In May 2000, Ed
Jones, a talented British jazz saxophonist and composer, organised a British-Finnish
jazz event under the title Polar Jazz. Here he explains the motives and
complexities of the project. He also writes about the emotions elicited by the
You have to be just a little bit crazy to be a jazz promoter, let alone a jazz musician. All the evidence suggests that in all probability your chances of economic success as a musician working in that field are at best unstable, and at worst... well hopefully you will acquire an understanding bank manager along the way. All of the jazz musician jokes I know hold within them at least a small grain of truth unfortunately (like most good humour) “Have you heard about the millionaire jazz musician?”, “He started out as a Billionaire”. The only thing that will sustain you through all your ups and downs in a likely very rocky career is a devout and unconditional love of the music, and you had better love this music strong enough, because sometimes that's all there is.
Before I continue too far down the path I will let you know that I am one of those fortunate enough to be known as a jazz musician. I fell hopelessly and completely in love many many years ago when i could barely make a half reasonable sound on the the saxophone, let alone begin to understand the depths and intricacies of this music. Of course I thought I knew what jazz music was, it was the music my parents listened to, had danced to as well when they were younger and in love. Late one dark winter afternoon at the end of my lesson, my patient and enlightening teacher put on ‘People will say we’re in love’ played by one of the great saxophonists Sonny Stitt. Nothing had quite prepared me for this. I had no idea that this instrument could (and should) sound so utterly beautiful,that its song could fill up your heart, make you feel so alive,and bring tears to your eyes.
It was not until I was a little older and had just about enough confidence and musical proficiency to start my own bands, that I came into contact with jazz promoters. At first I thought that the majority of them were gruff, belligerent, very often down right rude. They made you feel that putting your band on in their club was the last thing in the world that they wanted to do. However, I discovered very quickly that my first impressions were indeed completely ill-founded. Picture this scenario: You’re a hard working person holding down a steady nine to five job, nothing unusual in that. Except that not every one knows it, but you’ve been moonlighting for years, you’ve got a secret, you,ve got something going on, on the side. Its not that you necessarily keeping it quiet. Why should you? ”Well yes it is a second job, sort of... Nothing to worry the tax man about though, it doesn't really pay that much, if anything, it's more like a hobby. Well no that's not quite right either, mmm, its hard to explain, its an obsession really, can't really help it”. "This started years ago, I walked into a bar one night, and there was this band playing, jazz music. Well, I’d never heard jazz before, but the music, it just got me, do you know what i mean? The way they played, you should have been there, I mean that's why I started this club, I must be crazy. Still even on a quiet night, there might only be a handful of people in, I stand at the back of the room, close my eyes, and the music makes it all OK, get my drift?”
They too had fallen hopelessly in love, though many years before me, when there were still heroic jazz legends alive, and playing. People like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Some of these hard bitten Romantics had even heard them in the flesh, and I,ve been eagerly lapping up their stories for years. I've got some idea of course as to what it might have sounded like. History has in some ways smiled kindly on this music in terms of the wealth of recorded documentation. Even so... ,"but on that night, in that bar, with those guys on the bandstand, you should have been there...”
One night in May this year, I'm sitting at the back of Vortex Jazz Bar in London. One of the UK’s greatest jazz talents (never mind he’s from Canada originally), Kenny Wheeler is blowing beautiful trumpet lines that fill the room. Sometimes mellow and warm, then he changes the mood by making sudden swoops upwards, way out of the normal range of the instrument. Then just when you think he can’t get any higher, he does. Your body sort of lifts with him as he performs this impossible feat of acrobatics. Backing him are a superb trio of Finnish musicians. Samuli Mikkonen on piano sits, listens and waits to find the perfect reflex to accompany the trumpet flights. For him it's as if the first colour which comes into his mind really just will not do. Although he is a young musician (Kenny is more than twice his age) he is already mastering the art of dynamically shifting the weight and shapes of the accompaniment. He is also a brilliantly unique soloist in that he sounds like he has studied and absorbed a lot of music, yet managed to find his own individual path. In the interval a well known young British pianist who is in the club that night checking the gig out confides quietly that he thinks Samuli is quite simply the best young pianist in Europe that he has heard. The other two musicians are more than equal to the task... Jorma Ojanperä on double bass also has a great way of sitting and waiting to make his contribution, which is big and broad in weight and tone when it arrives. Drummer Markku Ounaskari has an almost unlimited palate of percussion colours to add to the music, whilst playing freely and relaxed at all times, he nevertheless holds down the groove and makes it swing and fire when it needs to. Kenny’s having a great time, and playing some seriously great trumpet and flugelhorn. There are moments when these young musicians are really pushing him to dig deeper into his own music and his playing. At these times he's up on his toes almost as if he's straining to reach something just out of his grasp. A couple of times I hear him grunting and moaning which makes me and everyone else in the room grin from ear to ear. This is always good news when you hear musicians do this, especially ones of Kenny’s calibre. It usually means that they are going for different things in the music, perhaps a new door just opened.
The sound of the music reminds me of big open spaces. Very often I've heard Kenny’s compositions played by many different groups he’s worked with, and they haven't captured that sense of big space coupled with restless energy. Sometimes it's just been restless energy, and the band has overcooked the music. But not tonight. Even though this is not the first time all these musicians have played together, it is the first time they have played with Kenny together. And it's the first time Kenny has played Samuli’s tunes, although he has heard his music before, and indeed insisted that the group should play them in this concert. Most of the audience of course are blissfully unaware of this, and also that the four of them have pulled the music together unbelievable quickly, after one short rehearsal earlier in the day. Both Kenny's and Samuli's music is far from easy, even when it looks that way. Even their most simplest looking compositions hold depths and mineshafts lying in wait for the unsuspecting musician to plummet down feet first. These guys on stage are making even the tricky tunes sound easy. Even at the rehearsal the music unfolded without to many problems, a question here, a direction there, problematic passages played through until they felt comfortable. I remember Kenny asking Samuli about some of the more difficult chord changes in one his pieces, after the rehearsal Kenny talking about three-note groups. This is the true spirit of this music, musicians of different ages, countries, backgrounds, sharing knowledge, stories, and common ground. Me, I’m sitting quietly at the back of the room, and although there's not as many people here as I would have liked, it's quite full, and the music is making all the hard work to make this festival happen feel like it was all worthwhile.
I don’t know whatever possessed me to become a promoter and run a Jazz Festival, as well as playing as part of it. I do know that right from the beginning I could hear the music and imagine the concerts. Perhaps that's the key, you have to want to make the music happen badly enough. Why invite Finnish musicians? Well that's a long explanation, but to cut a long story short, a few years ago I started working with a trumpeter from Finland, Mika Mylläri. In fact, he' been in my Quintet for the last few years. It was during a visit to Finland a couple of winters ago that I had the chance to hear and work with some of the musicians that I managed to bring over. In Mika’s car skidding along icy roads in freezing darkness, we drove zig-zag across the country, different gigs each night in different cities, all full of great musicians and great music, waiting for more people to walk in through the door to discover that sound.
The night following the Kenny Wheeler concert, I’m back along those dark snowblind Finnish roads. The music I'm hearing has taken me back. On stage, Mika’s Quintet is playing a long composition, a Suite entitled “Northern Lights”. Its the same musicians from last night in the rhythm section, together with Jari Perkiömäki, a great saxophonists, who at this moment is conjuring up images of thick darkness deep in the tones of his bass clarinet. The music evokes many images which I associate with Finland. Lights shining out against a pitch black background, a sense of calm forboding and mystery. This is a place where you can still turn a corner and meet a bear or two, or think you’ve just seen a moose, by the side of the road, only for it to vanish the split second you thought it was there. Mika’s music is rich in landscapes, and each one has a profound story to tell. He wrote the suite whilst living in the far north of Finland, where the silences are bigger than you could ever begin to imagine. It isn’t instantly accessable music, but it works slowly on your senses, and before too long the images become clearer. I also like the way once in a while it touches base with New York just when it could become too cerebral... Imagine this: You’ve just skied a few kilometres into town over a frozen lake, somewhere far in the north of Finland, walked through the door into a bar where the band is playing firery fast be-bop, the place is jumping and everyone is drunk on strong alcohol, and dancing all night. This music has that quality in it as well. Next thing I know it's my turn to play, I'm the special guest in the second set. Fortunately we had a quick rehearsal today. For a split second I’m a bit nervous. Guesting with bands that have been together for as long as this one has always feels a little strange. Its not like jam sessions at all, where the personal by the very nature of the beast is transitory and fluid, these musicians have developed their own personal language together after many years of rehearsing and hundreds of all kinds of gigs together. Then Bam we’re off, the music has started, headlong into a composition called “Bernard's Place Burning 2000 Degrees”. Another true life story about a friend of Mika’s whose house caught fire after the sauna got too hot. Like I said, rich in Landscapes.
The last night at Vortex jazz bar, and I'm just beginning to relax and enjoy this festival. Its been a great experience to see life from the other side of the fence, but I've also been kept busy (when I haven't been dealing with festival admin) rehearsing the project that is performing tonight, 'Burn'. Word around town has spread, and Vortex is heaving with people, some quite young which is great that the concert has drawn a younger crowd. For some it's their first time inside a jazz club, maybe they’ll come back. Outside queues stretch down the street, all of this is enough to make any promoter smile. This is indeed a special night. 'Burn' is in fact two bands joined together (mine and Mika’s) so you get a mirror image and double of everything, plus the star of the proceedings is a talented young man called Ville Hyvönen, who for the last few months has been preparing the tape loops and rhythm tracks which are at the very centre and heart of this project. The sound of the music is fast, furious, and funky. 'Burn' does have a quieter side, not often, but sometimes there are stretches of a more ambient sounding music. Two each of drummers, bass players and keyboard players plus a three horn section makes the music dense, a thick wall of sound. The stage at Vortex is tiny, and we can't all fit on, so the band spills into the audience, almost to the point where it feels like we are playing from inside it. At some point Mika’s band start a tune of his that they know. My band doesn’t, so it keeps out of the way. Then suddenly I'm cueing them to play a tune of mine that they do know. The two tunes collide into each other, sparks fly... Ville flies in some unbelievable sounding loops that I have no idea he had. People in the front row catch on to what is going on and start laughing at the absurdity of it all. It reminds me of a Spanish festival where all those street bands are playing different tunes in different parts of the same square and everyone is partying so much that they just don’t care that there's all these different tunes playing at once, and in fact all those tunes begin after a while to melt into one big tune. There is a more serious side to this madness. I believe strongly that jazz cannot remain stuck in its past, only making references back to its history, and one of the ways out of that circle could be its connection and indeed influence on a whole series of other musics. The music of 'Burn' explores how the spirit of the music we call jazz could sound in a more rhythmically contemporary influenced setting.
Ed Jones is one of Britain's most exciting and talented young saxophonists and composers. His talent has led to a wide range of collaborations cutting across musical boundaries and he has worked with some of the best of British jazz as well as US heavyweights including George Benson, Dianne Reeves and Horace Silver.
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