ROUND-UP: April Jazz - Thirtieth Anniversary - in Tapiola (Finland)

Joey de Francesco Trio at April Jazz 2016.
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

April Jazz, Thirtieth Anniversary Festival
(Tapiola, Finland, 20th-26th April, 2016. Round-up report and photos by Ralf Dombrowski*)

These days, as Director of April Jazz Matti Lappalainen explained, it would be impossible to put on a concert like the one they had with Ray Charles in the late 90s. There were substantial sponsors back then, there was an indoor sports stadium they could use, and much else was different too. There might be regrets, but there can certainly be no cause for complaint, because the April Jazz Festival in Tapiola, the cultural quarter of the city of Espoo, has just celebrated its thirtieth year in existence.

It is something of a miracle that it has prospered for so long, particularly since story of how it all began is so curious. Matti's predecessor as Artistic Director was a big band enthusiast with almost exactly the same name - Martti Lappalainen. In the 1980's Martti had wanted to build the profile of his jazz orchestra, and also to attract guests to Finland's second largest city. His grasp of English was minimal, but he somehow succeeded before long in getting the name of the Espoo Big Band on to the list of performers at the festival in Montreux, and also in attracting luminaries sucn as Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck to make the journey up to the northernmost shores of the Baltic Sea.

Espoo Big Band
Photo Credit: Ralf Dombrowski

And that is how the cultural centre of Tapiola put itself firmly on the map, with an event which very few other towns in Finland can offer: a jazz festival now replete with its own proud history. For the thirtieth anniversary programme, Lappalainen continued on the path he has followed for quite a few years, and invited bands which go beyond the mainstream of jazz, but are nevertheless sufficiently well-known to lure audiences into the halls.

Robert Glasper and Derrick Hodge
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Robert Glasper, for example, was there with his Experiment Quartet. One's attention is drawn in the group to the saxophonist and singer Casey Benjamin, and Glasper also has a powerfully grooving rhythm team. Stylistically their programme was reminiscent of George Duke, but from the point of view of emotion it seemed leaden. While their set could not be described as a revelation, there were moments when Glasper was able to make the rest of the group hold back, when gave his keyboard more space and prominence. Those were times when an authentic sound came through, a concept of urban jazz which is in touch with the times we live in.

Other bands were dealing with the tradition, and in their own different ways. Hammond organist Joey De Francesco was rounding off his European tour at April Jazz with a celebratory last gig, to which he brought humour, and modern swing veering over into soul, in a trio whose art is based around the compelling way in which its members communicate with each other. The hosts, the Espoo Big Band set about a joyous and anarchic deconstruction of the concept of a jazz orchestra, bringing all kinds of unfamiliar structural elements to the large ensemble - three electric guitars and a theremin, for example, and much else besides.

José James
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

Vocalist José James gave a wonderful concert, drawing on his soul roots, but also going beyond them. By adding an amalgam of spoken word and hiphop, what resulted was an incredibly vivid combination of the jazz heritage and the club dance-floor.

April Jazz has a great momentum going, and Matti Lappalainen has a long list of reasons to be cheerful. A fourth decade? Bring it on.

(*) Ralf's original German will appear in the Jazzzeitung

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