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Hard Bop

1 April 2019

An unlikely place for jazz? But Helsinki is making tradition with its clean sound

Just under a kilometre southwest of Helsinki’s South Harbour is an area known as Viiskulma, or the Five Corners in English. It’s not much to look at, just an intersection of five streets with a statuesque building on each corner, but for lovers of jazz and architecture it is of very particular, and very precise, importance.

Viiskulma is the spiritual home of The Five Corners Quintet, one of Finland’s finest musical exports and a modernist creation formed by the founders of the now defunct Ricky-Tick Records. When the band was launched in the early 2000s it fused jazz, architecture and design in a way that was completely Finnish. It was about craftsmanship, polished contemporary production and the golden era of modern jazz, but it was also minimalist and elegant, just like much of Helsinki’s most memorable architecture.

The man responsible for this symbiosis was Antti Eerikäinen, the co-founder of Ricky-Tick Records and the entrepreneur behind Pontus and Ateljé Finne, two of the city’s finest restaurants. He combined architecture and design on the quintet’s album covers, creating the concept behind the band with music producer and Ricky-Tick co-founder Tuomas Kallio, who would go on to found the hugely successful summer music festival Flow.

“The idea was to make modernist (not modern or contemporary, but modernist as a mid-century cultural movement) jazz and the architecture of that period fitted in well,” says Eerikäinen, who also runs Jackie, a bar inspired by 60s Italian lounge and 70s French cosmic disco. “I thought that it would somehow reflect the overall ethos of our project.”

On the cover of Trading Eights, therefore, was a photograph of the Meilahti Hospital, which was designed by the architects Jaakko Paatela and Reino Koivula in 1965. For The Devil Kicks EP Eerikäinen chose Marja and Keijo Petäjä’s Lauttasaari Church. For Chasin’ the Jazz Gone By, the Tapiola Central Tower by Aarne Ervi. You can see these buildings during walking tours of the city or read about Ervi and other influential architects at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, which is a short walk from Viiskulma and forms part of Helsinki’s Design District.

More a state of mind than anything else, the Design District spans several downtown neighbourhoods and represents the capital’s epicentre of creativity. It is here that you’ll find everything Helsinki is renowned for – great architecture, great design, great art galleries and museums. There’s even a Design District map, offering a curated selection of more than 200 boutiques, ateliers, museums, galleries and cafes, amongst them the Design Museum on Korkeavuorenkatu and Galerie Forsblom in Kamppi. Eerikäinen’s Jackie is here, too, three blocks up from Viiskulma.

Architecture is at the heart of Helsinki’s identity, particularly modernism and the work of Alvar Aalto, who borrowed shapes and colours from the Finnish landscape and treated each of his buildings as a work of art. You can find many of them in the city, including the asymmetrical wonder of Finlandia Hall, just to the south of Töölönlahti Bay, and Aalto’s own home in the northern suburb of Munkkiniemi.

But if modernist architecture provides Helsinki’s urban backdrop, it is jazz that provides the soundtrack. It matches the energy of its buildings, with its clean but edgy lines and rejection of the abstract. When it was first released in 2003 The Five Corners Quintet’s debut EP, Trading Eights, blended hard bop with Latin jazz and took jazz running back to the dancefloor. For anybody unaware of Helsinki’s vibrant music scene, it was a revelation, with the quintet coming to epitomise an era of stylised dancefloor jazz.

Although the quintet no longer performs, many of its members are now part of the Ricky-Tick Big Band, while groups such as Dalindèo (the second signing to Ricky-Tick Records) continue to play live. That means a focus on basslines and grooves.

“It’s about energy,” says Valtteri Pöyhönen, the immaculately dressed jazz guitarist, bandleader, composer and producer behind Dalindèo. “If you go in the abstract direction you have a different type of energy than if you go for the hard-hitting stuff that makes people move.”

That energy is on display at venues such as G Livelab, which lies northeast of Viiskulma in Kaartinkaupunki, and at Storyville, the oldest jazz joint in town. Most of the best spots, however, can be found in Kallio, Helsinki’s trendiest neighbourhood. Located north of the city centre and across the Pitkäsilta bridge, Kallio is a sometimes intoxicating mix of cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and bars and is home to venues such as the Koko Jazz Club and Tenho Restobar.

And then there’s Flow, which began life as a soul and jazz event and is held every August in a former power plant in Suvilahti. It now attracts more than 80,000 people a year.

“It’s the musicians that you play with too,” adds Pöyhönen, who is also the leader of the Ricky-Tick Big Band. “Jaska Lukkarinen, who’s the drummer in both the bands, is an energetic guy and I think we always have this kind of push, this drive, which is also part of jazz. And right now, especially with what we do with the Ricky-Tick Big Band, it’s not just about jazz, it’s about hip-hop and other musical influences.”

Pöyhönen is at the Korjaamo Culture Factory in Töölö, a cultural venue not far from his studio and the Sibelius monument, with its wave-like steel pipes forming a visual representation of music. Nearby is Café Regatta, a traditional red cottage by the edge of the sea famed for its homemade cinnamon buns.

The following evening he is at the Savoy Theatre in central Helsinki leading the Ricky-Tick Big Band & Julkinen Sana. It’s a full house. With the band featuring some of Finland’s finest jazz musicians and the rappers Paleface, Tommy Lindgren and Redrama, it would be hard to imagine it being anything else.

Words: Iain Akerman
Photos: Koptercam & Petri Anttila