“Had a stroke of luck about a year and a half ago. I was signed to what is currently the best jazz label in the world,” Iiro Rantala enthuses. We are leaning against the bar at Bar 9 in downtown Helsinki. He drinks tea, when he’s not busy talking – and mostly he is busy talking.
“When Trio Töykeät and Iiro Rantala New Trio called it quits, I wanted to make a solo album. The dear departed Esbjörn Svensson had recommended this label to me. I contacted them and ended up on their roster.” The company Rantala refers to is the Munich-based ACT. Many top names in European jazz, such as Nils Landgren, Michael Wollny and Viktoria Tolstoy, record for ACT. Rantala, who previously worked with multinationals EMI and Universal, is happy with the German indie, because they care about music, artists and the audience. “At big companies we get lost in the crowd. Now someone really works for me.”
Germany was an important country for Rantala already during his Trio Töykeät years. “We were known as a crazy Finnish jazz band with the hilarious between song patter that made people laugh.” This time Rantala’s touch is a bit more solemn. His first album for ACT, Lost Heroes (2011), is a tribute to the departed masters of jazz. This wonderful concept album was deemed one of last year’s best albums in Germany by music critics (Preis der Deutsche Schallplattenkritik) and Die Zeit, the biggest weekly paper in the country.
Who are the heroes, then? His Swedish friend Esbjörn Svensson, Finns Jean Sibelius and Pekka Pohjola, as well as international legends Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Michel Petrucciani and – Luciano Pavarotti.
Commonly known for his explosive and joyous playing, Rantala displays a very different side to his artistry on Lost Heroes. A majority of the pieces are, appropriately enough considering the subject matter, ballads. But Rantala does give us an occasional peak of his prodigious technique, like on the jazz standard Donna Lee. The pianist himself composed the other tracks and it’s composition that sits at the center of this album, not the customary improvisation around a theme. The songs are stories, and interpretation is more important than jazzy harmonies colored with #b-5+9 markings. The blues is an element wholly lacking in Rantala’s music. Lost Heroes is a carefully considered dramatic whole, with a characteristically European sound.
This musical story has drawn people to Rantala’s gigs in Germany. He is once again a pianist!
Minstrel and TV-presenter
Since very early in his career, Rantala says he has wanted to stand apart from the jazz mainstream to which he never could relate. His connections to other jazz musicians are few and he finds his friends among people working in theater, dance and literature.
This is apparent in Rantala’s resume. He has written music for dozens of plays and musicals, as well as a few feature length films. His best-known works are the Risto Räppääjä (Ricky the Rapper) series of children’s movies. In Finland Rantala is also known as a TV presenter. He has created and hosted two shows carrying his name (Iirottelua and Iiro irti), both for the Finnish Public Broadcasting Company (Yle). Rantala also hosted a piano festival and concert series at the Allotria club in Helsinki. The fact that he has also written and published a memoir Nyt sen voi jo kertoa (Now It Can Be Told) is worth mentioning. After all, he is only in his forties.
The jazz police, those self-assigned guardians of the art form’s purity, have often frowned upon Rantala’s tendency to stray into artistic side streets. Is his stint as a showman just crass self-promotion? Does this give him an edge over other musicians in the market?
“My TV shows are only seen in Finland. The same applies to all this other stuff. When I hit the stage in Stockholm or Tallinn, they do not provide me with any extra push. All I can do is charm the audience with my playing and try to stand out of the crowd with the music,” Rantala states. “I have rediscovered my motivation for concentrating on jazz and have been letting other work go by the wayside. I have a good record company, the album is selling, I receive awards and it gives me this marvelous feeling that I have an audience and people care about what I do.”
Rantala has been playing out with his Lost Heroes set mostly in Germany. This year there are more and more shows in Austria and Switzerland, too, thanks to a new Swiss agent. This is ok with Rantala, since things tend to work well in Germany.
“Now that I’ve played all over the world, I can really appreciate the fact that in Germany they deliver what was agreed upon. Pianos are in tune, gigs start on time and the marketing has been done. The Germans appreciate an artist who does his or her job and doesn’t show up drunk or something.”
Rantala plays small concert halls and clubs, to audiences ranging in size from 70 to a couple of hundred. His solo piano repertoire has opened the doors to castle halls, museums and art galleries. “At first I was a bit nervous about playing an hour’s set all alone. It’s tough when you’re up there alone, with no opportunities to chill,” Rantala explains.
Iiro is a fan of pianist and comedian Victor Borge, but he has put the comedy aside for the time being. “I used to rely on humor a lot. Now I don’t at all. It’s not that I’ve turned into a boring old stick in the mud. It’s just that the humorous side just didn’t work with the Lost Heroes material. I’m playing songs that deal with dead jazz musicians. To my wonderment I realized that being able to play for a whole show without having to make people laugh was actually quite liberating! A playful touch in the music itself is a good thing, though, because it is so often lacking in jazz. Most musicians put a lot of energy into being cool and preserving their street cred. I like a light touch. I will always have that.”
Jazz pianist with a classical technique
As a pianist Iiro Rantala is very much a virtuoso, a lightning fast hedonist who makes his colleagues look rigid by comparison. Rantala is a man who does his job with such playful ease, it’s almost like an affront to all the others trying to work in the same field. His virtuosity is, naturally, the result of enormous amounts of time spent practicing.
“My piano playing is based on playing scales. I have excellent finger technique. If I have to play scale-based phrases fast, no problem. You got it. My octave technique, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t perform Romantic piano concertos. That ship has sailed for me,” Rantala muses.
On the classical side, Rantala enjoys playing pieces by Baroque composers and ones from the school of Viennese Classicism. Bach and Mozart merit a special mention. Music composed after the Romantic period, like Prokofyev, Ravel and Sibelius, also please his ears, but the most modern and mathematical pieces he doesn’t understand. Rantala has performed as a soloist of an orchestra dozens of times, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic and Lahti Symphony Orchestra. “The wellspring of my playing is in classical playing, but because I improvise, I call it jazz,” Rantala summarizes.
What sort of limitations does Rantala think the piano has as an instrument? Most people don’t think it can hold a candle to singing. “If you think about the global population, I think 98.7% will swear by vocal music. They want to listen to someone sing. I have to accept the fact that I will never move the masses with my playing,” Rantala says succinctly. “Personally, I’m an instrumental musician through and through. All the great stories in music are told with instruments. No singer can ever touch me the way Jan Garbarek’s saxophone, Keith Jarrett’s piano or Eddie Gomez’s bass can. I just hear a lot more color there.”
Is American jazz dead?
“I’ve never been into American jazz,” Rantala stresses. “I try to look for personal solutions, starting with rhythm and phrasing. Back in the day, Trio Töykeät got a lot of flack for not having any swing. Nowadays people appreciate my music because it is different,” Rantala tells me. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music for three years. “At the moment I’m planning a jazz ensemble consisting of piano, violin and cello. A European chamber trio playing jazz would be pretty close to the sound I hear in my head.”
“The American jazz community hasn’t come up with anything new for 30 years. They don’t even play as well as their predecessors. They’ve become fat, lazy and complacent, just too self-satisfied. Consensus is eating the field from the inside out. It’s all about greed and self-indulgence,” Rantala blasts. He thinks the most interesting jazz comes from Europe. Concert and festival promoters have noticed this, too. They will rather book a 1000€ European group than a 10,000€ American band. In the long run, this will result in fewer jobs for American bands in Europe.
Rantala isn’t happy with the Finnish jazz scene, either. He can rattle off five things that are wrong with it, right off the bat. One: put an end to free concerts at once. They place jazz on the same level with street musicians. Two: people need to be told that you can’t talk and socialize when a jazz group that demands listening is playing. It’s different if we’re talking about happy jazz, which is meant for dancing. Three: jazz needs to be given more visibility in Finnish media. Four: There should be more bands that develop and mature for long enough; bands that stay together and are formed around an idea or a story. Five: there’s too much education.
Education is something Rantala has a lot to say about. “I have a lot of respect for the first generation of Finnish rock and jazz musicians, like Pekka Pohjola and Jukka Gustavson, musicians from bands like Wigwam and Tasavallan Presidentti. They were tough guys. They had no training, but they could do incredible things really fast back in the late 1960s. They just learned stuff off records. Now there are places to study this stuff all over the country, from Hanko to Rovaniemi. But where are the bands, where are the personalities, where are the musical stories? Many musicians in their thirties are still at some jazz department working on their Master’s. What the hell! That’s not where the audience is!”
A few months ago, the straight-talking Rantala turned down a nomination for Emma, the Finnish Grammy, because the award for the best jazz record of the year was not presented at the televised gala where pop musicians were feted, but in a separate event, far from the TV-cameras, along with folk music and other marginal genres.
Rewriting jazz history
Iiro Rantala’s primary project for this year is his second album for ACT. It’s called History of Jazz (according to Iiro). No more, no less. The recording took place in Berlin in April and the release date is set for October.
“I like for an album to have a unique concept. Lost Heroes had one and so will the new one. It’s the history of jazz as I see it,” Rantala explains. He doesn’t see the roots as being in the cotton field of the South, but in Baroque music. “To my mind, Bach was an improvising jazz musician. After that the record goes into ragtime and on to swing, bebop, hard bop, mainstream and fusion. At the end we hear my vision of the future of jazz.”
The musicians playing on History of Jazz are from ACT’s roster: Lars Danielsson from Sweden plays cello and bass, Morten Lund from Denmark plays drums and Adam Baldych from Poland plays violin.
The record will contain new compositions, as well as new arrangements of old songs. Composing doesn’t always come easily to Rantala. “It’s hard to write songs that I’m satisfied with and that have some kind of new angle to them for my own jazz repertoire. I compose only when I must, like when trying to put together a new album. I always have an idea of how I’m going to use the music I write, so I do write directly for the concert hall, in a way,” Rantala explains.
Rantala, a man who has already composed one piano concerto, needs challenges from outside his repertoire, too. “I’d like some challenging job offers. Someone asking me for something I’ve never done before. I’d really like that.” Something new is in the cards for December, when the Cantores Minores choir premiers a Christmas oratory Rantala wrote, with lyrics by Jaakko Heinimäki. The ensemble includes two soloists, an orchestra and the composer himself on piano.
Iiro the private person likes life in the woods of Sipoo, the rural eastern neighbour of Helsinki. “I wake up, take the kids to school and then start playing the piano. I like it more and more. Before, I used to enjoy going to Ryhmäteatteri theater and working with the people there and then on to Yle to work on a show. Now I find the days I spend with the piano to be most enjoyable.”
“In the media I’m known as a talking head and a musician. Not many people know that I’m a pretty retiring person. I don’t go out and seek the company of others, unless I have something to do. Like playing the piano. I constantly try to find time to be alone and with my family. Social situations can be quite trying for me. I also like to stay at a certain level as a player, in order to keep getting gigs, so I need to find time to practice.”
Professionally, Rantala’s goals are clear. “I want to keep playing the piano. I’d enjoy a year of just playing. I’d like to continue to be able to compose music and play it out. That’d suffice for me. And it’s what I’ve been aiming for since I was ten, a career as a pianist.”
:: Born 1970
:: Educated at Oulunkylä Pop/Jazz Conservatory, Sibelius- Academy Jazz Department, Manhattan School of Music
:: Performed with several internationally known bands and as a classical soloist with many Finnish orchestras
:: Compositions for theatre, dance and film, as well as classical compositions
:: Acclaimed recordings for ACT, EMI, Universal, Ondine etc.
Translation: Arttu Tolonen
Photo: Jussi Puikkonen
What happened to Trio Töykeät?
Iiro Rantala was the frontman of Trio Töykeät, the most popular jazz group in Finnish history. Eerik Siikasaari on bass and Rami Eskelinen on drums rounded out the trio. Between 1988 and 2006 the band played over 2000 concerts and released six studio albums, of which Sisu (Universal, 1997) was certified Gold in Finland. The demand was there for the band right up until the very end. Why put an end to a success story? Rantala tells us the full story in great detail in his book Nyt sen voi jo kertoa (Now It Can Be Told), which is only available in Finnish.
He summarizes an answer for the interview: “The first ten years were a period of steady and dizzying growth for Trio Töykeät. Doors to the world were opened. We started operating under the illusion that this was our destiny and a lifetime project. You start to take certain things for granted. We had a great 15 years, but during the last three years I started feeling like I’d had enough. A lot of it was me and the bassist Eerik Siikasaari being fed up with each other. It’s no secret.”
“The weird thing is that we were playing better than ever towards the end. It was magical. In Munich the promoter announced that the audience was about to hear for the last time a band that had performed in 45 countries. She lifted up a cassette for the audience to see and told them she got it from us in 1989. It was the first time she received mail from Finland. We were also the first Finnish jazz group she ever heard. She booked us for a show then. And she’d kept the cassette all these years!”