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From the archives: The Dream Team of Finnish Improvisation

by Petri Silas

The toughest yet most rewarding of all forms of musical expression, improvisation, has always thrived in Finland. Who knows, maybe the rigours of the freezing dark winter and the joys of the warm midnight sun form mental images that are easily translated into music. As far as the brave musicians adept in this discipline go, this article seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff. This article was originally published in FMQ 1/2003.

“Composition is frozen improvisation,” said Igor Stravinsky once upon a time. It is no secret that the great Russian tunesmith was bitten by the jazz bug, so he probably knew what he was talking about. But does this thesis also work the other way around? Is improvisation then “molten composition”, i.e. a mode of expression in which musicians actively try to forget what they have learnt?

In this article, the FMQ shines the spotlight upon some local musicians who have embraced the freedom afforded by improvisation in its numerous guises. In order to keep the story from running rampant and taking over the entire magazine, I decided to form an imaginary ensemble from the most exciting people. Should one feel so inclined, a parallel may be drawn with the world of sport, where such all-star line-ups are quite common. Most of the people chosen have also proven their worth “on the other side of the fence”, as composers.


The All-Stars

For reasons not entirely clear, reeds have been a special forte of Finnish improv music ever since the late 1960s. The group will thus include two saxophonists, Juhani Aaltonen and Tapani Rinne.

Masters of a wide array of wind instruments, Aaltonen (b.1935) is best known as a tenor stylist, whereas Rinne (b. 1962) mostly expresses himself on the soprano. The former is one of the originators of Finnish free jazz and thus the biggest inspiration for the next generation. His work alongside such giants as Otto Donner and Edward Vesala is the stuff of legend. Rinne, on the other hand, has taken improv to the future with his iconoclastic RinneRadio team. With elegance and élan, the group has been marrying modern electronica with wild improvisation for more than a decade now. Rinne is also known for his solo work and the jazz/rap team SlowHill. The epitome of style-meets-content, he is one of our leading musical ambassadors.

As far as brass goes, the spot just has to be reserved for the inimitable Markku Veijonsuo (b. 1961), who has unleashed his solo shows of trombone and live electronics on unsuspecting audiences ever since 1997. He has followed his muse and collaborated with the serious (Markus Fagerudd), the crazy (Kimmo Pohjonen), and the funky (Jimi Tenor). Trombone aside, Veijonsuo expresses himself deliciously on the didgeridoo.

TapaniRinne by Ossi Kajas

The piano chores of the ensemble will be assigned to Samuli Mikkonen (b. 1973), whose playing radiates vivid visions of the Finnish landscape. Since appearing on the scene in the mid-1990s, he has won over critics and audiences alike. An innovative author of heart-rending tunes, he has maintained a sense of the North by interpreting Finnish hymns with a trio augmented by world music pioneer and saxophonist Sakari Kukko. Mikkonen has also toured and recorded with Swedish bass ace Anders Jormin.

The obvious choice for guitar in this dream team is Raoul Björkenheim (b. 1956). This musical cosmopolitan is one of our most agile and adventurous musicians of all times. His electric guitar symphony Apocalypso draws its main inspiration from Korean sinawi music and his intricate solo work echoes his vast knowledge of music from all over. Björkenheim has worked with men such as Edward Vesala, Bill Laswell and Peter Erskine. He is the former leader of the rambunctious Krakatau and an in-demand composer for chamber music groups and symphony orchestras. In 2000, this force of nature harnessed in human form relocated to New York City.

A truly remarkable talent, the tasteful Uffe Krokfors (b. 1966) is the first bassist of my choice in an article such as this. His solid work alongside Edward Vesala, Raoul Björkenheim, Samuli Mikkonen, Jarmo SavolainenSeppo Kantonenand a multitude of others has cemented his stature. With his big ears and his big heart, Krokfors makes any musical occasion a little warmer and cosier.

The 1999 death of composer / drummer / bandleader Edward Vesala was a major blow to improvised music worldwide, but his spirit lives on in a country where the art of drumming has always maintained a high standard. For this band, the best drummer would undoubtedly be Mika Kallio (b. 1974). His natural, primal style provides the perfect link between the past and future of Finnish free drumming. With his work alongside people like Teppo Hauta-aho, Pekka Pohjola, Kalle Kalima and a cast of others, the flowing rhythmatist is already much more than just a promising newcomer.

The wild card in the line-up is Mäns Strömberg, aka DJ Bunuel (b. 1962), whose mission in life is to integrate the turntables with the live environment. A hardworking veteran of groups like Fat Beat Sound System and XL, Bunuel can be relied on to find the perfect effect and the best beat for every occasion.


Kalle Kalima by Wolfgang Siesing

Rookies and runners-up

By far the most crowded category is that of reed instruments, because Finland has produced a disproportionate number of world-class clarinettists and saxophonists. Among them we find Harri Sjöström (b. 1952), a veteran of the Berlin avant-garde scene who has worked with the likes of Cecil Taylor and Alexander von Schlippenbach. But whereas this man’s style is quite continental, the most accomplished purveyors of the Nordic sound are Seppo “Baron” Paakkunainen (b. 1943), Pentti “Pena” Lahti (b. 1945) and Pertti “Pepa” Päivinen (b. 1955). Together and apart, theirs is a long history of albums and concerts where the soul and spirit of Finland have best been brought to life in music.

Other improv luminaries of the local woodwind circle include Jorma Tapio (b. 1957) and Jone Takamäki (b. 1955). Totally fearless, they both come from the Vesala school of free ex-pression. Speaking of schools, Jari Perkiömäki (b. 1961) recently became Finland’s first ever jazz Doctor of Arts with a thesis investigating the improvisational techniques of Ornette Coleman and others. In and outside the Sibelius Academy, the next generation is already hatching, as proven by the likes of Mikko Innanen (b. 1978) and Markus Holkko (b. 1972).

As a general rule, improvised brass has never been a big national forte, so let us just mention legendary trumpeter/comoposer Otto Donner (b. 1939) and courageous trombonist Jari Hongisto (b. 1960) and next look at the pianists. Mikkonen aside, our strongest free-oriented keyboardists are Iro Haarla (b. 1956) and Eero Ojanen (b. 1943). But as is often the case, some of the best all-around piano players are also superb im-provisers. Prime examples are ere (b. 1961) and Seppo Kantonen (b. 1963). They both lead their own trios and have taken part in sessions and tours led by the likes of Eero Koivistoinen, Pekka Pohjola and a multitude of others. Another interesting character who might also fit in this category is Eero Hämeenniemi (b. 1951), a musical globetrotter who draws inspiration from classical, jazz and the South Indian Carnatic tradition.

Iro Haarla by Maarit Kytöharju.

Finnish guitar improvisation is in good hands with such innovators as Jarmo Saari (b. 1970), Niklas Winter (b. 1969), Kalle Kalima (b. 1973) and Teemu Viinikainen (b. 1975). These young all-rounders are following in the footsteps of Björkenheim, Jukka Orma and Jimi Sumén by eagerly diving into various waters and constantly moulding their style. Not one of them is a free jazz man pure and simple, but they all know how to forget every rule when the need arises. Kalima is at present living in Berlin, the other three in Finland.

Apart from Krokfors, Finland has so far produced only one fierce improvisational bass player of note. He is Teppo Hauta-aho (b. 1941), a veteran of groups led by Edward Vesala, Juhani Aaltonen, Cecil Taylor and numerous others. Well-versed in the classical repertoire, he is known throughout the global bass circles as an inspired composer.

As with woodwinds, so it is with drums: Finnish bandleaders and composers have a large pool of astonishing talent to dip into. In recent years, this trend has become even stronger with the upsurge of people like Markus Ketola (b. 1968), Teppo Mäkynen (b. 1974), Mikko Hassinen (b. 1971) and André Sumelius (b. 1977). They all have the power to go crazy when the situation so requires, but also the brain not to do so all the time. Accomplished composers and arrangers all, these drummers will definitely be among the top Finnish musical export products of the future.

The “bubbling under” wild cards are accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen (b. 1966) and vibraphonist Arttu Takalo (b. 1971). With one foot in the past and the other in the future, these musicians have decided to utilise modern technology without forgetting their instrumental roots. In so doing, they have all but created new instruments and performing styles.

Many of the most revered improvisers seem to be not only well versed in the techniques of their instrument but also highly aware of various music cultures from all over the world. This is the case in Finland as well. Once these ambitious musicians have saturated themselves with the Western classical tradition, they turn quite naturally to the more ethnic and exotic for further inspiration.

The closest place for exotica in Finland is naturally Lapland, the magic realm of the North and an endless source of inspiration for artists of all kinds. However, many of the musicians mentioned here have also looked eastwards, as is proven by the Indo-Arabic flourishes so prominent in the works of some Finn improvisers. And we can, without any false chauvinist pride, claim that the local musicians have a better-than-average feel for free music. Generally speaking, the further east one goes in Scandinavia, the raunchier the expression becomes.

Originally published in FMQ 1/2003.