As an American jazz fan visiting Finland during the summer of 2022. I had heard whisperings while in Helsinki about a festival down the Baltic coast in Taalintehdas and decided to hop a bus to see what it was all about.
After a beautiful and relaxing ride through the countryside, I found myself in an idyllic harbor by the sea. To one side, a park beckoned me with a banner reading “Baltic Sea Jazz”. I entered the lovely listening area with a stage set up toward the front, affording the audience a view of the harbor and sea, while relaxing in chairs and on benches facing the music.
The first band to perform as I arrived was Antti Sarpila‘s, performing a fortieth anniversary tribute of the Antti Sarpila Swing Band. Sarpila, who has been the musical director of the festival for the past twenty years, is a man who needs no introduction to audiences worldwide, including in Finland and the U.S.A virtuosic clarinet/saxophone/piano talent who in his earlier days honed his craft under the tutelage of American clarinet and saxophone legend Bob Wilber.
This day he had with him an all-star musical group. Deserving special mention is bassist Wade Mikkola, also well known to American jazz fans for his years as a composer/arranger and accompanist to musicians who figure prominently in the art form known as jazz. Too numerous to mention fully here, they include Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef as well as a bevy of others, both living and departed.
Mikkola has been known for many years by American jazz aficionados as a stellar performer on the musical scene in New York City, prior to his return to his native Finland. Rounding out the lineup with Sarpila and Mikkola were the shining talents of pianist Janne Hovi, son of Finnish legend Seppo Hovi, and drummer Thomas Rönnholm.
Though the rainclouds were starting to loom threateningly over the sea before us, the band swung straightaway into a program of Sarpila’s originals, some with catchy titles like “When Your Liver Has Gone” which hinted wryly at compositions from the classic repertory of jazz, while adding new and exciting twists.
From the first downbeat the audience was transported into a bright musical foray of foot-tapping, hard swinging jazz that had us grinning and swaying along in time. Sarpila’s clarinet and saxophone lines weaved a sinewy musical spell as Mikkola’s bass pulsed along underneath like a raging bull, swinging ever harder to the dexterous accompaniment of Hovi and Rönnholm.
The band took us on a musical adventure encompassing the past greatness of jazz woven seamlessly into a thoroughly modern and in-the-moment expression of musical mastery rivalling anything to be heard the whole world over. When finally these great musicians had given their all, packaged as a glorious musical gift that kept on giving, the audience erupted into joyous applause for the spirit and soul they had shared with us in full measure.
Then we headed straightaway to sample the wonderful assortment of food and beverages on offer in the park, as all the while the skies grew even more ominous overhead.
By the time the next band took the stage, it appeared certain that there would be a deluge, but the assembled listeners cared not a bit. Before us onstage were four gentlemen who are also world renowned. This author has had the distinct pleasure of hearing guitarist Olli Soikkeli in the year 2014 when he was a mere lad of 23 years. Back then he commanded the stage of Djangofest Northwest in the Seattle area fronting a quartet that included violin master Jason Anick.
Since then, he has become a fixture of both “Djazz” and straight-ahead jazz on world stages near and far. But this afternoon at Baltic Sea Jazz, I sensed something different was afoot. He held a gorgeously hand-crafted Finnish archtop guitar and was playing through an amplifier. Accompanying him were virtuosic pianist Marian Petrescu, and a quartet rounded out with brilliant Finnish bassist Joonas Tuuri and delightful drummer Aleksi Heinola. The band started and it was immediately apparent the audience was not to be disappointed.
Soikkeli’s accomplishments on the Selmer-style guitar favored by Django Reinhardt translated brilliantly to the archtop model he was playing today, and the band was off and swinging. Music, sweet music deftly dripped from Olli’s fingers, lifting our hearts and spirits toward the darkening skies overhead. Marian danced dazzlingly over the keyboard, and Joonas and Aleksi pulsated and propelled the band along from behind the two sensational frontmen.
Then the weather gods finally got their way. The skies above opened up in a torrential downpour of rain and hail. The eager audience this day however was not to be deterred by this mere meteorological inconvenience. Far from it. As we scampered for cover under any horizontal surface we could find, including the awnings of the licorice, sausage and beer trucks which had been offering us their wonderful wares, the audience huddled together shoulder-to-shoulder, greeting one another with smiling eyes.
Eventually the downpour picked up in intensity and volume to the point where almost nothing else could be heard than the “liquid sunshine” pouring in bucketfuls from the sky. But as the audience strained to hear the music from the stage, Soikkeli and company broke into a most lovely and appropriate rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day”.
In soggy shoes they stood together, transfixed by Soikkeli and company’s musical majesty, bonded in a heartfelt kinship that the musicians, the wonderful festival, and the maddeningly marvelous moment had brought us to.
Baltic Sea Jazz deserves high praise for the wonderful exhibition they put on. And speaking for myself (and likely many others) lovers of great jazz presented in a wonderful setting will return again next year for more music and magic in Taalintehdas, at Baltic Sea Jazz!