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Instinctual interpretations

by Anu Ahola

The first decade of the 21st century witnessed a boom for hymns in Finland. Saxophonist Jukka Perko, one ofthe most fascinating stars in the country's jazz firmament decided to try his hand at recording his interpretations. How, why and what happened then?

Over the last decade Jukka Perko (b. 1968) has released three critically acclaimed records featuring his interpretations of hymns sung in the Finnish Lutheran church. He is quite energetic and smiles a lot as he meets me for an interview one morning in early January. The last months of the previous year were busy and afterwards it was time for a well-earned break.

"At first I had some attitude problems as far as recording hymns goes, because it seemed almost too trendy a thing to do," Perko says. When Virtuosi di Kuhmo asked him to play on their record, saxophonist and flutist Sakari Kukko had just released a record featuring new jazz arrangements of traditional hymns. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, too, had recorded new arrangements on hymns.

Then again, Perko had been considering tackling hymns for several years at that point and during the year 2000 he had even played a few gigs in churches with fellow jazz musician, vibraphonist Severi Pyysalo. Recording with a string section, á la “Parker with Strings” was also a long-held dream.   

When Perko was a child, singing hymns was a something his family and extended family did, at home and at conventicles. After confirmation Perko went through a long stretch where hymns were in no way a part of his musical reality. So when Perko the professional musician tackles hymns, it's a return to some of the thoughts and emotions he experienced as a child.



Kaanaanmaa, a record featuring Virtuosi di Kuhmo led by Perko and John Storgårds was released in 2003. The arrangements were written by respected jazz musicians from different generations: Pyysalo, Pekka Pohjola, Jukka Linkola, Arttu Takalo and Esa Onttonen. Perko says everyone he asked to participate agreed without any hesitation. The record found a receptive audience and it sold enough to be certified gold.

Perko's relationship with hymns went beyond these sessions, however. He continued to develop his ideas in concerts with his trio Perko—Pyysalo—Viinikainen. The next record of hymns, made with the trio, was Maan korvessa (2008), a kind of document of one time and place and the events in Perko's music and life. His latest album ofhymns, 2012's Avara (see review in FMQ 3/2012), was born very much the same way, with guitarist Jarmo Saari joining Perko and Teemu Viinikainen.

 Perko recorded other music, too, like his own compositions, music by Dave Brubeck and Bud Powell, as well as classics of Finnish popular music, folk songs and his interpretations of the poetry of Uuno Kailas, an early-20th century Finnish author. "I could've made more records, but I often don't really feel like embarking on that road," he admits.

Is playing hymns different from other types of music? Perko doesn't think so. In his world all music is intertwined and a natural part of the life he lives, as well as the reality and time it takes place in.

"It doesn't matter whether it's a hymn, a song by Olavi Virta or a jazz piece, playing music is about interpretation and the interpretation rises from emotion that flows through people and is given a musical form, Perko describes.



Most of Perko's interpretations of hymns are serenely beautiful and thoughtfully melancholy. The way the two guitars and saxophone play together on the last album makes the hymns take flight and when the ensemble swings, there are completely new colors to be found in compositions usually performed by a stolid Lutheran choir of voices. The repetition of short melodic motifs gives the proceedings a ritualistic bent and steers the listener who is familiar with the lyrics of these popular hymns to really contemplate their meanings.

There are a few hymns that Perko has returned to a couple of times, but why did he record the “children's classic” Suojelusenkeli (Guardian Angel), a late 19th century hymn, on all three albums?

"It brings back memories of the sort that might not otherwise surface and makes both the listener and the musician a part of a larger whole. I tend to feel that by 'agreeing' to play this same song in concerts year in and year out I can leave behind a certain conscious striving inherent in performing it. Then it's no longer about 'let's make the arrangement so good they're sure to remember it' and more about making the song a part of life as we live it and every performance tells us what direction we are headed with the song."

When talking with Perko, instinct and the ability to listen to your instincts come up a lot. Instincts have played an important role in choice he’s made as a musician and a human being. Calculation and commercial thinking, as well as other “rational considerations” seem to play a minor role in Perko’s world, even though he does think understanding the way the modern world works is important.

The same applies to music. Perko believes that listening to our instincts, without making plans, is the best way to achieve musical unity when playing as a band.

“Then again, you do have to make plans and agree to some parameters in order to break those plans and conventions to discover what’s new.”



What does Perko think is behind the return of the hymn into the musical life of Finland?

“In a way we are all children of our time. Even though we are first and foremost individuals, the zeitgeist always has an impact on us. This hymnal motif is something that flows in time and then choices and interpretations made by an individual ­– such as the people arranging and playing the hymn – are attached to it,” Perko ruminates. “On the other hand, we people tend to long for both tradition as unchanging ritual and the renewal of that tradition.”

“Traditionally, the substance of a hymn is subservient to the message and to the whole communal performance. In modern times it’s possible to offer a wholly subjective interpretation of the hymn, instead of the one where the whole community sings together. This brings us to the general paradox of art: the extremely subjective vision sometimes becomes something the community shares.”

Many articles and reviews dealing with the records featuring hymns have touched upon the fact that the instrumental versions bring out new sides in the familiar old songs – that the excising of the words has somehow uncovered the true nature of the sacred melodies. How does Perko feel about this?

“We live in such a word-centered world right now. But especially during a time like this instrumental music may succeed in conveying a more precise meaning than words!”


Jukka Perko

  • b. 1968
  • Studied at the Sibelius Academy jazz department
  • He was only 19 when he was hired by Dizzy Gillespie for his big band
  • Has led his own bands since the 1990s and performed in over 40 countries
  • Has received numerous awards, e.g. two Emmas, a recognition award from the Finnish Musicians’ Union and the Suomi-award for young artists given by the Ministry of Arts and Education every year
  • Currently plays in Avara trio and Streamline Jazztet