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Jimi Tenor - A master with his own tools

Jimi Tenor has never been an easy subject for anyone trying to label his work. Seemingly free of genre boundaries, the musical vocabulary in Tenor-land has just expanded further with his new project, Itetune. This time the artist has even created his own instruments.

BY Matti Nives

Jimi Tenor’s studio is situated comfortably next to several hangouts of MC clubs on the Eastern outskirts of Helsinki. It’s easy to spot, because it’s the exception in the neighbourhood – the building without motorcycles, bike parts and skull flags. The studio is a shared community, where Tenor appreciates the co-habitators who “just pay the rent but never show up”. “I like those guys,” the artist jokes, pleased with the peace necessary for his creative processes.

The very idea of a shared communal space is not a far cry from Tenor’s music. Throughout his colorful recording history beginning with the late 1980s recordings credited to Jimi Tenor and His Shamans, he has been an eager collaborative partner to the likes of afrobeat legend Tony Allen, the Kabu Kabu ensemble and the UMO Jazz Orchestra, to mention a few.

The titles of the first quartet of recordings, all with the Shamans, already hint at the direction Tenor (born Lassi Lehto in 1965) has steadily followed. Total Capacity of 216,5 litres, Diktafon, Mekanoid and Fear of a Black Jesus, are clearly products of a musical auteur pursuing the path of total artistic freedom, and one with a refreshing lack of need to conform to anything else going on at any given time.

The underground music community as a resource

Touring around the world with an endlessly varying cast of musicians, collaborating across borders, and living in New York and Barcelona has made Jimi Tenor something of the official cosmopolitan in Finnish left-of-the-mainstream music. His return to the Finnish scene in 2004 came about in a natural way.

“My wife Nicole Willis started working with the Helsinki-based Soul Investigatorsensemble, so moving back here was an easy choice. Besides, I was also using a lot of Finnish musicians in my projects, and the scene in Barcelona had its own challenges,” Tenor tells.

According to him, the Finnish music scene seems less concerned with the fluctuations of outside trends. “If it was suddenly hip to be a DJ, everybody in Barcelona became one the following week”.

Upon returning to his native country, the artist had no illusions of the Finnish club scene, though. “Things used to be very hard for a musician touring Finland,” says Tenor. “It was extremely difficult to find places where the organisers were genuinely interested in the music, and they would treat the artist accordingly. Especially in the 1980s the scene here was pretty grim.”

A perfect example was told by a player in Tenor’s group, who received some rather blunt instructions from a club owner to remain backstage while waiting for the performance, directly translated as “please do not go into the people’sside of the venue”. Luckily, thinks Tenor, things have changed for the better in the Finnish club circuit.

“I think it all boils down to having more options. Even young bands can tour abroad nowadays, so they don’t have to stick by the same venues year in, year out. Another factor here is the new breed of club organisers, who are often underground music enthusiasts. They know how to treat an artist and even have prior ties to the music on a personal level.”

Finnish session musicians also get thanks from the composer. “I can set up a practice session and give everybody sheets, and they will arrive on time and play great,” Tenor states. “That’s a luxury situation for an artist: you don’t have to worry about the performance of the people in your band.”

Mixing musical cultures

Key to Jimi Tenor’s output has always been an eagerness to jump into new collaborations with musicians from anywhere in the world.

The artist readily confirms this: “Sometimes it can even be more difficult to work with an all-Finnish lineup. Our Northern gloominess grows exponentially in those situations, I suppose, so I really prefer mixing it up a bit. Perhaps a band like Eläkeläisetis an exception to the rule, who else but Finns would play that music,” Tenor ponders.

He also sees the Nordic doom and gloom as a factor that makes an artist like Jimi Tenor essentially Finnish. “I guess it just comes with the heritage, living way up here”.

A particularly memorable recent collaboration for Jimi Tenor has been that with the legendary Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, one of the very founders of the genre and the go-to drummer for the late Fela Kuti. The pair recorded the album Inspiration/Informationfor the British label Strut in 2010, and have since toured the material periodically. Allen also appeared at Tenor’s Helsinki concert with the UMO Jazz Orchestra recently.

Even though the dynamic duo have now formed a close musical relationship, Tenor says that they didn’t hit it off immediately. “On the first day that we met, the atmosphere was a bit reserved,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what to expect from working with such a legend. Of course I had faith that things would work out and just presented my demos to him. It all clicked, when we went out to lunch and had a couple glasses of wine. Humor helped break the ice.”

Since that first meeting, things on the Tenor-Allen axis have really come together. Jimi Tenor states that the duo has also managed to develop solid personal ground for their working relationship. “It’s always the case that he is the master and I’m the apprentice, which suits me fine. He’s a nice guy, we work well together.”

The Inspiration/Informationalbum will be followed in 2012 with a new record, albeit this time for a yet unknown new record label. “I don’t think Strut made any money on us, it was probably a tax reduction project for them,” speculates Tenor.

The working process sees Tenor composing and recording demos, which will later be presented to Allen for further evaluation and evolution. “Maybe we’ll meet in a studio once before the recording, or he just checks my demos out like a week before the sessions, we’ll see how it goes. I try to make things as easy as possible for him.”

All musical encounters across cultures are not so smooth, of course. Tenor points out that cultural differences are unpredictable as components for new music. “It might be difficult sometimes to find the relevant reference points, when they are not shared,” he says. “On the other hand, it can be a seed of freedom if applied correctly. The same things that can restrict when working with your fellow countrymen are not as dominant.”

Natural music export, emphasis on compositions

Having played extensively all over the world, Jimi Tenor is also a hot item in the Finnish music export market. The artist stresses that taking sounds abroad should ideally be based on the natural movement of music. “Sometimes there are these big music export events, where you play at noon in an exhibition centre. That’s often not the right context for the music,” he says.

“Lately things have also evolved a lot on that front. For me the best thing is when I receive support for a tour that would happen anyway. It’s nice to get even a small grant in the end, like 1,000 €, rather than to dig into your own pocket for that amount of money to cover the costs.”

In fact, getting financed too well can also hinder an artist’s motivation to tour abroad, says Tenor. “I guess you can see that occasionally in some government-funded projects, when there isn’t an incentive to do well financially, since everything is covered anyway. If you are not forced to make ends meet, the promotion of the project can easily lack the final push. I don’t think I could summon the energy to do anything if I had too much money,” he laughs. “All in all, I’m pretty happy with the way Finnish music is presented abroad and exported at the moment.”

Talking about the Finnish music scene, Tenor sees something to develop mainly on the compositional side of things. “I often wonder about how there isn’t a stronger culture of composing outside of the classical circles,” he says.

Having completed succesful high-profile works for the likes of UMO, Tenor ranks among the most sought-after non-classical Finnish composers.

“Composing gives work opportunities across the entire spectrum, from the composer to the producers to the musicians. Getting more platforms to do these large-scale works could benefit the whole scene, but of course it always demands a lot of financing, as well. Even though the classical side of things is financed better, I don’t think their concerns are that different from ours. Nobody’s swimming in money.”

An example used by Jimi Tenor in compositional culture outside of classical music is the Italian industry of film soundtracks. According to him, a composer needs a platform in which to grow. “I don’t think even Ennio Morriconegot all the scores done right,” Tenor points out. “The idea was that the set up was there, so he could always come back and do another score, and someone else after that could employ similar strategies. Achieving something like that here would be great. It’s never a good excuse to say that it’s a small country.”

The new musical language of Itetune

To make an album of music performed entirely on self-created instruments somehow follows the wonderfully surprising logic of Tenor’s career. As per usual, the whole concept of the project came about in a natural way, this time during a previous collaboration with prominent Helsinki scene percussionist Abdissa “Mamba” Assefa.

“Mamba was at the studio laying down some percussion for another project and he noticed that I had a lot of self-made instruments lying around. He told me that he is into building instruments as well, and we set up a rehearsal for the following week,” recalls Tenor. From there on, the duo set out to make music creating its own form. “We didn’t really have an idea what it would sound like, we just improvised as we went along”.

The resulting sound is a sparse, at times even minimal, soundscape hinting at “ambient” musc, if there should be some genre specification. Tenor and Assefa craft their music from instruments that are often more percussive side than anything else, but also manage to sound refreshingly otherworldly and organic. The only “outside” voice heard on the album is Nicole Willis’s.

“I really enjoy working on a project that has a certain rule, a dogma, if you will,”says Tenor in reference to Itetune. “It’s always a challenge to decide what to leave out in order to give the music space to breathe, I struggle with that constantly. When there’s just two of us playing, and all the instruments have to be our own creations, and everything is laid out on a 8-track recording device, we are forced to concentrate on the essentials. Nowadays there are limitless possibilities to lay down tracks upon tracks, so you need something to make it stop at some point,” he laughs.

Tenor’s explanations of how the album was made is more complicated than how the record sounds. An example is an instrument called “Valofoni” (perhaps best translated as “Photophone”), a device utilising a disc made of film attached to a fan or any other device with a rotating effect, and an engine that keeps it moving.

The disc has holes at various distances from each other, and they determine the pitch of the sound as an optic sensor collects light and processes it through the disc. The speed at which the disc rotates plays a part in what is heard. “It’s all really simple,” confirms Tenor, although he makes the instrument sound like a retroesque space age invention to the untrained mind. It does sound simple and effective on the album, as does the bass kalimba (thumb piano) complete with strings made of hawthorn.

The Itetune project has thus far notched only a single performance, the release party at the record store Digelius, known as a focal point of the Helsinki jazz scene. The first experiment was successful, says Tenor. “The instrumentation worked really well in that setting – people kept really quiet and listened to the music. Many of our instruments are not that loud, so the live context needs to be a peaceful one.” Further performances are likely to follow, although nothing definite is set up at the time of writing.

The DIY philosophy runs neatly through the whole concept of Itetune. The album is released only on vinyl by the tiny Temmikongi imprint, and each of the records and their covers are handmade as the orders come in. Tenor half-jokingly worries about the mental health of label manager Roope Seppälä. “He must be going crazy listening to our music over and over again while pressing the records.”

Even though the number of units is limited to 150 copies, Tenor sees a possible future business plan for the suffering music industry written into the Itetuneconcept. “Since we know that nobody’s making money on records these days, maybe something like this could be the way of the future,” he wonders. “Artists could even make one-off records commissioned by collectors. If you think about the world of visual art, original paintings often have a very high price as single pieces of art. Sure, you can also buy a book and look at a picture of a painting, but the real deal is the original, which can fetch a price like millions of dollars.”

Impostor Orchestra set to return

As one would expect, the next musical adventures of Jimi Tenor are already well under way, despite the fact that his latest project is literally being pressed on vinyl as you read this. The aforementioned new installment Tony Allen collaboration remains on schedule for 2012, with the idea to take things into a jazzier direction from the previous album. Tenor also promises the return of Impostor Orchestra, a project which debuted in 2000, and will be released by Sähkö Recordings.

The project is essentially an imaginary ensemble playing spaced out electro-acoustic music. “I’ve been composing the new Impostor Orchestra tracks for like five years, and they will be released by the end of the year. We will also perform the album with Avanti!from beginning to end at the Helsinki Music Centre in November,” Tenor explains. “It will be fun, although there’s a massive amount of orchestrating to do.”

Be it minimal music with made-up instruments or grandiose orchestrated pieces, Jimi Tenor seems comfortable on the planet he has created for himself. Such levels of inventiveness should never be taken for granted.