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UMO stands the test of time

by Petri Silas

2015 has been a milestone year for the 40-year-old UMO Jazz Orchestra. We invited three key figures to look back on the history of the internationally acclaimed big band.

Back in 1975, as the Finnish jazz scene was just about coming out of its infancy, a group of forward-thinking and active musicians in our capital of Helsinki saw a gaping hole in the musical landscape. The nation was in dire need of a high-class big band capable of tackling not only the standards of the genre but also the new, more challenging material cropping up all the time all over the world. Recycling the evergreens was not enough for hungry young lions of the era such as saxophonists Pekka Pöyry, Juhani Aaltonen, Pentti Lahti or Eero Koivistoinen.

No time was wasted as pianists Esko Linnavalli and Heikki Sarmanto assembled an able team and booked the premiere concert. The cauldron was brewing. And so it came to be that in June 1975 the Finnish Jazz Music Workshop undertook its maiden voyage at the Pori Jazz Festival. The moniker was soon streamlined to Uuden Musiikin Orkesteri (i.e. the Orchestra for New Music) and its funding secured from the state via the Finnish Ministry of Education, the city of Helsinki and the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation Yle.

Less than a year after it was born, the UMO Jazz Orchestra released its debut album. Our Latin Friends (1976) was built on music by Sarmanto, Koivistoinen and trumpeter Kaj Backlund and paved the way for further ’70s and ’80s milestone releases like Thad Jones, Mel Lewis & UMO (1978), UMOphilos (1979), Ultima Thule (1983), Bad Luck, Good Luck (1985), Passions of a Man (1987) and Plays the Music of Muhal Richard Abrams (1989). In many cases, these albums were documents of special projects where renowned composers and bandleaders had been invited to write or arrange music especially for UMO.

Top-notch guests

Among the featured guest stars was legendary bandleader, composer and arranger Gil Evans. Saxophonist Pepa Päivinen has been with UMO ever since 1985 and remembers the affair well.

“It happened in 1987 and the whole experience was just magic. One of Gil’s methods was to stop calling the tunes. On our second day of rehearsals he began to start each song by just playing the electric piano… feeling his way around the piece and waiting for us to join in. It took some getting used to but in the end we pulled it off. Both the rehearsals and the concert made a profound impression on me.”

Päivinen was also there for sessions with Muhal Richard Abrams, Duke Ellington’s son Mercer Ellington and many others.

“Like Gil, Anthony Braxton was another one with a very fresh and unique approach. And the same goes for Randy Weston. He joined us for a performance in 1994 carrying just a few compositions under his arm but then augmented the set list with tunes for which he waited for the scores to arrive at the UMO office fax machine.”

Päivinen remembers the ’80s as an artistically satisfying and economically solid period.

“At one point it seemed like we had a new guest coming over every week. I sat on the artistic directors’ board and once Esko [Linnavalli] came to our meeting with the latest Down Beat magazine from which we used the readers’ poll results as a guideline on who to possibly ask to work with us!”

One Finnish session was especially dear to the saxophonist, as he had collaborated with the composer in charge in other long-lasting and groundbreaking projects.

“Our 1996 concert with Edward Vesala was in some ways like our Bad Luck, Good Luck session 11 years earlier but much better. I wish from the bottom of my heart that the later recording will one day also be released as an album.”

The co-existence of creative minds

Throughout its existence, UMO has been able to travel extensively both abroad and locally visiting for example Canada and numerous European countries. It was during one of the Finnish jaunts that drummer and composer Mikko Hassinen first happened upon the group – a fateful occurrence, as the future Teosto prize winner (2015) would later on collaborate with UMO extensively in various guises.

“Esko Linnavalli was still at the baton when UMO came to Kajaani sometime in the late ’80s,” Hassinen remembers. The budding musician was in his late teens and the hammer struck hard. “The concert was based on John Coltrane’s music and the featured soloist was Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone. However, I mostly recall what a great performance the young local heroes of the band, reedsmen Jukka Perko and Sonny Heinilä, put on. I was absolutely stunned by the band’s unique sound and hoped all the while that more than the 20-odd listeners present had turned up at the Kaukametsä concert hall.”

Hassinen says that he sees and hears many of the same qualities in UMO today, a quarter of a century later: this is a jazz orchestra consisting of first-call musicians willing to face challenges head-on and more than able to keep the standards alive. And the man should know what he’s talking about, having performed and recorded with UMO on numerous occasions ever since 1994.

“Through working with UMO as a drummer, composer, arranger and bandleader, I have yet to come across a situation where the score is too hard for the band. And this is no mean feat if we take into consideration that the band often commissions tailor-made music from leading composers in the so-called ‘new music’ field. Routine is, of course, a two-way street but in my opinion jadedness rears its ugly head only seldom when UMO gets together.”

Sometimes called a soloist collective, UMO has maintained exceptionally high standards ever since its genesis. Proof of the inquisitive and even extrovert nature of these craftsmen can be found in their activities outside of the big band. A glance at the chronicles of Finnish jazz at the turn of the millennium reveals a striking fact: after an overall dry spell of the late ’80s and early ’90s as regards album releases, mainstays of the UMO line-up including Pepa Päivinen, his fellow saxophonists Manuel Dunkel, Pekka Pylkkänen and Jouni Järvelä as well as trombonist Markku Veijonsuo and drummer Markus Ketola all released albums of their own material in 1998 and 1999.

Mikko Hassinen’s debut as a leader happened a good decade later with 2008’s Traveller. It became a very important album for its prime mover as he got to take UMO along for the ride.

“That project will always have a special personal significance as getting to write music for UMO meant so much to me. After playing the drums in the band and leading it, composing for my colleagues was a dream come true.”

Mikko’s insight and tacit knowledge, accumulated over a long period of time, is clear and present throughout the album. After a fashion, Traveller can even be seen as a symbolic gateway between the UMO of the past and the UMO of the future: some of the rhythms on the album hark back to the trademark rubato tribal stylings Edward Vesala used with UMO but on the other hand echoes of Hassinen’s drum & bass/electronica experiments with his studio project “Damodara” look boldly ahead.

“Apart from working with the band in more recent years, I spent a lot of time in my youth studying UMO albums like The First Seven (1992) and Selected Standards (1993), so I daresay I had done my homework when embarking on the trip that yielded Traveller,” says Hassinen.

Not by firepower alone

During the latter half of UMO’s existence so far, the instrumental prowess, the fearless attitude and the overall flexibility of the ensemble have played an important part in its longevity and cemented its status as the only full-time big band in Finland. But stamina and musical firepower only carry so far.

Without the right people behind the scenes it is hard to keep any venture afloat. In UMO’s case the tide turned in 2002 as Annamaija Saarela was appointed the band’s executive director. After a period of looser administrative and business action, a morale-boosting sea change in attitude and outlook was a welcome vitamin shot to the entire organisation. During her tenure of six years, the financial management of the band was modernised.

“As far as the annual budget goes, UMO gets part of its funding straight from the Ministry of Education and Culture and operates in this regard exactly like any of our professional classical symphony and chamber orchestras also subsidised by the state in a similar manner,” Saarela says. In addition to UMO there are only three other non-classical orchestras receiving annual statutory government grants: Loiskis Children’s Music Orchestra, Riku Niemi Orchestra and folk music group Tallari.

“Another chunk comes from the city of Helsinki, which has unfortunately been subject of an ongoing discussion in the halls of power. In my personal opinion, most of the politicians and powers-that-be in Helsinki still refuse to see UMO for what it really is. When compared to an older institution like the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, UMO has to struggle for its existence very hard. On the other hand, some of the movers and shakers are quite vocal in their support and defence of UMO. This push and pull can lead to a see-saw situation which makes the administrative side of running UMO quite difficult.”

All in all, Saarela is happy and proud of the time she spent with the team. She gives full credit to the present musicians, who have a natural way of respecting their predecessors and an inbred drive to make the past glories work favourably in the here and now. The long, hard work of the critically acclaimed and internationally renowned ensemble is paying off.

“International tours and all sorts of collaborations are important for the development of the band as a whole and as motivation for the musicians as individuals,” Saarela notes. “But the cost of taking a big band on the road is expensive. For anyone, anywhere. Especially if you start the trip from the top of the world.”

This groundwork is currently built upon by an agile team led by managing director Eeva Pirkkala. Nevertheless, being respected among your peers is always an asset that could be exploited a little more effectively. In any field. And even if the traditional Finnish way is subdued and modest, perhaps UMO could take note of something Esko Linnavalli once told an apprehensive saxophonist taking his tentative steps with the ensemble.

“I was thinking out loud how to approach playing a solo when Esko told me: ‘Don’t worry about it too much. Just close your eyes and imagine yourself as a big star. The rest will take care of itself,’” Pepa Päivinen recounts.

Main photo from the UMO archives (year 1981).

UMO plays Frank Zappa on 4 February at the Musica nova Helsinki festival.