Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
Wif Stenger sees Cassandra Wilson and Ambrose Akinmusire in Finland, the pair linked through Joni Mitchell
The highlight shows of the April Jazz Festival in Helsinki and Espoo provided a textbook example of how setting and audience can dramatically shape a concert experience.
Cassandra Wilson performed at Helsinki's Finlandia Hall, which holds nearly 2,000 people and is known for its frosty-white modern design by Alvar Aalto - and its dodgy acoustics.
With this prestigious venue and tickets ranging from £50-140, the Espoo festival's first-ever show in neighbouring Helsinki naturally attracted a posh, reserved clientele. To paraphrase John Lennon, many seemed more interested in "just rattling their jewellery" than opening up to Wilson's bluesy groove and wrenching ballads.
After soldiering on gamely for an hour or so, Wilson directly expressed her frustration with the audience's stony response, winding the show down soon afterwards with a single luminous encore of Neil Young's Harvest Moon.
The show began on a more traditional tack. Wilson unfurled her velvety, enveloping cape of a voice on the standards You Don't Know What Love Is, The Man I Love and Skylark. The latter was particularly breathtaking, set against brushed drums by John Davis and a hot-buttered-toast bass solo from Reginald Veal. Other tunes were marred by overlong solos by harmonica player Gregoire Maret, whose thin unvarying tone became tiresome.
Wilson launched into a loose improvisation on Miles Davis's Runs The Voodoo Down, then strummed an electric guitar on her own Sankofa, building slowly through her huge dynamic and vocal range. Toward the end of the show, she dissembled and exquisitely reinvented Wichita Lineman and Joni Mitchell's Black Crow.
The Mitchell song, oddly enough, provided a link to Akinmusire's appearance a few nights later at Tapiola's Louhisali. The dark, cosy club holds less than 300 people. Every one of them seemed to be living every note along with the young Nigerian-American trumpeter's juggernaut of a band.
Here, too, there were echoes of Miles. Akinmusire's opening tune, Rollcall For Those Absent from his recent second album, built slowly like In A Silent Way. Tenorman Walter Smith III played Trane to Akinmusire's Davis. Smith told convoluted stories with many sidetracks, his sheets of sound contrasting with the leader's succinct, deceptively simple statements.
Akinmusire's sound is never boring, ranging from tender balladeering to a human, talking sound, then surprising high wails like a baby, sudden little squawk blasts of dissonance - all without ever becoming fully chaotic. At times, he evoked gasps from the rapt audience during long slow tightrope-walk solos that seemed to quaver on the edge of collapse .
The tight-knit, intuitive band supported his every move, powered by drummer Justin Brown, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Brown joined forces with pianist Sam Harris to create rolling waves of thunder, a controlled maelstrom with Akinmusire surfing high above.
And the Mitchell link? Asked at a post-concert workshop about his influences, Akinmusire replied without missing a beat: "Joni Mitchell, by far. For me she has the position that Trane has for most jazz people. Everyone else I like is on the second shelf. She's so bold, open, something different every album. Her career's been like Miles on hyperspeed."