October 29, 2019

The sound of surprise that is We Jazz

The Verneri Pohjola Group perform at We Jazz Festival 2017.
Maarit Kytöharju/We Jazz

We Jazz is an ideas-first organisation freewheeling amidst the traditional standards of jazz events and records while also shining a light on a new kind of entrepreneurship.

In the early 2000s, student and jazz enthusiast Matti Nives was busy spending all his spare change on jazz vinyls and gigs in the town of Jyväskylä, Central Finland. The town had some gigs but was lacking in club nights where people could listen to the rhythmic music to their taste.

“There’s this fabled bar up town called Vakiopaine, where all the culture folk hang out, which I thought would be awesome to have a DJ gig in and play some tunes,” reminisces Nives. “I never had the courage to ask – the people there were way too cool – so I had to start my own thing.”

Nives’ own thing first took the form of a gig of sorts during lunch hours on campus, then a jazz club night called Something Else and eventually the We Jazz club, founded in 2009 with saxophonist Timo Lassy. From these humble beginnings in sweaty confines, We Jazz has grown into an annual festival in two countries and a record label putting out jazz for a broad palate with various Finnish and foreign artists.

The collective is guilty of bringing a new breed of jazz cats on stage and into the audience.

(Re)creating a scene

We Jazz Festival was inspired by the club nights, which would occasionally run twice in a weekend. The idea to establish a festival proper finally bore fruit in 2013. Today, it’s organised in Helsinki and Tallinn and gathers around 2 500 visitors for its 15–20 gigs during the first week of December.

The local and global jazz community is a tight-knit network, where the driving force is a mutual love for the art.

Maarit Kytöharju/We Jazz

“Jazz events can be quite traditional in their format,” says Nives. “We wanted an event where everything changes year to year, not just the musical content like at other festivals. We’d actually rather call it an installation, because it aims to inspire artists and audiences alike.”

The jazz being live jazz at its best, or the cultured improvisation of sounds in sync with the band and even the audience, the concept has resonated. International visitors have applauded the festival for nudging the Finnish jazz scene towards a newly found dynamism. However, reinventing something every year is no simple feat, unless you’re able to tap into the wider improvisational potential of the local jazz scene.

“Personally, one of the most intense gigs we’ve had is our gig in pitch-black darkness,” says Nives, referring to Jukka Perko & Co’s Complete Darkness gig from a few years ago.

A couple of days before the gig, the band realised that they had to play in the dark, which caused some practical concerns like how to tune the  harp in the dark.

“After talking it through, we decided that things like that should be part of the gig. Just play it and see what comes out,” says Nives. “At sound check, I was baffled by the sensory intensity of it, I had tears streaming down my face. The audience and band felt it too, the reception was awesome.”

The We Jazz collective’s “layman’s enthusiasm applied in a professional way” motif has also resulted in numerous other memorable experiences for festival-goers that have tested the artists’ improvisation skills, as well as stamina.

The We Jazz Festival aims to inspire and engage.

Maarit Kytöharju/We Jazz

“Why not do it ourselves?”

The festival’s unholy credo seems to work as the underlying beat for We Jazz’s other ventures, which include an annual jazz magazine, pop-up jazz vinyl shops and an almost three-year-old record label that has released 17 albums and eight singles from mostly Finnish but also foreign jazz musicians.

Before founding We Jazz Records, Nives turned down passes made by distributors. “I was flattered, yeah, but the business side of it seemed like a stretch,” he remembers thinking.

But along came the art of it and a request from Bowman Trio to produce an album from their live festival recording. “Of course, we were in, no question!” laughs Nives. “When we finished the album, everyone was beyond stoked about how it turned out. It was too good to give to anyone else and we thought why not release it ourselves.”

We Jazz Records is currently looking to spread its freewheeling ways to a wider audience by tapping Finnish and international talent, such as Mopo and Otis Sandsjö. According to Nives, the label’s sound is diverse and without limitations at its base, but also unified by a sense of “humaneness” and “honesty”. The future looks bright for the label and the Finnish jazz scene, with plenty of highly educated musical talent emerging through the cracks.

“Playing jazz is like speaking a language. Being able to speak the language in the first place is key, but you also gotta have something to say,” explains Nives. “When the two things – handicraft and vision – meet, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, because you’re just that good of an artist.”

If jazz is a language, then it’s safe to say that the We Jazz collective’s accent is well tuned to be understood in the jazz capitals of the world. The team is slowly spreading its melody out into the world through Germany and the UK, as well as future plans that include a collaborative project coming up in the US in 2020 with Timo Lassy and Teppo Mäkynen.

Jazz business

The art of crate digging is embraced in the ethos of We Jazz.

Maarit Kytöharju/We Jazz

Toying or improvising with standard beats is what makes We Jazz what it is, whether it’s its music, events of even entrepreneurship.

“We’re not just a festival, so we can do it in an unorthodox way, and we’re not a mere label either, so we can let loose with it as well,” explains Nives. “And because we’re not just a record shop we can play around with what it usually means to be a record shop, too. Savvy, right?”

The collective’s edge has been a sense of meaning in what they do, as well as a sort of outsider do-it-yourself-attitude, perhaps inspired by Nives and his early experiences in the scene.

Of course, an enterprise that runs on offbeat ideas has evident risks, but Nives refuses to conform to old norms. “All new business ideas are mad. Otherwise nothing new would ever be conceived, no?”

So, what’s cooking in the collective imagination of the We Jazz ensemble right now?

“We just bought an 11 000-record collection of rare jazz vinyls from Switzerland and are planning to turn our pop ups into a fixed record shop at our office. It’s a business risk, yeah, but I’ve always been more inclined to think ‘why not’ than ‘why’,” ends Nives, with a smirk.

Text: Samuli Ojala

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