Kokko Quartet (Finland), Bennetts Lane, Thursday 3 December
Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival Dec 3 — 13, 2015
Line-up: Kaisa Siirala saxophones and flutes, Johanna Pitkänen piano and keys, Timo Tuppurainen bass, Risto Takala drums
It is always welcome when we get a chance to hear jazz bands from Europe, because they offer a perspective that differs from the traditions imbued in the American lexicon. Promoter Henk Van Leeuwen is always urging festivals to include Scandinavian bands and this year he succeeded in arranging an Australian tour by Kokko Quartet that included two visits to Melbourne — at the opening gig of the MWIJF and on Wednesday 9 December at Paris Cat.
Publicity material explains that this quartet’s music has many forms and the group is appropriately named because in Finnish Kalevala mythology kokko refers to a mythical, gigantic eagle that has many forms. The Helsinki group was established in 2010 and plays “recognisably Scandinavian jazz with influences from Indian and Arabic music as well as Cuban rhythms”.
Album notes to the quartet’s album Like A River provide this background: “The group, led by pianist and composer Johanna Pitkänen, brings together four experienced musicians: Pitkänen, a pianist and composer who has played with groups performing Arabic music as well as flamenco and performed at festivals in Finland and in Estonia; saxophone player Kaisa Siirala who has played with bands ranging from trios to a big band and performed in India, Japan, Namibia, Peru, South Africa and many European countries; bass player Timo Tuppurainen, who has played with bands such as U-Street All Stars and Lenni-Kalle Taipale Trio and toured in USA, India, Russia and many times in Europe; and drummer Risto Takala, who has played with many Finnish bands representing different styles from pop to jazz.”
At Bennetts Lane the quartet performed songs written by Pitkänen, Siirala and Tuppurainen.
In the first set the influence of Indian carnatic music was evident in Siirala’s Indy and Gokulam, as well as Pitkänen’s Like A River. Cuban rhythms were there too, but the pieces were more reflective and at times melancholic. After the more lively Southern Dance, the set closed with the wistful At Land. It was pleasant rather than arresting work from the quartet, but I felt that they hit their straps in the following set.
There was definitely more oomph to the opening Young and Foolish, and some fire in the next piece, Camel Road. Pitkänen on piano excelled in her engaging composition Havis before the sounds of train horns, wild dogs and rickshaws were evoked by Siirala’s energetic Orient Express. All these pieces showed the quartet as cohesive unit well driven by Pitkänen as leader. The dreamy ballad Keppikerjäläinen (Beggar) featured a brief bass solo and some effective brush work by Takala. Cheat and Disappointment followed by Letters rounded off a set that had the audience applauding enthusiastically.
Perhaps appropriately given its opening role in a women’s festival, the focus in Kokko Quartet seemed to be more on the contributions of Pitkänen and Siirala, but the ensemble evidently does not act as a solo showcase and that’s fine with me. On this occasion patrons seemed to be wooed rather than wowed, but few would have left dissatisfied after a strong second set.