September 25, 2018
September 8, 9 and 11
By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
Trooping to Helsinki, Finland’s sleepy capital city in early September, a clutch of out-of-town improvisers joined with selected locals to give the coastal port’s Jazz scene a concentrated jolt of Free Music. Significantly, the festival, which took place over two nights in the third-floor Balderin Salon, in a century-old downtown building near the Helsinki City Museum, showed that profound sound knows no nationality. Just as decisively it also demonstrated that there was no lessening of skill and invention a couple of night later in a basement banquet hall when the majority of more locally affiliated improvisers reconvened for a final concert
A pan-European hoedown, the festival featured tenor and soprano saxophonist Evan Parker and violinist Phil Wachsman from the U.K.; Austrian drummer Paul Lovens; Italian, Munich resident trombonist Sebi Tramontana; German bassist Matthias Bauer; Berlin-based Mexican vibraphonist Emilio Gordoa; Norwegian-in-Berlin drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen; Berlin-based Finnish soprano saxophonist and festival organizer Harri Sjöström; plus three locals: Italian pianist Libero Mureddu, who has lived in Helsinki for 15 years; accordion player Veli Kujala and the country’s double bass doyen Teppo Hauta-aho. Also on hand were in-the-moment illustrations projected on a screen behind the players created by Polish visual artist Lena Czerniawska as the musicians improvised.
With no sense of national-international hierarchy, the proceedings overcame a rather fragmented introductory tutti, to settle down into more obliging and responsive match ups. Especially notable for their subtlety were the percussionists who never resorted to showy exaggeration when playing. Lovens preferred stropping drum sticks on the hi-hat or smaller drums; Narvesen shaking his collection of bells and mallets or striking miniature drums resting on drum tops; and Gordoa playing up his instrument’s natural vibrations by striking the vibes’ resonators, varying its motor speed, sawing on the metal bars with a violin bow and snaking a bungee chord among the bars.
Wachsman, who used the bow on an appropriate instrument, sometimes drew on his classical training to wedge a sliver of romantic patterning into expositions. This was particularly effective in opposition to Parker’s abstract output or facing dual, harmonized assertions from Tramontana and Sjöström. During a second night duet with Parker however, the fiddler supplemented his formalist intimations with staccato and spiccato thrusts, while striking the strings with the bow’s frog. Electrified, his instrument also created enough pitches to nearly replicate a string quartet. With the saxophonist elevating his peeps to elongated aviary breaths, the cumulative effect was as cohesive as it was challenging. Later that night, Kujala proved that the proper button pressure and tremolo bellows tones produce almost identical sonic colors as Parker’s multiphnics sourced from his tenor saxophone. While both created clamorous sequences, the extent of their coordination was most apparent in quieter passages.
Uniquely creating particular timbres by muting his saxophone bell with carefully selected plastic cups, Sjöström easily distinguished his output from Parker’s in group situations. His most profound statements came on the second night though, when he convened his Berlin quartet with Bauer, Gordoa and Narvesen. Comfortable working together, and with the festival’s most Free-Jazz-like interface, the saxophonist’s mellow alphorn-like tone spiraled over power pulls from the bassist, which defined the improvisation’s shape as well, as seconding timbres arrived from drum pitter-patter and vibraphone coloration. Hitting a groove, the piece offered a notable instance of time suspension.
With extended plunger tones and smears on tap, as well as forays into Italian romanticism, Tramontana’s brass expressions were always fully formed, either when helping to propel forward a chromatic line involving all the musicians or carving out his own space. His most notable combo excursion took place on night one in a trio with Lovens and Mureddu. A polymath, able to comp unobtrusively or explode with free-form kinetics with the same facility, the pianist scampered along the keys with single notes or sailed through concentrated glissandi. Meanwhile the drummer left the rhythmic impetus to the pianist’s hard pounding, while artfully caressing his cymbals. With this back-up, the trombonist’s mellow animation was able to provide the theme and its own variations.
Variations propelled the work of 77-year-old Hauta-aho, who over the years has been a favored associate of Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. On the first night he anchored a trio with Kujala and Lovens and on the second the three were joined by Mureddu. During the first performance Lovens’ minimalist tendency that reduced his output to simple pops and bumps, meant that tremolo buzzes and growls squeezed from Kujala’s accordion defined the decorated theme. Meanwhile the bassist matched Lovens’ sangfroid by using a miniature stick to tap tones from his instrument’s wood and repeated similar texture-sourcing actions with his bow and hands. Finally, as Kujala’s glissandi intensified Hauta-aho provided the rhythmic counterpoint for creative chromatic movements.
The next night, with Mureddu on board, prepared piano string stops, pluck and pulls served as counterpoint to the accordion’s astringent tones. This sequence in four-handed chording was subtly underlined by the bassist working up the scale with pizzicato flourishes and reached a climax when Lovens finally roused himself with enough clatters and ruffs to conclude the piece at a gallop
Hauta-aho’s younger counterpoint, Bauer, was particularly impressive earlier that evening when he utilized his bow in its proper function on the strings during a quartet interaction with Tramontana, Gordoa and Narvesen. In contrast the drummer rasped a bow against his cymbals for screeching vibrations, while the vibist smashed small cymbals and bells onto his bars for unusual interjections. As the trombonist built his solo out of vocalized puffs and cries though, it was Bauer’s swelling timbres that serve as the vibrating counterpoint.
Ending the festival proper on a high note, the massed musicians epitomized their collaboration with an all-hands-on-deck finale that was half-blues, half-march and all renewal, with tropes encompassing swelling sweetness from the violinist, pistol-shot-like patterns from the pianist, short peeps from Sjöström’s soprano, vacillating variations from Parker’s tenor saxophone, split-tone trombone blasts, bomb-dropping from Narvesen and the narrative piloted forward by both bassists’ walking thumps.
Two nights later, Bauer, Gordoa, Narvesen, Sjöström, Kujala, Hauta-aho, and on the second set, Mureddu, reconvened for Soundscapes unofficial continuation at the basement banquet hall, Ravintola Laulumiehet, a space traditionally used for vocal chorus concerts. More relaxed, despite the presence of formal portraits of Male Voice Choruses’ past leaders that glowered from the walls, the ensemble frequently swelled to full complement, with themes developed in merry-go-round fashions among the soloists. This time the opening tutti offered a more appealing introduction, initially played moderato with vibrating vibraphone textures and bowed bass thrusts, and then sped up to a climax that matched sprawling accordion buzzes, and vibraphone splashes.
This looser mood continued throughout the night, with time even set aside for a kit and percussion implements exploration by Narvesen featuring hard accents from the bass drum. Looseness even accounted for some doubled string slaps from both bassists at appropriate junctures during the tunes on which they were featured, Taking full advantage of his collection of saxophone mutes, Sjöström’s playing on the evening’s second number was able to express both balladic inferences that touched on “My Funny Valentine” plus sweet-sour upsurges, that while off-color and squeaky never fully departed from a chromatic theme. Later in the evening, Bauer’s hunt-and-peck string emphasis allowed him to concentrate timbres for maximum resonance, while the pianist’s waterfall of speedy, staccato notes contrasting with inner-piano stops and pulls, amped cadences upwards to contribute to a broadening air of discovery and drama that characterized the concert.
While the night life oddities of a government-oriented city like Helsinki made for unusual hours when it came to a festival of improvised music, with shows usually starting about 7 p.m., and ending shortly after 10, the artistry and accomplishment displayed in the musicians’ playing wasn’t compromised. Sjöström has plans for a sequel next year or perhaps the year afterwards. With such high standards set with Soundscapes 2018, hope is that the convening will happens sooner than later.