BY Petri Silas
Progress is all about trying out new things, as every forward-thinking artist intrinsically knows. Nevertheless, a case could be made that it is not enough if only the vanguard embraces the unknown. Perhaps all could take a page out of Pepa Päivinen, Janne Tuomi and other open-minded musicians’ book.
Do you regard yourself as open-minded? Most of us reply to the question with a straightforward and resounding yes. This usually comes off the cuff, without even thinking. But intuition really isn’t the best gauge here because the truth lies somewhere deep inside, hidden in the farthest recesses of our core.
Being open-minded and tolerant is also something very subjective, something that manifests itself in different shades to different people. But since a quick “Yeah, of course I am” shot from the hip also automatically lumps the respondent with the good guys, it is a safe and more common instant reaction than the negative one.
Nevertheless, we would all do ourselves a favour if we paused for a while and really thought about the issue and then measured our motives and opinions more carefully.
And of course there are people whose actions speak so loud that they really don’t need to answer with words. A case in point is Dave Stapleton. Even though very busy with his professional and personal life, he dedicated part of 2008 to co-founding a record label that would help him spread the word of music close to his own heart.
A calling became a labour of love became Edition Records, and that is a fact we all can now enjoy. Some serendipity at play, undoubtedly, but mainly it boils down to being open and not being afraid of hard work.
Breaking the mental chains
For us Finns, famously cursed with below-zero self-esteem, it was epic news that Stapleton handpicked some of our countrymen to be represented in the roster of artists at Edition. Especially as he sees that many jazz musicians and composers from Finland are on average driven by nobler goals and core values than their colleagues globally.
But however warm and cuddly gestures such as these make us as a community feel, they are also something we should finally learn to put in perspective. Stapleton is undoubtedly honest in his evaluation but in the big picture we as a nation perhaps should stop making such a big fuss when someone from abroad gives us a pat on the back.
What is really needed now is a collective leap of faith towards understanding the intrinsic value of trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, pianists Aki Rissanen and Alexi Tuomarila, drummer Olavi Louhivuori and the other Finns on Edition Records. Yes, they are signed to a vital British label and at least minor prophets in their own land too.
But they are also operating at a unique point in time. Who knows, maybe the aforementioned and their peers will even see this juncture as a paradigm shift when it is in the rear-view mirror.
Whereas too many of our artists in the previous generation were still trapped as if in the old joke where a Finn goes to a zoo and instead of marvelling at the wildlife spends his day agonising at what the animals see when they look at him, the forty-somethings of today have broken these mental chains. Relying on their education, skills and European openness, they embrace the postmodern work environment with their heads held high.
And this attitude is important not only for them, but also for the ones that now look up to them as role models and wait in the wings to one day make their own mark. Therefore, it is doubly important to acknowledge that lasting success is constructed on a basis where open-mindedness and tolerance are among the main building blocks.
In the long run, these assets mean so much more than a fleeting increase in value caused by outside recognition. Put in a nutshell, the importance of being open in 2016 and beyond simply Can. Not. Be. Stressed. Enough.
Taking things at face value
At the very heart of progressive and creative musicianship lies the will and skill to peek behind the corner and apply the findings to one’s own work. Nothing new here, as pathfinders like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis have proved in the realm of jazz. Among other visionaries, they played a crucial role in moulding the expression of the genre to what it is today. And we can rest assured that headstrong pioneers like them were more aware than most that curiosity is a thing one can’t outsource.
However, being courageous or leading by example does not boil down to donning blinders and stubbornly treading a path through the undergrowth. It boils down to accepting the prevailing circumstances, viewing new things critically and also stepping at least momentarily away from the comfort zone. In one word, it is about being open-minded.
A prime example of this attitude among Finnish jazz musicians who have been around for a while is Pepa Päivinen. The saxophonist, who recently turned 60, has worked with a vast range of bandleaders from Esko Linnavalli (of UMO Jazz Orchestra fame), Edward Vesala to Jukka Tolonen, Anthony Braxton and Pekka Pohjola to Jarmo Saari – and the list goes on. In addition, he is a founding member of Finland’s first-ever sax quartet Saxperiment.
Päivinen has also released numerous critically acclaimed discs as a leader. And just as the album and live reviews always prove, he is a soulful and skilled musician who is called upon when the task at hand requires a degree of vision and value that your regular session saxman, even from the A-list, just won’t be able to provide.
But what is it that ultimately makes Päivinen so respected and revered? For one thing, his open-minded nature and humble attitude. By taking things at face value Päivinen has managed to work with the trad jazz taliban as well as the free jazz puritans.
No mean feat, as the demarcation line is littered with mines on both sides. His method and the example he sets are worth more than their weight in gold if they help budding musicians to understand that choosing one path over the other often leads to unnecessary polarisation.
In the next generation, the forty-somethings of today, we find a similar voracious craftsman. The horizon of drummer and percussionist Janne Tuomi stretches from traditional hard bop to the most demanding classical percussion pieces to avant-garde rock to pseudo-Balkanese brass band schlager to free improvisation and all the stops in between. The versatile Tuomi has appeared on dozens of albums and released the solo discs Approaching (2004), Resonance (2008) and elg (2009).
To bring this article to a climax, Janne Tuomi will share some of his views on how being open-minded has benefited him as a working musician and why he feels it is important to stay forever curious.
“I have heard that when talk once turned to styles and niches, the brilliant bass player William Parker posed a very important question: how dare we spend so much valuable energy answering such questions as: ‘what is jazz’? To me, this is a very valid question worth pausing at,” Tuomi says before going on to state that whichever genre we may talk about, it is usually in every musician’s DNA to intrinsically try to perform music to the best of their ability.
“Nevertheless, what that aspiration translates into from other people’s point of view is a totally different thing. I personally have been faced with Mr Parker’s observation quite often, but never as vividly as when performing with saxophonist Jukka Perko and the Pori Sinfonietta during the Pori Jazz festival some summers ago. The venue was a church and the repertoire consisted of hymns and chorales. As you see, it can get complicated in many ways. I did enjoy the experience very much, but never saw it as jazz even though a jazz festival paid my wages and the soloist was a top jazz saxophonist. Why not? Because Perko was the only one with the freedom of an improviser, and all others followed the arrangements in the score. However, names and genres are mostly futile anyway. If you like it, you should just feel free to enjoy it. Music is all about expression just as much as improvisation is all about finding something new and living in the now.”
Indeed. Keep your senses as well as your mind open and “call it whatever”, to paraphrase one of Tuomi’s heroes, Miles Davis.
All music is dance music
Next, the percussionist’s percussionist broadens the scope by harking back to his tenure in Grand-Popo, Benin, in order to look at what’s important in music from a non-Western point of view. Whereas First World artists often have a tendency to over-intellectualise everything, other elements and aspects may matter more somewhere else. After all, the rational mind is not all a human consists of.
“When performing with a West African band one soon learns that music is evaluated almost exclusively by its ability to move the body. If the audience isn’t dancing, there’s usually something wrong with the music. And to get back to the original theme, when is one more open than when they are dancing? This, of course, is also what Thelonious Monk once famously referred to when he said that all music is dance music. And to take the idea even further, one of the last albums by one of my great teachers, Ed Thigpen, was called It’s Entertainment’s article Janne Tuomi shares…. I have interpreted this as Ed’s way of telling us all to lighten up a little.”
Tuomi, who usually works from his hometown Tampere, faced some welcome new challenges and opportunities when he resided in Germany with his family for five months around the turn of 2016. So he is two times qualified to evaluate the openness of the Finnish jazz and music and art scene in general. What does it look like from the outside? What are the pros and cons of our capital Helsinki being the hub where most of the action is?
“The culture of arranging jams, for one thing, is quite different. Of course, the quality of musicianship varies very much everywhere but in Berlin the tunes aren’t limited to jazz standards. Sometimes we played some reggae, and a particular epiphany came when the bassist of the house band at Club Edelweiss once began dancing and toasting like a madman when the band was unexpectedly joined by a young man with superlative freestyle rap skills. I instantly remembered an interview with Max Roach where he said that the next Charlie Parker will come from hip hop. I don’t know if this ever happened but one thing was certain: Max was curious and open enough to not exclude any genre of music from his sphere of experience.”
Petri Silas is a freelance music journalist and critic from Tampere specialising in jazz and rock, whose reviews and interviews have appeared in magazines such as Soundi, Riffi and Rondo, weeklies like Suomen Kuvalehti and Apu and newspapers such as Aamulehti.