I Went to the Pori Jazz Festival to Find Out Why It’s Considered Legendary
Text and pictures: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today
Tisss ta ta tiss ta ta tisss. . . The calm river rippled to the rhythm of the jazzy swing, which emanated over the stream that splits the city of Pori in half. I felt like flying as the saxophone joined the groove and it was as if the notes carried me over the bridge to the Kirjurinluoto Concert Park, where the 50th Pori Jazz festival was on.
I felt the warm breeze on my cheeks and as I crossed the bridge, I saw the tower of the city church rising in the horizon, proud and Gothic behind the thick-leaved trees and white marquees bordering the riverside. I thought that the old cities of Finland are very beautiful, and due to the size of the country, most old towns, like Pori within 240 kilometres from Helsinki on the west coast, lie within reasonable driving distances.
I had arrived at this city on Thursday evening on mid-July. A fascinating place of about 85,300 inhabitants, founded in 1558 and burned down an incredible amount of nine times. This was the sixth day of the festival, which lasts for eight days.
As I entered the city, I drove through a dozen roundabouts, saw many old tree houses and tried to cross many streets which were blocked from cars but swarming with people. Music seemed to be playing everywhere. I had driven right into the Pori Jazz spirit.
Pori Jazz is considered one of the pioneering and legendary festivals in Finland. The humble beginnings reach back to the ’60s, when a collective group of jazz enthusiasts and musicians decided to create something new in unison, and ever since the festival has been growing bigger, attracting about 120,000 to 160,000 spectators yearly.
Due to the high amount of hotel reservations, I decided to skip any formal accommodation and prepared to sleep in the car. No bed, sauna or Jacuzzi were needed; the comfort of a soft seat, a blanket and a pillow and going through the morning routines in a toilet of an ABC gas station would suffice.
The area at the festival’s main stage was unexpectedly large. The spectators were standing on a downhill leaning to the bandstand, and the small hill was dotted with thousands of people, standing or sitting. Many wore fedoras and I too felt happy of wearing one.
Caro Emerald, a Dutch pop and jazz singer, was beginning her set. I had not been too familiar with Caro’s music beforehand but I had gotten my hands on her two albums before the concert, the debut Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor (2010) and The Shocking Miss Emerald (2013). Her first album had made history in the Netherlands, holding the number one spot on the country’s album chart for 30 weeks (beating Michael Jackson’s Thriller). Both albums were filled with catchy tunes mixing soul, jazz and Latin rhythms.
Caro moved the crowd from her debut: That Man, Just One Dance and the super groovy Back it Up. About 30 minutes into her concert, during the song Dr. Wanna Do, while she sang of her eyes going “ooh” and how she can’t get over her Dr. Do, it started raining and the dancing crowd went for their raincoats.
“They tell me that the Finnish summer is finally going out of the snow into the rain,” Caro said.
The crowd laughed.
“Thank you for not going home during the rain. In other countries they would, you know.”
Caro entertained the crowd for a good hour and the rain lasted less than that.
As the final act of the evening at the main stage, it was time for the Australian pop star Kylie Minogue to perform. The crowd squeezed in front like ants and the sun came from behind the clouds as if to take a peek on the audience. But a group of men were hoping to get a peek of something else.
“Goddamn, today you will see it, on this very night,” one of the men said to his friends.
It’s no secret that Kylie is an international sex symbol. Just check out the Kylie Minogue Hottest Ass Tribute Ever on YouTube and while you’re at it put on the video for Spinning Around and you’ll know what I and the other guy mean.
Kylie walked to the stage wearing a red tight leopard suit and a crown was covering her blonde hair. She had about a dozen background dancers, mostly women, in swimming suits and net tights and red burlesque dresses.
You have to be a true Kylie fan way beyond her behind to know all her songs, as her career spans over three decades with 12 recorded studio albums, but I recognised and appreciated the well-known ’80s classics like The Loco-Motion and I Should Be So Lucky. She also nailed with songs like Celebration (1992) Spinning Around (2001) and On a Night Like This (2002).
As I am looking out at the Pori Jazz festival in Finland, how did a girl from Australia get here? That’s a long way! It’s the best way. But if we could choose just one little word to describe this audience . . .”
“Wow! Wow. Wow!” the audience screamed.
“You guys are looking so, Wow!” Kylie screamed and went straight into her hit song from 2007 – Wow.
After Kylie’s performance, which lasted about an hour, the masses started floating out, but a funky rhythm kept pumping from a tent at the distance.
The tent, I learned, was a new venue for this year. It hosted as much as 4,000 people, built to honour the memory of the American trumpeter Ted Curson. Curson, until his death in 2012 while 77-years-old, had played on every single Pori Jazz festival since 1966.
Inside the tent was Sonny Knight, 66, from the US, a burly bald black guy singing in an electric blue suit, backed by his players, The Lakers. It was obvious from hearing the first few bars that Sonny Knight & The Lakers trust in classical arrangements, avoiding the ’80s synthesizers, taking their sound 50 years back to the roots of funk, when the instruments sounded real and raw.
The upbeat songs from Sonny’s debut I’m Still Here (2014) like Juicy Lucy, Hey Girl and Sonny’s Boogaloo kept the crowd moving, shaking and grooving.
Sonny had that James Brown type of authority over his band, making different players obey his commands with strong hand gestures, without leaving any speculation who is the captain. His voice was incredible.
While Sonny was a recording artist already in the ’60s, he never really became that popular. During that decade, there was another Sonny Knight singing, too, but he is not be confused into him.
It was not until 2012 that we see the beginning of the Sonny Knight of today. Those days he sang in a group called The Bachelors but after meeting other talented musicians of the very similar taste in music, he formed Sonny Knight & The Lakers.
It was getting hot in the tent. After the scheduled hour and a half of intense performance, the band left but the crowd still wanted more. It was time for an encore. Sonny grabbed the mic.
A slow rhythm, topped with a hypnotic guitar loop and strong horn arrangements, with Sonny singing about the hardships and value of the present moment, – all that combined – made you dizzy and the hair on your neck oscillated.
The song was called I’m Still Here.
I could still hear the applauds echoing in my mind as I passed over the river to the street devoted to music, which was called the Jazz Street.
I found myself sipping rum with the locals in an old recycling centre turned into a bar, where the music was funky, the lights shadowy and LPs hanged from the ceiling as art deco.
When I walked back to my car in Kirjurinluoto, and as I strolled across the very same bridge that took me to Pori Jazz about ten hours earlier, I saw the dim city lights over the calm river and the church tower and I thought to myself, “I’m still here . . . It was a very fine day.”
At that moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
Now I understood, why Pori Jazz is considered legendary.