not to mention Clifford’s celebrated mouth percussion — in addition to the nine’s customary instruments, that a seamless set à la early-1970s Miles might have been more effective than the more conventional piece-based performance that was presented.

Redefining European jazz

A triumph, however, the three-day Vortex showcase undoubtedly was; the intention was to demonstrate the range, depth and variety of the music of one of Finland’s most celebrated contemporary bands, and that it most certainly did. In the process, too, it shattered the surprisingly persistent myth — even a specialist jazz publication, Jazz UK, ran its recent preview of Polar Jazz under the headline Fire and Ice — that Scandinavian jazz in general and Finnish jazz in particular is somehow mysteriously conditioned by climatic vagaries. In short, if more evidence were needed in support of the increasingly prevalent idea that the centre of gravity of jazz, courtesy of bands like the Italian Instabile Orchestra, the vibrantly multicultural musical melting pot of Paris and the extraordinarily fertile Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish scenes, has shifted Europewards in recent years, Polar Jazz provided it in spadesful.

Chris Parker is a well-known British jazz critic.

See also:

Ed Jones Quintet's adventures in Finland

June 1998

"A taut front line": Jones and Mylläri tour Scotland and Finland by Tapani Lausti

February 1998

Ed Jones adds Finnish flavour to his jazz band by Chris Parker

January 1998

Finnish jazz benefits from more international contacts: interview with Mika Mylläri

January 1998

 

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