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Beyond genre

by Wif Stenger

Olavi Louhivuori splashed on to the scene in 2002 as drummer of Ilmiliekki Quartet, which scooped up Finnish and Nordic jazz awards. Since then, this restless multi-instrumentalist has played with the genre-shattering Oddarrang and many other groups in Europe and the US – while at the same time composing for orchestras and electronic solo albums.

“My problem is that I like to do a lot of different stuff. And there always has to be an element of weirdness in it,” says Olavi Louhivuori with a grin, sitting at a café-launderette on Helsinki’s Töölö Square.

“I’d say that 85% of what I do is jazz, more or less, while my solo stuff is more electronic-experimental and Oddarrang is no longer jazz. I’d say it’s experimental, instrumental something… if I had to categorise it.”

Louhivuori’s career makes it clear that music doesn’t need to be categorised. His work with symphony orchestras, big bands, small ensembles and as a solo artist reflects affection for many genres, spanning free and mainstream jazz, ambient, folk, hip hop and progressive rock to classical music. None of it fits neatly into any pigeonhole.

Exhibit A: the majestic confluence of electronic space music, post-rock and krautrock, blues and churchy sounds on the new fourth album from his main group, Oddarrang.

The album, Agartha, nearly shares a name with a Miles Davis live album, Agharta, from 1975. At that time, the trumpeter was moving further from jazz into a new kind of fusion – as Oddarrang have over their 13-year career.


Life-changing Miles album

It was a Davis live album from a decade earlier, though, that set Louhivuori on his path.

“When I was around 16, I got some albums from my friend Janne Halonen, who now leads Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble. The most important was Miles’s My Funny Valentine/Plus 4 and More. That was life-changing for me. It worked as a motivator. I was completely like, this is what I want to do. I transcribed everything that the 18-year-old drummer Tony Williams was doing on there. And that opened the door to many other amazing albums.”

Around the age of nine Louhivuori started a school band called the Rocking Stones with pianist Joona Toivanen – in whose trio he still plays a quarter of a century later. “Joona brought in these amazing songs, which we played at the school spring show, like ‘Peaches en Regalia’ by Frank Zappa and ‘Watermelon Man’ by Herbie Hancock,” he recalls.

Wasn’t that fusion tune, with its many modal scales and irregular 16th notes, a bit challenging for young boys?

“We didn’t think about it,” says Louhivuori with a chuckle. “We were just playing!”

Around the age of 11, Louhivuori was introduced to jazz by his father, a music professor at the University of Jyväskylä.

“He took me to the local jazz bar to see a colleague of his, Petri Toiviainen, a brain researcher and a great jazz pianist, with drummer Rami Väyrynen. Rami became my teacher and later my younger brother Kalevi Louhivuori and I played at the same club.”

In high school, the Louhivuoris and Toivanen were jam-session regulars at the club, now known as Poppari. Besides his trumpeter brother and Toivanen, Louhivuori still plays with alumni of that scene, including guitarist Halonen, bassist Tapani Toivanen and pianist Tuomo Uusitalo – with whom he recorded in New York this September. Bringing things full circle, playing bass in that group is Myles Sloniker, who studied with Ron Carter, bassist on Davis’s Agharta.


It’s a family affair

Louhivuori’s open attitude and innate musicality were fostered in a family of five siblings with music-teacher parents. Everyone played instruments, but Louhivuori says efforts to perform as a family band often broke up in squabbles. Many have however collaborated later, including joint bands with their cousins the Ikonens, another illustrious musical family.

Louhivuori plays in Sun Trio with his brother Kalevi, and has produced an album for his younger sister’s folk-pop duo, Eva & Manu. His eldest sister Aino Peltomaa sings on Agartha while cousin Osmo Ikonen contributes cello, keyboards and vocals to Oddarrang. Another cousin, Tuomo Prättälä, plays keyboards in Louhivuori’s wife Emma Salokoski’s band.

“Tuomo got me into hip hop when we were kids,” says Louhivuori. “He introduced me to cool rap bands like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Guru, who used jazz samples. So this Afro-American rhythm and groove brought me into jazz somehow.”

Besides Ikonen, the relative he plays most consistently with is Kalevi. Their Sun Trio has also just released a new album and tours Japan and Finland this autumn. “Of course brothers have complicated relationships, but with Kalevi it’s always been about creating something rather than competing. There may be a rivalry, but it’s inspiring for both of us. We push each other in a positive way.”

Kalevi, who also performs with the Northern Governors and Ricky-Tick Big Band, admires his brother’s discipline. “What’s special about Olavi is his strong ambition towards playing drums and writing music,” he says. “I’ve always been amazed how much and consistently he used to practise, eight hours a day. He’s also very versatile in composing.”


Jump into the stream

The sibling rivalry within Sun Trio is mediated by bassist Antti Lötjönen – who also forms a rhythm section with Olavi in Ilmiliekki and the free-jazz Liberty Ship.

“Antti is the bass player I’ve worked most closely with since moving to Helsinki in 2002,” says Louhivuori. “We grew up together as musicians and can more or less read each other’s minds.”

Besides Liberty Ship, Louhivuori plays in another free improvisational group, Olavi Trio.

“With both of those groups, the philosophy is the same: let’s just go with the flow; let’s not think about anything; let’s jump into the stream,” he explains.

Olavi Trio – so-called because all the members have Olavi as a first or middle name – is more playful, reflecting the personality of its founder, veteran bassist Teppo Hauta-aho. “He brings this element of joy and fun,” says the drummer. The trio recently recorded an album with US trumpet pioneer Wadada Leo Smith, due out next year.

Olavi Trio originally convened in 2004 to play at a birthday party for French producer and promoter Charles Gil, now director of the Raahe Jazz on the Beach festival. “On stage, Olavi has an intuitive sense of the whole musical image within which he is involved,” notes Gil.


Oddarrang’s odd arrangements

Nowhere is that more clear than in Oddarrang, which Olavi Louhivuori founded in 2003, tweaking its name from “odd arrangement”. Though it wasn’t a jazz outfit, the melodic new band quickly won the Finnish Emma (Grammy) jazz award.

“Some people try to categorise it as jazz, maybe because I have a jazz background. But it’s completely something else,” says Louhivuori. “The songs are quite well structured and thoroughly written, but I leave space for stuff to happen. We have a couple of songs that are almost completely improvised. But we don’t play solos. We try to find these colours and sounds together; it’s more like noise or ambient.”

The quintet’s unusual instrumentation is led by Ilmari Pohjola’s trombone and Osmo Ikonen’s cello. Other members are Lasse Sakara (guitar) and Lasse Lindgren (bass).

According to Ikonen, “the band is formed by five guys, each with our unique sound and ideas, but Olavi is the one who has the final say on which direction we’re going. He has a very melodic approach to playing drums. He’s always thinking about the bigger picture, as opposed to focusing on just keeping the rhythm.

“The songs on the new album are composed by Olavi, Lasse Lindgren and me, but Olavi is in charge of the grand design. The sound is more electronic as we’ve experimented with synths and drum programming,” he adds.

Louhivuori notes that most of the group members play vintage Roland synthesizers on Agartha, which he describes as post-rock.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of old electronic music like Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Cluster and Ash Ra Temple. I’m really interested in the movement from German krautrock into the ambient electronic field, and how modern classical was involved. They started experimenting with tape in the ’50s. The whole German avant-garde scene, the classical modernists, were their forefathers. I’m really interested in that period, and that can be heard on the album.”

Oddarrang’s first three discs, beginning with Music Illustrated a decade ago, have featured subtle wordless vocals or vocalise. Now for the first time, on Ikonen’s “Admiral Byrd’s Flight”, there are actually lyrics – a few brief lines in English, nearly buried in the mysterious mix. They seem to refer to American explorer Richard Byrd, who claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole by air from Norway.


Nordic connections

Norway is a second musical home for Louhivuori. He plays there more than in Finland, in a variety of groups with bassist/guitarist Mats Eilertsen. And while some say Oddarrang’s name sounds Norwegian, the music is said to echo Icelandic acts like Sigur Rós – though this is denied by Icelandic guitarist Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson, who temporarily replaced Lasse Sakara in the band last spring. “Oddarrang have their own sound, and I don’t see any direct parallels with any other bands,” he says.

The new album Agartha is high-energy and dramatic but still includes delicate, richly melancholic intervals, occasionally building to cathartic climaxes.

“Oddarrang’s music has become quite big,” agrees the drummer. “I play with a bigger, louder set-up. We used some overdubs, but tracks like ‘Mass I–III’ were played more or less live – and it gets quite massive at the end.”

Still, Louhivuori promises that the new album’s sound carries over well onstage. The band tours Europe this autumn, including the Berlin and London jazz festivals. Louhivuori says most of the concerts are at “indie clubs, crossover venues, world music venues and experimental jazz venues. Our final gig of the year will be at the We Jazz festival in Helsinki in December, which will be epic!”


Classical and rhythms converge

As a kid, Louhivuori played violin, cello and piano before embracing the drums at the age of nine. His parents mostly played classical music at home.

“That was especially what they’d put on if I had a fever or was sick. There are a few amazing albums that I listened to a lot, especially when I was sick: one by Kiri Te Kanawa and some Palestrina. Whenever I hear those, I go into this state… a little out of this world.”

Louhivuori maintains contact with the symphonic world. He composed and performed a drum concerto with the Jyväskylä Sinfonia and collaborated on a piece for the Turku Philharmonic by Verneri Pohjola, the Ilmiliekki trumpeter and Ilmari’s brother.

“It’s very different working with classical musicians,” notes Louhivuori. “I’ve worked with big bands like the UMO Jazz Orchestra, but they’re rhythm musicians, so we share the same idea of rhythm. That’s not true with classical musicians, which has taught me a lot. They have a completely different way of approaching rhythm,” he muses.

“But in the years I’ve been on the scene, there’s been a big change. When I started to work with classical musicians of my age in the early 2000s, there was still this big gap. We were two worlds that didn’t really understand each other. In a way, that made it nice to work together, because it was so bizarre. But in the last couple of years, when we meet, we can start to talk about the same things. Both sides have really changed.”


Industrial experiments to folk ballads

Far from the concert hall, Louhivuori tapped into industrial, found sounds and Senegalese drumming for his solo debut, Inhale Exhale, in 2008. That was followed two years ago by Existence, with a brighter, crisper sound suggestive of electronic artists like Aphex Twin. It also shows a leap forward in his skills as producer.

“The main difference with Existence is that I managed to make it work as a live act, for instance in an old industrial hall at Helsinki’s Flow Festival,” he says. “After the first album, I basically just played free improvised gigs by myself, which didn’t have much to do with the album.”

Existence also features a composition by his son Emil, then six, to whom the album is dedicated. That continues Louhivuori’s tradition of collaborating with family members.

“It can be weird, but it can also be the most natural thing in the world. With my wife, it took some years before we found a way to work together. But when we did, it’s been really nice.”

The main result has been a set of Swedo-Finnish folk tunes recorded by Salokoski and Ilmiliekki Quartet, which Louhivuori co-founded with Verneri Pohjola, Tuomo Prättälä and Antti Lötjönen in 2002.

“Ilmiliekki is acoustic, jazzy and really sensitive. We can just go play anywhere, whereas with Oddarrang we now need a PA system and a proper venue. I’m in a kind of funny schizophrenic situation where I have this completely acoustic part of me, where all I need is the drums, like with Ilmiliekki, Olavi Trio and Mats Eilertsen. And then I have this other side which is Oddarrang and now Elifantree and solo, which is a big sound.

“Those worlds might seem far apart sound-wise. For me it’s important because I was never into this back-beat heavy stuff. I started out loving these small colours and playing with brushes. Now it’s more interesting to try stuff that I haven’t done before. It’s a learning process for me to do this kind of banging!”


Elifantree and the big beat

A step in that direction this year was joining Elifantree, an idiosyncratic art-pop trio with Turkish-Swedish vocalist Anni Elif Egecioglu and saxophonist-keyboardist Pauli Lyytinen. Louhivuori appears on their new single and tours with them in Italy, Sweden and Finland in October.

“Pauli and I have played with Olavi before in different settings, so it felt natural to ask him,” says Egecioglu. “Obviously the fact that he’s a fantastic musician and a very loving person also played an important role.” He took over the drum seat from Tatu Rönkkö, who left to form the band Liima.

“Tatu and I are really good friends, and I’ve learnt a lot from him,” says Louhivuori. And like so many projects he plays in, Elifantree is utterly uncategorisable. “That’s why it felt so natural to join them, because that’s my life! That’s exactly what I do as a solo drummer and with Oddarrang.”

As Egecioglu sees it, “Olavi has a very strong sense of melody and harmony, which is reflected clearly in his playing. He also composes beautiful music for all kind of settings. As a drummer, I think this makes him stand out.”

So does Olavi Louhivuori ever wonder whether dancing across so many genres has been a good career move – or does he care?

He looks at his coffee mug, empty now.

“That’s a good question. I do care, because it’s important to know where and how to focus.” He pauses again, then smiles.

“I’d get bored just playing one type of music. I love to play different kinds and to hang with people. It’s always about the balance. I want to do my own music and that’s most important. But I’d never quit playing with all these people, because I love it.”

Oddarrang will be touring Europe in autumn 2016, including the Berlin and London jazz festivals. For details, see here

See also the review of Agartha here.


Olavi Louhivuori

:: born 1981

:: studied at the Finnish Conservatory in Jyväskylä and the Sibelius Academy

:: released four albums as leader of Oddarrang, nine as co-leader of Ilmiliekki Quartet and Sun Trio, as well as two solo albums

:: performed on more than 20 albums with artists such as Tomasz Stańko, Emma Salokoski, Alexi Tuomarila, Joona Toivanen, Mats Eilertsen, Piirpauke and Olavi Trio

:: composed works for Jyväskylä Sinfonia, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, UMO Jazz Orchestra and Jyväskylä Big Band

:: produced albums for Eva & Manu, Emma Salokoski and Maria Ylipää, along with short film scores

:: has toured and recorded around Europe as well as in the US, Australia and Japan


Main Photo: AJ Savolainen.