Kate and I just came back from a great trip to Helsinki, Finland. I’m so grateful to have been one of the participants in the Jazz Finland residencies. The invitation came in 2020, was postponed until 2021 and subsequently curtailed, but they graciously invited me back this year! The residency is an invitation-only collaboration with the Sibelius Academy Jazz Music Department at Uniarts Helsinki, UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra, and the Finnish Musicians’ Union, and is coordinated by Jazz Finland. (I can’t thank Maria Silvennoinen enough for making us feel completely taken care of!) “Kiitos!” to all of the people who helped make this happen!
In the last two years, I have met, gotten to know, and played with many of the stellar musicians on my lists of “Finnish musicians to meet.” These lists were created with the help of friends, most notably Andrew Drury, and former JIB Finnish student Joonas Leppänen!
In August 2021 as part of this residency, I got to play live with the incredible UMO Jazz Orchestra (and in 2020 we first collaborated long-distance for this video recording.) It seems serendipitous that my old buddy from the New Art Orchestra, Ed Partyka, is now the chief conductor of that fine ensemble. And this year I got to play in the house band led by UMO’s alto sax veteran, Jouni Jarvela, who made some very thoughtful arrangements of Cole Porter classics for us to play.
In 2021 I also got to meet many of the stellar faculty from the Sibelius Academy, led by Jussi Kanaste. I worked on and got to play some of my music with a great group that included Ape Anttila, Mikko Hassinen, Verneri Pohjola, and Kari Ikonen. And this year, Kari organized a couple of concerts, one at the EloJazz Festival in Oulu and one at Koko Jazz Club in Helsinki. This incarnation of the band consisted of Kari, Verneri, and my dear comrade from JASS, Sebastian Bousseau on bass.
Additionally, improvised music enthusiast and concert organizer, Sakari Puhakka, graciously put together two fun collaborations for me at the Hakasalmi Villa:
The first was with the Finnish grand dame, Iro Haarla. For those who don’t know her, if you ever heard Edward Vesela’s music, then you heard her (on harp and piano) and also heard her uncredited compositions! We played a beautiful duo concert of both of our compositions at Hakasalmi Villa. It was an honor to play with such a warm, gentle, special musician!
The second collaboration performed at the Villa was definitely the first time I have ever played with a brother/sister duo: Natalia Castillon on harp and Sergio Castillon on cello. It was an exciting evening of freely improvised textural/timbral conversations that I will not soon forgot!
Aside from the formal playing, I got together and jammed with a lot of great musicians! And one afternoon, while Kate got to check out the Biennale at the small creative village of Fiskars, I recorded improvisations with Jusso Kontiola (keys and electronics) and Lassi Kari (violon de gamba), who together are the duo Kaje.
I also met up with some great young composers, such as Sampo Kasurinen (many moons ago he was my student at the JIB but now I think I should study with him!) and Mikko Sarvanne. And I had a chance to talk about my music with some welcoming Sibelius students and alumni. Every morning for my last week of teaching at the Academy, I played and demonstrated my “concentration exercise” – and new Nordic Jazz Masters student, Hans, won the award for perfect attendance!
We missed what seems like a fantastic festival, called the Flow Festival, but did get to see a dance concert which was a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, installation artist Olafur Eliasson, and electronic composer Jamie xx called Tree of Codes at the new dance venue, Dance House Helsinki; hear a moving concert of Kaija Saariaho’s moving choral music in the equally moving Temppeliaukio Church (AKA The Rock Church); and we spent our last night listening to the soulful, captivating sounds of Tinariwen. All of these special evenings were part of the Helsinki Festival, which “is the largest arts festival in the Nordic countries, held annually in late summer. The festival’s aim is to make art accessible for all. The programme features classical and world music, theatre, dance, circus and visual arts as well as a range of urban events.”
There is a warm and inviting music community in Finland and it is small enough that it seems everyone knows each other. At every concert/jam session I went to I ran into a spirited music fan, Anu, who eagerly gave me the lowdown on every musician and their history! She herself is part of “Jazz royalty” in Finland in that her late older brother, Ilkka ‘Emu’ Lehtinen, founded the record store Digelius. Many musicians in fact told me how instrumental he was to the Jazz music scene in Helsinki!
When I mention Helsinki the common response seems to be, “I have heard it is great, but have never been there” so I thought I would show some of the sights from our trip and later provide the future visitor with some of our “must go to” places.
Swimming in the Baltic sea is incredibly refreshing after a sauna, which we took advantage of at Löyly which includes a traditional smoke sauna.
Kate and I were blown away especially by the Art Nouveau architecture!
As far as newer buildings, the Helsinki Music Centre, where the Jazz department, among other departments, is housed, is a stunningly beautiful, green-tinged building. It is bookended on this flower-laden plaza by awe-inspiring Oodi Library. The most stunning library, and also the biggest library with the least amount of books I have ever seen! It is a place where outdoors, people come together to play basketball (very badly when I was watching), and skateboard. Indoors, you can hang at the cafe; browse books; 3-D print things; sew; record in their recording studio; play video games; and cook in their test kitchen, etc.!!
Biking is very easy in Helsinki. We took a great trip to Aalto University through small wooded islands, where Kate’s friend Slate Grove, Glass Blowing Studio Master, gave us a tour of the incredible facilities of the Design Building there. We stopped by the Didrichsen Museum and saw a great exhibit by Hannu Palosuo.
One of our last visits was to the We Jazz Record Store where I picked up some Timo Lassy discs and the great magazines that We Jazz started publishing last year. (The first issue sold out but they are printing more!) We Jazz is headed by Matti Nives and I can confirm that Matti is hip because I ran into him at Big Ears last year! His label, store, etc. is a very important component of the current creative European music community!
John likes lists.
I must admit, when I first started compiling the musician list below a few years ago, it was just a bunch of names, so it is fun to look at it now, because I have met, hung out and played with a lot of these musicians! This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here is my own personal list of notable Finnish musicians that I suggest to seek out/check out as of August 2022!
If you know of others that are missing from this list, please tell me!
My initial list:
Everyone on We Jazz!
Additions from my visits in 2021/2022:
Sami “Samigo” Kontola
Kaje: Juuso Kontiola/Lassi Kari
From Sibelius Academy Faculty Camp 2021:
From my gig with the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra in 2021
Ed Partyka, conductor
Juho Valjakka, piano
Joonas Tuuri, bass
Ilkka Uksila, percussion
Finnish Contemporary Folk Music:
This list comes from Maria Silvennoinen after a conversation we had last year, when I asked her: “What is Finnish contemporary folk music?” (a term I had seen but did not understand.)
Luckily there was a great series at the Esplanade this summer, so we were able to catch some of this music live so we could get a better sense of what “Finnish contemporary folk music” means! But this is a great starter into that unique and varied world! One thing I noticed right away was how often Finnish “jazz musicians” are part of these bands!!
Kimmo with Kronos Quartet:
Wimme Saari (+ Tapani Rinne)
FOR SOME, THIS NEXT PART WILL BE THE MOST IMPORTANT LIST!
So if you read this far, here is your culinary reward!
HELSINKI RESTAURANTS/CAFES WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
WINO – exceptional restaurant with great wine selection
YESYESYES – exceptional vegetarian restaurant with great cocktails
CAFETORIA – excellent coffee and treats
LEVAIN – tasty café
Buongiorno caffe – amazing breakfast
PRIMO BAKERY – worth the trip for incredible bread
HELSINKI GIN DISTILLERY BAR – gin & tonic, yum!!
Jädelino – ice cream!
FAT RAMEN – ramen!
BASBAS – exceptional restaurant with great wine selection
DONG BEI HU RESTAURANT – thanks to Jouni Jarvela for this one
Kaffecentralen – for great coffee and quality licorice