At a small bar in Helsinki’s grungy-turned-hip Sörnäinen neighbourhood, one of Helsinki’s many weekly jazz jam sessions is underway – but rather sleepy. Against the back wall, the house band supports brief appearances by music students and a few seasoned Finnish pros. They take turns playing pleasant but cautious solos to standard tunes like “All The Things You Are” as jazz aficionados and fellow musicians sip IPAs and make small talk.
Suddenly the atmosphere at Sörkän Ruusu perks up as a guitarist strides confidently forward, wielding an orange starburst Gibson ES, a classic semi-hollow-bodied model that dates back to the 1950s. With a ready grin from behind a dark beard, he nods to the others and begins a blazing solo that spools out from his guitar, conjuring up wild landscapes and moods. He supercharges the rest of the musicians and silences the crowd, who burst into raucous applause afterwards. Then, as a mature musician, he steps back and takes a low-key supportive role as others take their solos, encouraging them with gentle comping and a wink of the eye.
In just over a decade in Finland, Mexican-born Héctor Lepe, 35, has earned a reputation as an eloquent guitarist in the classic hard-bop style – and with this summer’s release of his all-original debut album Pedro’s Dream, as a strong composer as well.
While some of his pieces are inspired by Mexican boleros and folk tunes, his music doesn’t neatly fit into the Latin jazz tradition, which stretches back more than a century. Yet it’s a perfect example of how a growing number of musicians from around the world are enriching the once-insular Finnish jazz scene.
A few weeks later, Lepe is in the nearby Kallio district for a record-release gig with his own quartet, including stand-up bassist Juuso Rinta from the Sörkän Ruusu house band. This time they’re on a real stage in a plusher venue, Tenho Restobar, which hosts jazz every Sunday.
Now Lepe is in charge but still modestly defers to others when they solo, especially the other main soloist, saxophonist Max Zenger. Like the other band members, he’s a familiar, hard-working figure on the growing Helsinki circuit – which includes many free jam sessions but few paying gigs. Drummer Teemu Mustonen, in a flat leather rude-boy hat, adds subtle Latin rhythms and tasty solos that leave plenty of empty space.
Casual in jeans and trainers, Lepe jokes with the audience in slightly accented Finnish, then launches into tunes featuring fleet-fingered, liquid-toned guitar, forming a dialogue with Zenger’s complex, sinuous solos. They get fired up on “See You Later,” a lively bebop melody based on the chord changes from “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a standard from the 1930s.
One of the best moments is when Lepe plays a gentle solo improvisation with filigree curlicues, leading into his tune “Memory Drizzling" and then “If You Forget Me," inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem “Si me olvidas".
Among those cheering him on at Tenho is hard-bop pianist Riitta Paakki, Lepe’s labelmate from the Turku-based Flame Jazz Records and a teacher at the prestigious Sibelius Academy, where Lepe earned a master’s degree in jazz in June.
“Hector is a warm-hearted person and that warmness and caring for the music comes through in his playing,” Paakki observes after the gig.
Lepe was an accomplished guitarist by the time he moved to Finland a decade ago, having partly supported himself by playing several gigs a week in Mexico City alongside classical and jazz studies at a conservatory. After a year in Jyväskylä – which was “a shock after Mexico City… nice but too quiet” – he moved to Helsinki, playing gigs as a sideman on a few records and at jam sessions.
“I first played with Teemu and Juuso almost 10 years at sessions in Jyväskylä, and started doing duo gigs with Max when I got to Helsinki. These guys are amazing; they always know what to do,” he says.
“But it was much harder to meet and hang out with other musicians at jam sessions here than in Mexico City. Even though I spoke some Finnish, it was hard to get into the circles. There weren’t really any other foreign musicians around then except Sharad Shakya, a guitarist from Nepal. There are a lot more now, which is pretty cool. Musically, it has expanded a lot with players from other parts of the world as well as Finns who’ve studied abroad.”
At Sibelius Academy, he grew as a composer with support from teachers such as saxophonists Kari Heinilä and Jussi Kannaste – who joined Lepe’s group for his graduation recital, playing arrangements of Mexican folk songs and a Ravel piece along with tunes from the LP.
“Most of the compositions on the album are inspired by places in Mexico and Latin American literature,” Lepe says.
“Pedro’s Dream,” the title track, is inspired by Pedro Páramo, a 1955 novel by Juan Rulfo. It’s set in a town called Comala at the foot of a volcano, depicted in the cover art.
“I called the album Pedro’s Dream, not only because the book is one of the greatest Mexican literary works but also because I spent a lot of my childhood near Comala, where my father’s family lives. I spent summers there, watching the volcano erupt at night and playing on the black sand beaches on the coast. The tune ‘Black Shore’ is inspired by that coastline,” he says.
Like many jazz guitarists, Lepe started playing rock and heavy metal as a teenager because he “thought it would be popular with the girls”.
His first guitar teacher played him some Charlie Parker records, but he “didn’t really get jazz” until he heard a 1995 album by US guitarist John Scofield and attended a few live shows. Then he studied classic jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino. Contemporary favourites include Kurt Rosenwinkel, the Norwegian Lage Lund and the Brazilian João Bosco.
Between gigs, he now gives private lessons at a community school and will teach bands at the Sibelius Junior Academy during the upcoming academic year – while always hustling for that next gig, and dreaming of taking his Finnish band to Mexico City.
Featured photo: Héctor Lepe performing in Helsinki with bassist Juuso Rinta and trumpeter Rafa Postel. Photo by Maarit Kytöharju