In 2002, musicians from Finland and New Orleans, united by the universal language of jazz, formed New Orleans Helsinki Connection.
As often happens with jazz bands, though, players on the bandstand can vary. That’s true whether New Orleans Helsinki Connection is playing in Finland, Norway, New Orleans, Moscow or São Paulo.
Planned reunion gigs this month featuring all seven of the band’s original members — at the Café Istanbul on Tuesday and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Thursday, April 30 — will be one man short. Finnish drummer Thomas Rönnholm cancelled at the last minute.
Nonetheless, the New Orleans Helsinki Connection shows will go on. Substitute drummer Barnaby Gold will step in for the missing Fin. And because Gold is from Australia and the band’s bassist, longtime New Orleans resident Nobu Ozaki, is Japanese, the Aussie drummer’s participation will make New Orleans Helsinki Connection even more of a United Nations of jazz.
The band’s other charter members are vocalist Tricia Boutté, guitarist Todd Duke, pianist Paul Longstreth and, the married couple in the group, Finnish-born trombonist Katja Toivola and singer-trumpeter Leroy Jones.
Despite the band’s multiple nationalities, the music they make has no barriers.
“The communication works across oceans and languages and cultures,” Boutté, a New Orleans native based in Norway, said during a visit last week to Jones’ and Toivola’s home in New Orleans. “No matter where we grew up, what we do for holidays, things that are so very different, musically we’re like relatives.”
“Music,” Jones agreed, “especially jazz, is a universal language. The key ingredient is that all of us have a similar musical orientation, what we like, what we’ve listened to, what we’ve been influenced by. That makes for cohesiveness between the band members.”
And being Finnish and Japanese, as members of New Orleans Helsinki Connection are, needn’t conflict with living in New Orleans, Toivola said.
“Nobu is still Japanese, but he’s also a New Orleanian,” she said. “I think you can be both. It’s not like you have to pick sides. You can keep where you’re coming from and still be at home here.”
New Orleans Helsinki Connection members Toivola and Boutté first worked together in the 1990s, when the then New Orleans-based Boutté traveled to Helsinki to sing with the Finnish band Riverside Rascals.
In the early 2000s, the two jazz women found themselves stuck in a tour they didn’t enjoy musically or logistically. After enduring dormitory-style accommodations and band members who wailed Beatles songs through the night, Boutté and Toivola talked about forming a group of their own.
“We said, ‘It would be so nice to actually do an organized tour,’ ” Toivola recalled.
“And choose the people we wanted we work with,” Boutté added.
“So we got this brilliant plan,” Toivola remembered. “I said, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Working with the idea that their new band would feature talented musicians who also enjoyed each other’s company, New Orleans Helsinki Connection played a three-week tour of Finland in 2002. Recording sessions followed, including such traditional tunes as “Shake It and Break It,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” as well as an original song that came spontaneously to Jones.
“A song that’s catchy and makes the point of who we are and what our aspirations are,” he explained.
In the sweetly swinging “New Orleans Helsinki Connection,” Jones and Boutté sing: “Jazz is fun when it makes you get down on the floor. We play jazz that’ll make you keep on wanting more.
“Music is the way to let your spirit run free, and when you feel the groove you know that it’s heavenly. New Orleans Helsinki Connection is hoping to soar.”