The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue

We Jazz Records and its Many-Headed Helsinki Hydras

Caption: Y-Otis at We Jazz Festival 2021. Photo: Justus Mättö.
Caption: Y-Otis at We Jazz Festival 2021. Photo: Justus Mättö.

Entering the music realms, dreaming of running a record label, programming a festival, publishing a magazine, being visually articulate on the graphic design front, operating a record store, spinning records onstage—or on a radio station—most mere mortals would tend to fixate on just one or maybe two of these pursuits. In Helsinki, the polymath audio obsessive Matti Nives has, during quite a short careering spell, managed to fulfill all of these roles, not just as a dabbler, but as an increasingly influential expert across all zones.

Nives has always supported the DIY route, and as a student, he didn’t have the cash to hire anyone else. He began to meddle with graphics, and promote gigs, as a self-taught creator, learning swiftly as he progressed. Visuals soon became one of his main areas of interest, at the heart of his work on the We Jazz record label and, more recently, its magazine.

“The way I came to graphic design was through organizing my first events,” says Nives, sitting in the lobby of GLO Hotel Art, Helsinki, which was one of the many venues used in last December’s eighth edition of the We Jazz Festival. “This happened around 2006, in a different town called Jyväskylä, which is in central Finland, where I was growing up and going to the university. I wanted to generate some kind of musical activity, and also to start DJing. I figured quickly that the best way was to get some gear, and start my own events, and I also wanted to bring in some bands that weren’t coming up to that town, from Helsinki mostly.”

The original Nives formula was simply to set the stage with DJs, usually himself, and a live band. “I was really interested in jazz, and some of the broken beat stuff, but since then I’ve expanded quite a lot. I also DJ abstract, avant-garde music. I have a radio show for that, as well. Also, some other, let’s say, organic musics, regional stuff from Africa, Brazil, maybe some soul or funk.”

Nives was born in Helsinki, but moved up to Jyväskylä at the age of five. When he returned to Helsinki, he wanted to make his club-promoting concept more professional. At first, We Jazz presented one-off nights, and Nives was also working as a freelance journalist and record company publicist. The first full We Jazz festival happened in 2013, developing from the previous year’s booking of consecutive Friday and Saturday events. This just happened to be in December, which Nives found to be a surprisingly prime time to hold a festival. Its perspective responded to club culture, but has evolved further into other fields of experimental music. “I didn’t really have any career plans, I was just doing this as a hobby, and it’s evolved from there,” Nives confesses. “Somehow it took the form of a week-long event, I don’t know how. Maybe out of all the ideas that were there. Also, during the first couple of years, I didn’t even use the word ‘festival,’ not once. I used ‘installation.’ It’s always had this conceptual thing. The audience grew around the festival.”

One of the key thrusts of the We Jazz Festival is to use different venues on almost every day, always asking which would be ideal for the music’s enhancement, whether it’s a contemplative solo performance or a twitchy avant-funk party-throwing combo. There’s only one venue that has been used during every year’s festival, the small corner coffee’n’croissants spot Kahvila Sävy, a regular Nives haunt where he sometimes spun records. Last December, the drummer Teddy Rok played a solo set there, beneath his sharply delineated mushroom of electronics.

In 2016, it was time to start a record label. Since then, the We Jazz release schedule has been somewhat prolific. Established Finnish acts such as Jimi Tenor and Timo Lassy sit within the roster, but much of the dynamism has arrived via fresher formations from the likes of Petter Eldh, Otis Sandsjö, Linda Fredrikkson, Lucia Cadotsch, Jason Nazary, and Dan Nicholls. There happens to be only one Finnish player in that last roll call, illustrating the international face of We Jazz. There are still multiple native acts on the label, but their names are a touch less known internationally.

The sonic characteristics of these releases are becoming increasingly varied. Saxophonist Sandsjö’s Y-Otis band has similarities with the taut hyper-funk found on the Los Angeles scene, while fellow reedist Fredrikssen’s Juniper possesses a spacey, insubstantial, questioning attitude, flecked by unusual keyboard electronics. Free power still rears up at unexpected moments, saxophone ripping frontally. Singer Cadotsch takes the low path, quietly framed by acoustic bass and alto saxophone, reinterpreting songs by Brian Eno and Kurt Weill—not a standard repertoire.

Jason Nazary represents the We Jazz extreme, fidgeting with targeted power, via jabbering electronic interventions and clipped drum-skin stutters. One band that combines several of the label’s tendencies is Koma Saxo, who are descended from Amok Amor. Here, advanced funk complexities are stoked by Petter Eldh (bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums), topped by a wriggling, seething, caterwauling free jazz saxophone section that features Sandsjö, Jonas Kullhammar, and Mikko Innanen.

“The route of that band is so much integrated within this idea of spontaneous encounters, and trying to grow something real out of that,” says Nives, of Koma Saxo. “Because sometimes spontaneous encounters in music can be just only that. It might be interesting for a gig to be completely new people playing together, but when it’s really happening, and there’s this chemistry, it starts to be a band. I think that’s very exciting.”

Nives invariably consults his gut feelings, when choosing pathways towards certain artists and concepts. “I don’t care how it happens, if it’s natural I’m all for it. Often, it’s about timing as well, especially now, with the vinyl delays, we need a year or so. You need the right people, the right idea and the good timing.”

Nives describes his passion for vinyl as “borderline addiction.” In November of 2019, We Jazz expanded even further by opening up a record store. Nives operated a few pop-ups at various gigs, but the catalyst opportunity was being offered the entire 11,000-strong vinyl collection of Francis Montfort, a departed Swiss music journalist. Nives mulled this over for a while, negotiated, and eventually transported the crates to Helsinki, forming the heart of his new shop’s stock. Momentum established, Nives has subsequently added further collections, documenting the habits of their previous owners in a series of articles. He’s also used various platters on his radio show, and spun them on his DJ nights.

“Most of the time, when I buy records it’s really anonymous,” he mourns. “Maybe there’s a scribble on the cover, and you can see that somebody bought it in Germany and shipped it to Japan, or whatever.”

Young Nives has been having sleepless nights wondering what will happen to our own collections once we all die. He dislikes the idea of all that vinyl being housed in a library or museum. “I love the records to go to the people. They’re happy, they’re playing them at their homes. I would prefer my records to be out there, among music lovers, collectors, DJs.”

Sometimes, an LP might have a malodorous whiff. The shop may well place a warning sticker on its sleeve: “this reeks of tobacco!” Nives appreciates the history of the well-handled platter, its scratches, cover scribbles and stains, or perhaps a potentially musty odor. Don’t go to the We Jazz store looking for mint condition.

Magazines have also been an ongoing passion for Nives. So he started his own journal, which possesses a substantially collectible book-like weight. A few years back, he dipped a tootsie in the flow with a tabloid newspaper, to go beyond merely listing each festival’s program by adding other articles. Last December, the magazine’s second edition came out, doubling to a 2,000 print run, as the first issue’s 1,000 copies sold out almost immediately. Called Pursuance, its contents begin with jazz, circulating outwards, encouraging writers to suggest their hidden urges, then deliver previously only imagined concept pieces.

The December 2021 We Jazz Festival featured most of the acts mentioned earlier, but also included others who share the spiritual concerns of the label, such as Atomic, Jasper Høiby, Nik Bärtsch, Iro Haarla, and Kim Myhr. The venues ranged from a furniture shop to a techno club, a department store to an art deco hall, an alternative music club equipped with what looked like growth-pill home hi-fi speakers, plus a “secret” gig in an out-of-the-way log cabin. This latter premiered a new duo of Eldh and Nazary, along with the more familiar partnership of guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The weather conditions in December were sub-zero, which facilitated a most unusual festival experience, from icy pavements to snow-fluffed alleyways, gloves and ear-muffs on.

In 2022, it’s looking like We Jazz will have a three-month loop for the production of all formats, enabling simultaneous release, an aim that’s been extremely problematic during the last two years. And good news for all vinyl addicts: there will be a new pressing plant opening in Helsinki, later in 2022. Certainly a strong temptation for Nives.


Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for Down Beat, Jazzwise, and Songlines.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

All Issues