in Reviews

Improvisation on three recent releases: From Skeletons to Lightyears Ahead

by Matti Nives

How does improvisation manifest on Finnish records today – in jazz and beyond? In this review article, Matti Nives, the founder and creative director of the Helsinki-based label, festival and magazine We Jazz, takes an in-depth look at three recent releases.

One occasionally hears the misconception that improvising is somehow “easier” than playing something notated. I’m not a professional musician, but I know this to be untrue. In fact, in many forms of music, engaging with improvisation is when the deep pockets of a musician’s toolbox are utilized, often to stunning results. At its best, improvisation is leaping forward in real time, breaking new musical ground with each step.

The British master improviser, guitarist Derek Bailey (1930–2005), details this mindset in his book Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo Press, 1993). “The word improvisation is actually very little used by improvising musicians”, Bailey writes. “There is a noticeable reluctance to use the word and some improvisors express a genuine dislike for it. I think this is due to its widely accepted connotations which imply that improvisation is something without preparation and without consideration, a completely ad hoc activity, frivolous and inconsequential, lacking in design and method. And they object to that implication because they know from their own experience that it is untrue. They know that there is no musical activity which requires greater skill and devotion, preparation, training and commitment.”

Listening to what is improvised and what is composed is usually not at the centre of my musical experience. Yes, some passages can be recognized as improvised more readily than others – think of individual musicians soloing in jazz, for instance – but it’s more often the overall expression of the music that catches my attention, rather than the analysis.

That analysis, though, can also be fantastically rewarding. Saxophonists might listen to John Coltrane’s solos for inspiration, information and education. They listen to how he roots his improvisational ideas to the tune at hand, its melody, harmony, time, and structure. They also listen to how he challenges the basic ideas of how those elements “should” be met. True innovators can do this, to improvise in ways that manage to both make sense and stay eternally fresh by discovering new levels of expression while the music rolls on. When I’m listening to music that I recognize as being improvised and a step ahead, I’m surprised to hear where the music went and curious to hear what’s next. Think of what Derek Bailey wrote.

Oiro Pena Puna

Oiro Pena: Puna 
We Are Busy Bodies, 2023

Oiro Pena is a Finnish jazz collective. Some might call their music “outsider jazz,” for the group is certainly not a product of the most common jazz pipeline in Finland. I’m reading the back of the LP jacket of Puna, an Oiro Pena album released by the Canadian label We Are Busy Bodies. It states that “Pentti Oironen” recorded and produced the music, but by all accounts, it’s really the drummer (and multi-instrumentalist) Antti Vauhkonen who deserves the credit, as he is the person behind Oiro Pena.

Puna is a more ensemble-oriented, a more “live” album than many of the earlier overdubbed-sounding (and excellent) Oiro Pena releases, which have become sought-after collectables in the international vinyl circuit dominated by the online music marketplace Discogs. It’s also an album that brims with spirited improvisational passages.

A fascinating mix of re-angled tradition and new innovation, Puna brings together traditional-sounding vocal tracks sung by Merikukka Kiviharju and at least two-chili hot group playing, often led by Johannes Sarjasto’s sax “cry.” I’m fascinated by Mr. Sarjasto. Each time I’ve heard him live, he’s offered me new perspectives. Not in any theoretical way, I should say, for I’m not equipped to be a theoretical listener. What I mean is that he has a knack of searching, and there is no better way of looking at improvisation as a musical tool, in my opinion. The musician is, indeed, searching for something. Is he finding something, then, you might ask. Well, who’s to say? It’s not about finding, it’s about searching. A wise man once said: “If fishing was about catching, it would be called ‘catching’, not fishing.”

I don’t know where improvisation starts or ends with Oiro Pena. They make it all sound one, as they should. Listen to a track titled “Kuinka kukaan” (“How could anyone”). The band swings, in a delightfully Sun Ra-esque manner that is wobbly like a rusty ladder but gets you onto the roof of the house all the same, and in an even more exciting manner than any perfectly maintained lift would. 

Sarjasto’s sax keeps wailing throughout, while Merikukka Kiviharju provides a spirited vocal line, and the rest of the band all meander in the same direction. They listen, react, play together, improvise. Antti Vauhkonen treks on with a rolling drum pattern that turns into bursts of mini solos towards the end. I’m right there, in the room with the band, inside my headphones, listening to all of this unfold in real time as they launch into “Calamity Caravan”, a decidedly improv-sounding musical construction that should go on forever.

Sid Hille Lightyears Ahead

Sid Hille Contemporary Collective: Lightyears Ahead 
SatnaMusic, 2024

Sid Hille Contemporary Collective displays a similar kind of forward-motion on their album Lightyears Ahead, albeit in a very different way. Sid Hille plays piano, keys and theremin, Markus Hohti plays cello & electronics, Heikki Nikulaplays bass clarinet and Teemu Viinikainen is on guitar and electronics. This is a hard-hitting group of four expert musicians, each a key figure in the scene of multiple shades of creative music.

This album is actually an accident, or at least a happenstance. The band was recording a composed piece at the famous Finnvox studios in Helsinki, and they had an hour to kill. The ensemble which first recorded the composed piece had been larger, but only the four musicians heard here remained. So, Lightyears Ahead starts with an improvised situation. The quartet simply hit “rec” and decided to play something: “The old magic was certainly there, and we clocked in at 34 minutes of continuous group improvisation. The album was made with nothing added or removed, as everything was perfectly balanced.”

That “old magic” Hille refers to links back to the history of the Contemporary Collective. The band is ten years old, but this is only their second release together. That said, the best group improvisation doesn’t start with a tabula rasa. True, the musicians here didn’t have any predetermined plan with which to approach the situation. Still, the successful result can largely be tributed to their previous history together. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they can guess together in a meaningful manner and in that way, determine their immediate musical future as they go along.

When bands play music which notably draws on improvisation, they tend to age well, getting better with each performance and each release. Talk to any jazz musician about being on the road with a band and they’ll likely say that the experience made the band better in being “free”, that is, using their compositions as vehicles for creative playing, improvising.

Listening to Sid Hille Contemporary Collective performing the two-part ad hoc piece Lightyears Ahead is to step into the world of what improvisation can achieve in its purest form. Drop the needle on the groove and listen to four brave, creative musicians removing the safety net. The search is on.

Topias Tiheasalo Skeletons

Topias Tiheäsalo: Skeletons 
Sormi Editions, 2023

Solo improvisation is a beast of its own. Whereas group improvisation depends a lot on the musicians’ capability and openness of reacting to each other in real time, the solo musician is, well, alone with their quest. An example of the former: listen to Heikki Nikula playing a bass clarinet riff reminiscent of Steve Reich’s famous Music For 18 Musicianson side 2 of the Lightyears Ahead album and pay attention to how the rest of the band reacts to it, building the collective improvisation bigger piece by piece. An example of the latter: check out guitarist Topias Tiheäsalo treat a handful of carefully selected standard compositions on his album Skeletons.

The first thing I noticed when picking up the LP version of Tiheäsalo’s album – one of the most beautiful objects I’ve seen in recent memory with visionary sleeve design by Pauliina Mäkelä – was the track list. From the credits it’s evident that this is a solo guitar album, and the selection of compositions echoes a love for music which resonates deep and wide. “Wise One”, one of John Coltrane’s most beautiful hidden gems, opens side A, followed by a misty Duke Ellingtondeep cut “Azure”, leading up to Ornette Coleman’s iconic “Lonely Woman”, a masterful piece which always delights in the right hands (or should I say “fingers” as per the name of the label, “Sormi” Finnish for finger). On side B: more Coltrane (“Lonnie’s Lament”), American primitive guitar style demigod John Fahey (“Some Summer Day”) and a piece by the great mystery, saxophonist Albert Ayler (“Angels”).

Tiheäsalo calls his album Skeletons, which I take as a referral to the music’s charcoal drawing nature. Its simplicity draws you in. “On this album, my solo improvisation is a kind of a paradox,” Tiheäsalo says. “The freedom and the spirit of improvisation manifests with this kind of playing when I don’t try to do anything specific with the compositions. The way I approach these pieces is not through harmony-based improvisation, but rather by connecting with their feeling, their atmosphere and their mood. The improvisation happens at a ‘micro level,’ if you will.”

The way I understand this is that the compositions are approached as bare bones versions, indeed as “Skeletons”. Tiheäsalo’s moody renditions follow the themes while adding nuances and small details to build musical constructions that perhaps don’t even aim to tell you the whole story, but to invite you along to find out your own way of connecting with the tunes. There is plenty of room for the listener to step in.

“Some of these compositions are basically just themes, so improvisation kicks in quite naturally,” Tiheäsalo adds. “Basically, the mood of any given piece is the only thing that remains. Maybe you could call it the basic undertone of the composition. I rarely think about the process beforehand. My playing has developed over a long time, and the pieces evolve into something that is both very loyal to and very independent of the original compositions.”

When asked how much of the original composition he has hoped to maintain, Tiheäsalo explains: “Many times very little, basically. In those cases, I improvise ‘a lot’, you could say. The original theme is just a springboard for the music of the moment, that ideally will take the listener ‘someplace else’.”

Featured picture: Covers of the reviewed albums.

Citations: Derek Bailey: Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo Press, 1993) Mayfly with John, directed by Joe Ridout (NOWNESS, 2018) Topias Tiheäsalo, interviewed in June 2024