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Saxophonist Linda Fredriksson: No Categories

by Wif Stenger

Linda Fredriksson aims to avoid pigeonholes in music – and life.

Linda Fredriksson has an utterly distinctive voice on the saxophone, whether it’s the alto or the less-common baritone. The latter can weigh up to nine kilos and in Fredriksson’s hands become a ferociously bellowing beast or a heartrendingly beautiful balladeer – often within the same track. 

After over a decade of acclaimed work with jazz groups such as Mopo, Superposition, the Northern Governors and the Ricky-Tick Big Band, Fredriksson thought long and hard before launching a solo career and picking a core of collaborators. 

The resulting album, Juniper (2021), reaped domestic awards and international praise, becoming the bestselling release ever on the We Jazz label. 

“I felt the need to have more space when it comes how I’m defined as an artist,” says Fredriksson over a meal near home in Herttoniemi, eastern Helsinki. 

“I really had the need to not think about what genre it was, to just let the music be what it is. Symbolically, I had the same feeling about myself. I wanted space to be who I am.” As part of that process, a press release accompanying the album noted that Fredriksson uses the pronouns they/them.

The change may not have been so significant on the domestic front – the Finnish language only uses the gender-neutral personal pronoun hän – but has spurred some learning during Fredriksson’s frequent gigs at European jazz festivals and clubs, which often remain deeply conservative. 

“There’s still not much basic knowledge about pronouns or gender diversity. Everything is seen as very binary, plus there haven’t been many people in the jazz scene who are talking about it,” says Fredriksson. “But after the last couple of shows outside Finland, people from the audience have written to thank me and say how important it was for them to hear me dedicate a song to queer people, for instance.” 


Intimate, cross-genre ‘Juniper’

Fredriksson’s personal evolution was also reflected in the choice of collaborators for Juniper, which is the name of both the group and the album, which begins with “Neon Light [and the sky was trans]” – a nod to the pink-and-blue transgender flag.

Following a decade and four albums with the “punk-jazz” trio Mopo, Fredriksson spent months deciding who to invite for the intimate Juniper project. 

“I needed to be surrounded by people who I feel safe and good with and who could also play and understand all the ingredients of this music, really be able to improvise in the jazz scene but at the same time understand and be able to play other musical styles. After the first rehearsal, I was so happy. Zero regrets!”

The core live band includes two colleagues from Superposition, drummer Olavi Louhivuori and bassist Mikael Saastamoinen, along with keyboardist Tuomo Prättälä, a veteran of the Northern Governors, Ilmiliekki and about a dozen other groups. 

Another key figure was co-producer and modular synth wizard Minna Koivisto, who encouraged Fredriksson to include some rough demos recorded with a rickety old acoustic guitar and an iPhone at a summer cottage on Finland’s southwest coast. 

Juniper’s musical ingredients include elements of singer-songwriter pop, folk, R&B, electronics and ambient, all tied together by Fredriksson’s powerful melodies and saxophone, as well as bass clarinet, guitar, keyboards and even wordless humming on the winsome, whimsical “Lempilauluni” (“My Loved Song”). 

“That one was a big struggle in my head, whether I could really put this old demo on the final album. I even recorded it with sax instead and everybody was like ‘no’. That was one part where I really got support from others,” says Fredriksson. 

The collage-like album includes found sounds and plenty of electronics, yet still sounds warm, organic and human. After the band recording sessions, Fredriksson spent months alone, adding overdubs and editing the material.

“I had such a big need to do it alone; to find out what kind of music comes out and to learn what I like, rather than asking others,” they say. 


Rediscovering the joy of music

Two years later, Fredriksson is in no hurry to release a follow-up. At recent concerts, the Juniper band has unveiled five strong new songs, along with reworked pieces from the debut.

Yet with constant touring and other commitments, says Fredriksson, “it requires planning and patience to get the time for this creative work that’s slow and personal and takes time and space.” After a second Superposition album to be released in 2024, the plan is to concentrate on the new solo album next year, while only playing a few concerts, mainly abroad, ahead of the next release. 

At 38, having cemented a place as a leading Finnish musician, Fredriksson has certainly earned the right to take time off the gigging circuit after nearly two decades. 

“I started playing saxophone when I was nine, so that was almost 30 years ago. Our neighbour said I was inspired by Lisa Simpson but I think it was because I’d seen my older brother play in a band with a clarinetist,” recalls Fredriksson. “I remember thinking, ‘that’s what I’m going to do’. But when the time came to pick an instrument in music class, many other students said they were going to play the clarinet, so I picked the sax because I didn’t want to do the same thing as everyone else” – perhaps a signpost to the unique career that lay ahead.

“For such a long time, I had a really weird relationship with the instrument. I was always worried about whether I was playing it correctly. The joy of music was definitely not associated with the sax; it was playing drums or piano at school or guitar in my room, just going through old children’s songbooks or playing along with records and singing.” 

“A lot later, that I was able to transform that connection with music onto the sax with Mopo. It was about having fun with friends and creating your own stuff and having this playground where you could do whatever and all the humour and jokes. It was so important to reconnect with the joy of music and not the horror of playing your jazz lines correctly.”

Linda Fredriksson has an utterly distinctive voice on the saxophone.

From ska to Coltrane

In high school, Fredriksson was passionate about many kinds of music, from Motown and Maceo Parker’s funk to Erykah Badu and Jamiroquai, along with ska. 

“There were also a few jazz records that were super-important like Keith Jarrett’s My Song and his other albums with Jan Garbarek, who was a big sax influence when I was younger, along with Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane,” Fredriksson recalls.

“I didn’t really think about creating my own sound, but a lot of stuff influenced it. A lot of times when I play sax solos, I might have a vision in my head of Coltrane’s amazing stuff but other times it’s often a singer that I’m thinking of. I’ve definitely listened to a lot more singers than saxophone players in my life. That’s a fun thing about sax is that I can imagine a singer or singing it while playing it.”

Before Mopo, Fredriksson debuted with Echosystem, a Brazilian-influenced Helsinki jazz/funk band that released its first album on MySpace and CD-R in 2005. The following year, the young saxophonist was already busy playing on albums by hip-hop duo Beats and Styles, ska band the Valkyrians, and the Finnish Junior All-Star Big Band – which also featured vocalist Yona and her ex-spouse, trumpeter Kalevi Louhivuori, a member of the Northern Governors and Ricky-Tick Big Band, and brother of drummer Olavi.


Mopo’s punk-jazz apocalypse

Then came Mopo, a playful trio formed in 2009 with bassist Eero Tikkanen and drummer Eeti Nieminen, which was a Young Nordic Jazz Comets finalist the following year. The band startled the staid Helsinki jazz scene with raucous live shows that involved switching instruments in mid-song without missing a beat, wandering around the audience playing duck calls and squeaky toys. During the 2014 We Jazz festival, the threesome played a dizzying marathon 24 gigs in 24 hours around Helsinki, including Parliament House and a petrol station.

By their fourth album, 2018’s Mopocalypse, there were signs that the fun had begun to wear off. Meanwhile Fredriksson was growing as a composer and soloist with affecting ballads such as “Sinut muistan ainiaan” (“I’ll Always Remember You”) and “Niin aikaisin” (“So Early”) based on an old Swedish folk waltz.

According to Fredriksson, the Mopo alumni – all active in many other bands – remain friends and “have the strong feeling that one day we really want to make music together again, but that time is not here yet”. 

Another trio that’s slowly working towards their next album is Kiri Ra!, which released its debut in 2021. The cinematic project features multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Lau Nau and Swedish pianist Matti Bye, who contributes to one elegiac tune on Juniper.


“A force of nature”

Besides Juniper, Fredriksson is active with Superposition, where they are paired with another saxophonist, Adele Sauros. The matchup is far from the ruthless, testosterone-fuelled “cutting contests” of the early jazz scene, such as those in Kansas City in the 1930s where alto king Charlie Parker battled his way into a career. 

“I really enjoy playing with Adele. We’re such different players, but it’s always felt so easy. Sometimes if she plays a super-amazing intense solo with lots of information, it opens other doors for me. Maybe when my solo part starts, I can just play a few notes and that’s what the music needs at the moment,” explains Fredriksson.

According to bandleader Louhivuori, “Linda has a deep sensitivity for music and other musicians and a great ability to listen, react, and communicate on stage. Playing with them is adventurous, exciting and fun. Together we can really push boundaries and look for the unknown. That takes a lot of courage and trust. Linda is such a force of nature; so funny, sensitive and empathic,” he says.

Besides Juniper and Superposition gigs, Fredriksson’s busy summer 2023 schedule included something quite different: an appearance at the Helsinki Festival as soloist with the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra performing works inspired by Agatha Christie, composed by Kerkko Koskinen, best known as leader of the pop group Ultra Bra.

For Fredriksson, playing with a big band is a radical change from the no-holds-barred free improvisation of Superposition and Juniper. 

“Kerkko hears music with so many layers! There are so many amazing things happening all the time that playing as a soloist on top of that is totally a world of its own,” they say.

Earlier in the summer, Fredriksson’s new and old worlds dovetailed together during an appearance before tens of thousands at the Helsinki Pride festival in Kaivopuisto Park. 

“It was a wonderful gig; super-emotional. Former President Tarja Halonen spoke just before we went on stage and I was crying because she said such amazing things,” Fredriksson says with a grin. “But it went really well. It was so wonderful playing to my community and getting this wonderful feedback.”

Photos by Maarit Kytöharju