Best Finnish Jazz of 2021

In 2021 we didn’t see quite as many Finnish jazz releases as 2020, but despite the Covid-challenges the scene remained lively and picking 20(+1) favorite releases from this year for this showcase was not difficult, the real difficulty was making the cuts on what to leave out.

There is no one ”Finnish jazz sound” or style that dominates, the scene is lively with diverse improvised music offered at gigs (Covid permitting) and albums as you’ll see on this list of top picks.

Key labels operating from Finland to follow for new jazz and improvised music releases right now are We Jazz Records, Eclipse Music and Flame Jazz Records – all present on Bandcamp – and Jazzaggression.

Vinyl record fans will be delighted to hear that most of these releases are available on vinyl – by my last count 14 of the 21 have been released on vinyl are have announced upcoming vinyl releases. Due to material shortages and record plant capacity not meeting the increasing demand it has become common that vinyl editions ship some months after the album has been released. Stores I recommend for shopping Finnish jazz on CD or vinyl are Digelius, Levykauppa Äx and We Jazz who sell new and second-hand albums via Discogs.

1. Linda Fredriksson – Juniper

We Jazz Records

Saxophonist Linda Fredriksson (born 1985) has already established themselves as one of the most dependable and exciting instrumental soloists of their generation playing in groups such as Mopo, Superposition, Ricky-Tick Big Band and The Northern Governors, but her debut album as the sole leader, Juniper, still seems like a revelation.

What makes Juniper special is that it’s been produced more in a contemporary singer-songwriter style with each track having more of their own identity rather than going for a traditional jazz album approach of trying to capture the natural sound of the group, but this is done in a way that still lets Fredriksson’s sax playing on both baritone and alto saxes shine. It’s an album that feels very personal and intimate and full of feeling and it’s no wonder that it has attracted audiences and critic accolades widely beyond jazz circles. Not that hardcore jazz fans wouldn’t have many reasons to love Juniper as well as the first live performances of core Juniper-group with Tuomo Prättälä on keys, Mikael Saastamoinen on bass and Olavi Louhivuori on drums have proven that Fredriksson’s compositions leave plenty of room for interprtation.


2. Tomi Nikku 5tet – Light & Shade

Flame Jazz Records

 

2021 was a bit of a breakout year for 30-year old trumpeter Tomi Nikku although he’s been steadily establishing himself as one of the key figures of the emerging Finnish jazz generation as a versatile player comfortable playing in a range of styles from 60’s hard bop to contemporary avant-garde and being also a dependable big band soloist with Sointi Jazz Orchestra.

If you go to jazz gigs in the Helsinki area these days, you’ll hear Nikku regularly. This year together with vibrafonist Ilkka Uksila who also plays in Nikku’s 5tet on Light & Shade he has the distinction of appearing on four different albums on this list making him one of the most prominent Finnish jazz musicians on the scene right now.

Light & Shade is his leader debut and quite possibly his best recording to date with contemporary, dynamic jazz that can be both intense and mellow. Key tracks are Inceptum and Emboldened that present some of the best new sounds coming from Finland.


3. Adele Sauros – I Paint You

Fresh Sound New Talent


Saxophonist Adele Sauros has become better known for groups that have a bit of a free, experimental or even anarchistic side to them like Superposition, Katu Kaiku and JAF Trio. Her latest album under her own name I Paint You is more of a traditional jazz album and a fine showcase of her skills as a composer and arranger.

Almost exclusively composed during her time in London a few years ago, I Paint You features varied instrumentation ranging from a duet with pianist Toomas Keski-Säntti to a four-horn septet. Top tracks like the dynamic title track and Paths May Cross show great promise and as a whole I Paint You is a step ahead for Sauros as a prominent leader in her own right.


4. Timo Lassy – Trio

We Jazz Records

 

Saxophonist Timo Lassy is a true icon of Finnish jazz in the 21st century playing in many key groups from the seminal U-Street All Stars to the internationally recognized Five Corners Quintet and his own Timo Lassy Band.

After 10 years of the  60’s flavored hard bop and soul jazz grooves of the classic Lassy-band, the few recent years have been a time of change with new groups starting with a duo project with drummer Teppo Mäkynen and now a new Timo Lassy Trio with bassist Ville Herrala and drummer Jaska Lukkarinen.

The essence of Lassy is still there – he is a great front man with engaging melodies and groovy soloing. A new, strong, flavor on this Trio record are lush strings arranged by Marzi Nyman that give it a slightly melancholy and nostalgic tinge. However, don’t let the strings distract you from the main attraction – even in a sax trio setting Lassy’s powerful playing carries.


5. Aki Rissanen – Divided Horizon

Edition Records

A case could be made for pianist Aki Rissanen being the most important Finnish jazz musician of the 2010’s, at the very least his trio with Antti Lötjönen and Teppo Mäkynen was responsible for some of the best Finnish jazz albums of the mid-to-late 2010’s grabbing two first places and one second place on my previous yearly best-of’s (with Rissanen also playing on the Mortality album that kept Art in Motion from winning…)

The new solo album Divided Horizon isn’t quite as strong but has plenty of charm of it’s own. Rissanen often draws from two very different sources of inspiration – European classical tradition and contemporary post-minimalism and electronic music. Both sides are present also on Divided Horizon and also manifest in how he supplements acoustic piano on this album with the literary unique (as in one has ever been built) instrument omniwerk that brings a baroque-style flavor and stylish use of electronics.

In Finnish jazz Rissanen is in a class of his own as an inventive tension-builder who is able to build incredible and even mischievous dramatic arcs into his performances and tracks. Check out Cold Code for an example.


15 (+1) Albums You Should Also Check Out

Just the top 5 is not nearly enough to demonstrate what’s going on up here in the north, so here are 15(+1) additional albums and a Spotify playlist for you to sample, divided into broad categories to make this article a little easier to digest.

 

Small Group Jazz

Alder Ego – III

For me, on their third album III drummer Joonas Leppänen’s Alder Ego demonstrate an unwavering commitment to a style and ethos. The saxophone (Jarno Tikka)/trumpet (Tomi Nikku) quartet with no harmony instrument invite comparisons to Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry quartets (as is tradition), but they are not as tied to bebop-roots as early Ornette was in their compositions or as willing to play ”out” in a totally unhinged way. Still, Alder Ego never take the easy route – and don’t let the listener off easy either.  The compositions always leave space for plenty of exploration and there is always a sense of tension in the air.

Manuel Dunkel – Northern Journey

Saxophonist Manuel Dunkel who just recently turned 50 has been around  for a while. You’re most likely to hear him play live in the sax section of UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra (or Espoo Big Band) – his ”claim to fame” might forever be going toe-to-toe in a sax solo battle with Michael Brecker with UMO at age 24, but he does record regularly as a leader of his own groups as well. Northern Journey is his seventh recording in his own name in 23 years.

Northern Journey is one of his best, a solid album of ”real jazz club jazz”, so if you’re looking for more traditional, swinging jazz in the tradition, Northern Journey might be the one album for you.

Uxila Exile – Songs for Harry S. Truman

Vibrafonist Ilkka Uksila had a big break-out year on the record front this year. He only had a couple of minor recording credits before, but this year he was seemingly everywhere – also with his own quartet Uxila Exile and their debut Songs for Harry S. Truman (that based on the supporting material’s Twin Peaks quote accompanying the title track Song for Harry may refer to the sheriff of Twin Peaks rather the 33rd PotUS).

The prolific year comes with some diminished returns as with Tomi Nikku on trumpet the modern, yet melodic jazz of Uxila Exile sounds a lot like Nikku’s 5tet, but not quite as good, but if you dug Light & Shade, you should definitely check out Songs for Harry S. Truman as well.

Modern Nordic Piano Trios

Artturi Rönkä & Daniel Sommer – Varo

 

Pianist/composer Artturi Rönkä has been more prolific in recent years as a big band composer and arranger than a small combo pianist, but this collaboration with danish drummer Daniel Sommer proves that he can still work the keys himself as well quite adequately on this set of stylish modern jazz.

Estonian bassist Heikko Remmel might not get front cover credit, but his contributions to this mostly trio set are significant with quite possibly the best bass soloing you’ll hear on this list. Trombonist Kasperi Sarikoski also makes an appearance on two tracks providing some additional color.

For traditional ”jazz club/jazz school”-jazz this album should be at the top of your listening list alongside the Dunkel album above.

 

Jussi Fredriksson Trio – Archipelago Sea Tales

 

Pianist Jussi Fredriksson is a prominent jazz event and concert arranger and promoter and an active figure in local culture politics in the city of Turku, but fortunately he still has some time to play and record music as well. His acoustic trio with Jori Huhtala on bass and Mika Kallio on drums has been operating since 2013 and this third album that draws inspiration from the Finnish archipelago is their best yet full of Nordic serenity with some stormy winds for good measure.

I was especially pleased with the vinyl release that highlights the nice cover design and the shorter run length tightens up the album nicely as well and doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything despite cutting some tracks from the digital release.

Mellow Chamber Jazz

Panu Savolainen – Soiva

Vibrafonist Panu Savolainen seems to be increasingly inspired by Finnish musical traditions and the intimate Soiva album rings true with many familiar elements from Finnish folk music and older popular music with a little bit of Bach for good measure.

The music of Soiva-trio (Harri Kuusijärvi on accordion and Eero Seppä on bass) is as light, airy and beautiful as a Finnish summer night.

The Watercolors – The Watercolors

The oboe and cor anglais are not exactly prominent instruments in jazz (as great as Yusef Lateef’s Love Theme from Spartacus is…) but Janne Saarinen has done a lot to make these instruments heard in the Finnish jazz scene with his participation in Sointi Jazz Orchestra, particularly known locally for their extended palette of wind instruments and also his own quartet The Watercolors who released their debut album in the summer of 2021.

Ilkka Uksila’s vibraphone, Joonas Leppänen’s stylish drumming  and Joonas Tuuri’s tasteful bass playing provide enough support while not being too intrusive to let the lyrical double reeds shine.

Big Bands

Espoo Big Band – Blood Red

It’s not every year that you get two big band albums with full album length new material from one composer, but 2021 provided three with Sointi Jazz Orchestra’s Unituulia with singer-songwriter Aili järvelä having to watch this list from the sidelines.

Jazzpossu’s home town big band Espoo Big Band has been active on the recording front in recent years releasing albums at a rate unrivaled since the 80’s and Blood Red is a particularly interesting one, loosely inspired by Orhan Pamuk’s book My Name is Red, composed by Mikko Hassinen with trumpetist Verneri Pohjola as the featured soloist. The hour long suite departs from traditional big band cliches with middle-eastern influence and also some live electronics.

 

 

Jimi Tenor & UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra – Terra Exotica

Multi-instrumentalist/composer Jimi Tenor has done music in a wide variety of styles from industrial to experimental electronic music to world fusion, but now it feels like he’s more and more often working in improvised or jazz contexts. Terra Exotica is the second album of UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra – one of the great institutions of Finnish jazz since it’s founding in 1975 – performing Tenor’s music composed specifically for big band, and specifically for UMO as well.

The diverse influences include Sun Ra and egyptian drummer Salah Ragab, but Terra Exotica is no wishy-washy genre-mixing novelty, but some of the best new big band music to come out of Finland in recent years. UMO Helsinki is doing important work in both preserving the legacy of big band music in Finland as well as regularly performing and recording new big band compositions from Finnish composers.

 

Vocalists

Elena Mindru – Hope

Singer Elena Mindru’latest album Hope presents Mindru as more of a singer-songwriter than a traditional jazz singer. Most of the material of Hope is original with words and music by Mindru and band members husband/pianist Tuomas J. Turunen and polish violinist star Adam Bałdych with the only cover song being The Police’s Walking on the Moon.

Many influences come together on Hope nicely from jazz, European folk traditions and singer-songwriter rock in a personal way.

Elifantree – Hachi

A few years ago the founding members of artsy synth-pop meets experimental improvisation group Elifantree  Anni Elif (vocals, kemençe & synths) and  Pauli Lyytinen (saxophone, keyboards and electronics) together with engineer Joonas Saikkonen embarked on a mammoth project that seems utterly fantastic in these limited-travel-due-to-covid times. They traveled to eight different countries to record material with eight different drummers in various locations ranging from home studios to the Tokyo subway to a church in Denmark to a mausoleum in Norway, but none in traditional recording studios.

One assumes that a project with two musicians teaming up with eight drummers would become a study on how the drumming affects the music, but due to the immensely varied locations, styles and moods Hachi is something more – a real global musical adventure. And the best thing is that it’s also a very coherent album – assembling this hour-long double-LP from dozens of hours of recorded material has been quite a task.

Experimental Grooves Meet Ambient

F# – Scientifically Proven & Clinically Tested

Pianist/keyboard player/composer/improviser Sid Hille appears to like making music that’s hard to categorize. On their second album Scientifically Proven & Clinically Tested his experimental F# -trio with Jori Huhtala on bass and Markus Ketola on drums have teamed up with two saxophonists Herbert Könighofer and Pepa Päivinen playing on alternating tracks.

With F# you never really know what to expect from the next track – unless you come prepared, but that’s no fun. The tracks featuring Päivinen were commissioned by the Espoo Museum of Modern Art EMMA and are more ambient and atmospheric while the Könighofer tracks are generally more off-the-wall experimental romps, but it just feels better to let the music surprise you and not pay too much attention to who is playing or when tracks are about to change and it certainly feels like the tracks were arranged in this alternating fashion on purpose. There is even a hidden track at the end for the listener who is paying too much attention to the CD cover…

Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen – Live Recordings 2019-2020

Before the 2021 Trio, Timo Lassy had the duo project with his long time drummer Teppo Mäkynen. Their studio album presented a spectrum of styles ranging from acoustic flavors to electronic influences with the electronic influences getting progressively more dominant as the album progressed and felt like Mäkynen’s producer alter ego Teddy Rok was possibly more in charge. When performed live, the same tunes took on a more organic feel and communication and interplay became more important and the more gigs I saw and the more the two performed the material together, the better it seemed to get.

Some of that live magic is captured on Live Recordings 2019-2020 recorded at multiple gigs and festivals and it feels to me now that this live double-LP is the definitive document of this project – minimalistic grooves, some .wild free blowing and some magical ambiance, it’s all here.

Fringe/Free/Spiritual/Underground

Oiro Pena – IMA

This fringe spiritual jazz-y originally one-man project of Antti Vauhkonen aka Pentti Oironen aka Oiro Pena has received some international recognition and being noted by tastemaker Gilles Peterson.

Oiro Pena has become maybe the most prominent fringe jazz figure in recent years, at least among rare groove hunters and dusty-fingered spiritual jazz vinyl enthusiasts with small print-run LP releases that tend to sell out in days and for fairly good reason, this handmade-in-the-garage style spiritual/modal project is the real deal.

Uusi Jazzi Klubi – Nilsiänkadun Rauhansopimus

Is Uusi Jazzi Klubi the best kept secret in the Helsinki jazz underground? This loose collective has held jams for improvised music for about four years now in various locations, their latest haunt being the QUERQ space at Nilsiänkatu mentioned in the album name in the Vallila district of Helsinki.

Nilsiänkadun Rauhansopimus was recorded in studio (at Taajuusvarjostin, also on Nilsiänkatu), but it captures the sound of the free-leaning collective in it’s roughness and rawness. This is deep Helsinki.

(+1) Arwi of Lovers – Spiritus Sanctus

The list was originally just 20 albums, but since the F# album is not on Spotify and I wanted the playlist to also be 40 tracks from 20 albums, so Spiritus Sanctus from Arwi of Lovers released just before Christmas also snuck through.

Finland has a fairly lively fringe indie/experimental music scene and Helmi Levyt is one of the key labels releasing music for those thirsty for sounds off the beaten path. Helmi Levyt is lead by Arwi Lind and Arwi of Lovers is his spiritual/afro/deep music band whose music has been called ”tantric rhythm music”. If Sun Ra had claimed to come from the backwoods of eastern Finland instead of Saturn, maybe the Arkestra would have sounded like this.

Lind has enlisted some great local free/folk jazz talent in this nine-piece with Johannes SarjastoSami Pekkola and Otto Eskelinen on saxes and Joonas Leppänen on drums for example.

If you’re already hip to Oiro Pena or just into deep spiritual music in general, you need to check out Arwi of Lovers.


And here is a playlist of 40 tracks from the 20 albums available on Spotify:

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