In Conversations – Honesty and Presence with Jussi Reijonen
Finnish guitarist/oudist, composer, arranger, and educator, Jussi Reijonen, will be performing some of his compositions from his acclaimed CD Jussi Reijonen: un and showcasing some new arrangements from his trio project Jussi Reijonen: trï at Brookline Music School on June 3 and Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 7. He will be joined with Turkish pianist Utar Artun and Palestinian cellist Naseem Alatrash.
In Jussi’s own words ”Growing up in five different countries in Europe, The Middle East and Africa – Finland, Jordan, Tanzania, Oman and Lebanon – has shaped my own identity as a musician to embrace a multi-cultural world, and I feel strongly about passing this openness and what I have learned along my path onward”. His debut album un is a marvelous musical voyage with articulate harmonious conversations, diverse culture influences from three continents, and quiet exuberance and sense of open space. In a thoughtful and relaxed atmosphere, his music is enlightening, poignant, spirited, and emotionally stirring; Jussi keeps showiness to the slightest but playing that channels his originality and story-telling through the guitar(s) and the oud.
Jussi was self-taught on guitar and studied in Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Finland. He graduated from Berklee College of Music and completed his master’s degree in New England Conservatory. He has performed in Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Germany, France, Lebanon and the United States; and shared the stage with the renowned jazz drummer Jack deJohnette, flamenco cantaor legend Pepe de Lucia, Spanish multi-Grammy-award-winning producer and flamenco guitarist Javier Limón, Palestinian oud/violin master Simon Shaheen, fretless guitar pioneer David Fiuczynski, Turkey’s gypsy clarinet legend Hüsnü Senlendirici, Lebanese nay virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba and many others. “Reijonen’s musical universe has no frontiers. It is a beautiful, sensual mosaic of traditions and influences.”(All About Jazz)
Early memories – “Some of my first memories…there are so many memories – when I look back at my childhood, it’s like a whirlwind of colors, scents, sounds, tastes, places, cities, countries, cultures, and people. What I find interesting looking back is how so many of those sensory memories are triggered by music – brought back by certain songs or albums, or even album covers or just the smell of an album sleeve… the music I’ve listened to throughout my life has almost become like a diary in a way. If I put on a certain album, I’ll be transported to the beginning of high school in Beirut; another one, I’ll be instantly in my room in Dar es Salaam, or playing in my friend’s backyard in Rovaniemi, or in my parents’ car driving from Amman to Aqaba.”
“No one in my family played an instrument, but I was completely taken by music since I was probably 4 years old when the older brother of my best friend – a girl down our street in Rovaniemi – played us a cassette of a Finnish rock band called Dingo. They caused Beatlemania-like mass hysteria in Finland in the ‘80s, and my friend and I were blown away by the music, the look, and everything. From there, it was complete fandom on our part – getting every album, poster, article, anything we could get our hands on. It’s funny to look back now and remember that we were probably four or five years old at the time. I remember always sitting on a small stool and turning office chairs around to make a makeshift drum set – the seat was my snare and the backrest was the cymbal – and beating them with pencils and chopsticks along to Dingo and other rock and 80’s metal records. It was childhood escapism on many levels: I’d spend hours every day in an imaginary world like this, listening to the records over and over, air-drumming along, staring at the posters of these otherworldly personas, pretending I was in the band – that was what it was all about for me. Later, when my family moved to Jordan when I was six, I found myself much more in my own world since I didn’t speak the languages I heard around me yet, and didn’t really have friends at first, so I think music took on a more and more important role as something to feed my imagination, to pour energy into and get energy out of, and, maybe most importantly, a place to go to for comfort and solace. Through all our family’s moving back and forth between countries, music was the one friend that was always with me.”
Journey through music, from Finland to America – “For as long as I remember, I’ve been enchanted by rhythm, so the guitar was actually not my first choice of instrument – it was drums, though I never got a drum set. It’s a funny story actually, how I ended up picking up the guitar. I remember being in Finland at about 13 years old, right after we moved back for a while from Tanzania, and pestering my parents to help me get a drum set for what seemed like forever. Eventually, a friend of mine was selling his drums, and I convinced my father to go with me and have a look at them. It turned out this friend was asking for four times the price he’d paid for them – and they weren’t particularly good drums at all – and I remember going home very offended by this, and asking my father if I could have a guitar instead. That was that for the drums, and I’ve never looked back.”
“For the first eight years or so I was more or less ‘self-taught’, I suppose, but only in that I didn’t have any formal instruction – my early education was albums, guitar magazines, transcription books, the Rovaniemi library music section, and learning from my friends who also played. I was just very driven to seek out more information on my own and try to decode everything I heard and couldn’t play. I remember when we lived in Beirut my friends from Finland would photocopy transcriptions and send them to me by mail – and this was before email. What started with learning Guns N’ Roses and Metallica in the beginning slowly started to give way to more diverse influences like jazz and flamenco, and I soon found myself as the other composer in an acoustic guitar duo very influenced by John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucía, Django Reinhardt, Stochelo Rosenberg and others…basically trying to play as fast as we couldn’t. We ended up releasing two EP’s of original music and got to play some small jazz festivals around Finland.”
“After graduating high school I tried to become a responsible adult and went to university for a year to study physics, but quickly found out I was going very much against my nature and dropped out to think about what I wanted to do. After two years of just working, I made the decision to pursue music as the only honest path I could take, was finally accepted into the Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki in 2003, and began my formal musical education. This was around the time I’d had an instinct to buy an oud(an 11-string Arabic lute) on a solo backpacking trip through northern Morocco – I’d started the process of tracing the various branches of my own roots musically since the Middle Eastern and African influences pulled me more and more and seemed to come through more and more in my playing and compositions. I began to freelance around the Finnish music scene, and began gathering a lot of invaluable experience working as a musician in all kinds of styles and situations with many artists in Finland. Before I graduated the Conservatory in 2006, I had auditioned for Berklee College of Music in 2004 or so and been awarded a partial scholarship, and tried to find a way to come to study there. In 2008 I was finally able to make my way to Boston, graduated from Berklee in 2010, and then later did my Master’s at New England Conservatory from 2011 to 2013.”
The sound of my music – “My music seems to have become a method for trying to understand my identity and defining myself – who am I, where am I from, where are my roots – and how do I make sense of myself as what I learned eventually was called a ‘third culture child’. In the same way that my music tries to find a balance and sense between influences from the north – the wide, calm, open spaces of Finnish Lapland – the Middle East – the melodies, intonations, phrasings and ornamentations – and Africa – the rhythms, percussion textures and cyclic structures – I’m constantly trying to find that balance within myself as a person. I cherish all those cultural influences that are in me somewhere because of where I grew up, and I’m just trying to understand them better through music.”
“I think most of my ideas come from just…the nature of the sound of something triggering an idea. The sound of the oud will make me put notes together in my mind in a certain way, an electric guitar in another,and a classical guitar in another. Textures and colors are important – and I think part of my background in rock shines through in that many of my pieces are very riff-driven, though I may play the riff on the oud, which traditionally is used more for a melody that carries the piece. Often I’ll originally come up with something on one instrument but end up performing or recording it on another, if the music works better that way. It’s a mixture of traditions of American and Scandinavian jazz and the folk musics of the Middle East and Africa, combined with rhythmic concepts from India. In other words, I attempt to combine the open spaces and silences of Scandinavia with the maqamat of the Arab world and the rhythmic richness of India and West Africa. I’m happy that people also notice the Nordic influence and, I suppose, not only the more immediate Middle Eastern undercurrents in there. I think that, more directly than Nordic jazz or the ECM sound, though, what has influenced my music is the landscape and nature of northern Finland: the open spaces; the purity of the nature; and the silence. A bit of a cliché, maybe, but that’s how I experience it. I’ve been told that I’m on the calm side, personality-wise, as well—I don’t say too much unless I have something to say. Maybe that’s the part of my character and the music that I’ve been given by the North.”
“That being said, I do feel very at home listening to the Nordic stream of jazz – artists like trumpeter Arve Henriksen and so forth. Obviously, when I lived in Finland and began to work as a musician, there was a certain common understanding of a certain dialect of improvisation among those I played with that were considered jazz musicians – it gravitated towards the more spacious, more textural and less… hurried. I think that on some level, that – and my own naturally slower pace of doing and processing things—has been reflected into the music, especially a piece like ‘Kaiku,’ and my arrangement of ‘Naima’. Plus, I just enjoy sound, and sometimes it takes a moment to let it be enjoyed. Another factor has been that I went through a period of wanting to purify my expression in a way – to cleanse it of unnecessary filler words, commas and non sequiturs – and to only play what I heard instead of following what might be more physical or mechanical impulses. Because of that, the pace at which I hear things and sounds occur to me make me slow a lot of the music down. Many times, the silences are me waiting for that next impulse of what to say, and how to say it.”
My sources of inspiration – “I am constantly inspired by other composers – Anyone who seems to create from an honest place. I think at this point I’m more inspired by sounds and approaches than specific musical idols – which is absolutely not to say I don’t have a huge amount of respect for my mentors, on record and in person. I grew up on rock and metal originally, and started to explore these other sounds from different folk musics and jazz in my late teens. I love everything from Paco de Lucía to Pantera…I’m just trying to filter all that inspiration through the lens of my own background so that I could learn from others, and maintain the energy of that inspiration, but still try to create something that is not a 1:1 carbon copy of something that someone else has already brought to life.”
“My sources of inspiration change from phase to phase, but recently I’ve been listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets, Björk, Salif Keita, and various flamenco artists for instance. Today I went back to a Pantera record – ‘Far Beyond Driven‘ – that was very important to me in the mid-90’s, and it still resonates. Other than music, I like to read – I’m very into literature, and history in particular. I find that words in particular – the idea of condensing an idea into just one word – stimulates me a lot. How much can you say with one word – what is there, what is left open? How does a word sound? How does it look? Many of the titles of my pieces, as well as un as an album title and trï as a project title for my new trio work with this concept.”
Learning from the masters – “The thing I remember most vividly is their presence. That always hit me the most. It’s not something they have to underline or overstate – they just… are. Playing with Jack deJohnette was when I was in my second year at Berklee – David Fiuczynski was always very supportive of what I was doing and he hooked me up with that concert – and it felt like I was in the same room with a force of nature. Same thing with Pepe de Lucía – just that presence and that voice. Or playing with David Tronzo. It seems like these people just have some kind of unspeakably deep connection to music that is just a wonder to experience, especially getting to play with them – very thankful for that. It just… runs through them. Many fond memories of conversations with Simon Shaheen during my NEC times – he’s been a very important mentor to me. One time, I remember I went to him and complained that I was always making the same mistake every time I was playing a particular phrase, and he looked at me and said, ‘So… don’t’. Pretty deep when you stop to think about it.”
The open-minded, the open–eared, the curious – “I respect an audience too much to try to guess their reaction to my work beforehand for two reasons – I see that as putting the cart before the horse, and I feel it would be underestimating them as listeners. I like to believe that what is honest and present will always connect, no matter what it is, flawed as it may be. I look for something that stimulates me, and then try to balance out the ingredients into something that doesn’t sound like oil and water put together. I often compare it to chemistry: some elements mix easily in most conditions, but some need the right temperature or right pressure. Some just… don’t, or I haven’t yet found a natural way to do it. As far as instruments, I try to let the music ask what it needs, and then negotiate with it through arranging and orchestration. Dictating to the music… well, music is both very transparent and an honest reflection. It’ll give you away.”
“Philosophically, I can only say I hope it comes across as honest and present, and try to stray as far afield from mere superficial appropriation as possible. How successful that may or may not be is for the listener to decide.”
“If we talk about popular mainstream music, I miss music that does not underestimate the intelligence – or attention span – of the listener. I feel in many ways that, on a larger scale, the level of meaningful dialogue in public debate these days is alarmingly low in terms of social awareness and social conscience, and I think a lot of the music that is played on mainstream radio reflects that, sadly. Fortunately, there are still artists like D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar out there in the mainstream (at least from my perspective), pushing buttons.”
“As far as jazz goes, I don’t know if I’m the best person to evaluate its current or future state – am I really a jazz musician? An improviser, yes. A jazz musician? I sometimes wonder. I hesitate to comment too much on music in terms of making genre-specific statements since I believe thinking in boxes is not very, well, open-minded. I’ll just say that if we remember to respect – and challenge – ourselves and our audiences in the future, and stay aware and socially conscious, music will be healthy.”
The Album Un – “I believe in two musical fundamentals – Honesty and Presence. For me, for any art to communicate and connect, it has to have both, and neither can exist without the other. The album title – and band name – has multiple meanings, some of them contradictory. ‘Un’ is a reference to a Persian poem by Hafez. ‘Un’ in Persian can refer to Presence. ‘Un’ in French is ‘one’. ‘Un’ in English is ‘not’. I was never fully of any one culture, of any one walk of life, of any one mold, yet this is exactly what makes me the individual and musician that I am. Growing up how I did, I am by default a fusion of cultures, so for my music to be honest, it must be a fusion of cultures. Ultimately, un is me both defying being any One Idea exclusively, and embracing the concept of being One – defying definition but embracing what it is that makes each one of us an individual. Each piece on un has a specific meaning for me, some more autobiographical than others, but I prefer to just say that each piece is a part of that process of self-seeking. I’m quite private in many ways as a person, and would rather leave titles as reminders for myself, and as hints for others to stimulate a listener’s perception.”
“Serpentine came out in one quick burst of sheer anger and frustration at certain world events in the summer of 2006, hence the more aggressive energy of it – it originally sounded like Vicente Amigo’s ‘Tatá’ cross-pollinated with Sepultura’s ‘Roots Bloody Roots’. Over time, it got perhaps a little more refined, and the version we play now with the new trio is quite different even from the version on un“.
“Naima – I’ve always been drawn to strong melodies that stand on their own without anything to support or ‘make’ them – harmonically speaking – and ‘Naima‘ has always been a Coltrane melody that really spoke to me. Coltrane’s playing and persona has for a long time fascinated me – there’s so much I admire about his music and yet so much that I still can’t begin to understand the depth of. I think, very broadly speaking, the concept of “blues” is what I seem to be drawn to in any given kind of music, and Coltrane’s playing is very rooted in the blues; as far out as he took it during his lifetime, it was always there. I find a similar feeling when I listen to Arabic mawwal or taqasim, or flamenco, or Sami joik singing – to me, they’re all different branches of the same tree, different shades of blue if you will. The blues, to me, is a very universal human condition, and though it’s expressed in different ways in different cultures, to me all these musics have a connection between them. So, in a nutshell, I wanted to try and pay tribute to Coltrane, but again through my own third culture child’s lens. The arrangement of ‘Naima‘ we recorded became almost like a self-study of stillness.”
“Toumani (Blues for Mick) came about from trying to emulate the sound of the kora with a steel-string acoustic guitar – Toumani Diabaté blew me away when I first heard him live, and I started to adopt some ideas from his phrasing to the acoustic guitar when I was working with a Senegalese bass player in Finland for a few years. When I was at Berkee, Mick Goodrick gave me an assignment to compose a piece with certain blues parameters of harmony, and ‘Toumani‘ is what came out as a twist on the standard blues form, with these kora inflections adapted to the electric guitar. In a way, it pays respect to where the blues is originally from – Africa.”
“Kaiku is a very improvisatory piece with Eva Louhivuori’s voice, I wanted to have her in the same room with the band when we tracked, but I didn’t have the funds to fly her to Boston from Finland. The band and I ended up recording a one-take version of the tune in the studio near Boston, with me imagining in my mind what Eva might sing, how long she might take on any given section, and then cueing the band accordingly as we were recording. She took that version into a studio in Helsinki, set up and sang one improvised take and that was that. She said it felt like we were in the same physical space when she was singing it, and when I heard the result, I had tears in my eyes. It still sounds to me as if we had done it live with her… talk about synchronicity.”
The Trio project with Utar Artun and Naseem Alatrash – “I was quite beat after ‘un‘ to be honest – the album cycle took a period of about three years from recording to releasing it to finishing the concerts – so it took me over a year after our last concert to get back to leading my own group again. My music and I needed to see some other people for a while, so I enjoyed some time off playing with many other projects with other musicans.”
“The cello has been on my mind for quite some time as a color to work with, and in the last concerts for un we invited Naseem Alatrash to sit in as a special guest at the Regattabar in Boston and Alwan for the Arts in New York City. I’ve known and played on and off with Naseem for several years, and it felt like such a natural, inspiring fit that when I started to think of what I wanted to do next after un, the only certain thing I felt was that the cello, and Naseem in particular, had to be a part of it.”
“Then, this past January, I got a surprise invitation from the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival in Vermont to play there on June 7th with a smaller, percussion-less ensemble, and I decided to take the opportunity to start to work with a new concept entirely. I knew I wanted piano in there, and Utar is just a one-of-a-kind person and incredible musician – someone I’ve played with for years, and he was the backbone of the un album and lineup in so many ways.”
“The trio project and trï is still very young, but we’ve evolved into a sort of improvising modern chamber trio of sorts. The instrumentation lends itself to pretty much anything we can think of from tempered and non-tempered, western and non-western, intonation systems, plus the fact that it is just three people gives each one of us a lot of space to play with. Now that Utar at times plays piano and percussion at the same time, trï has become kind of like a quartet of three people. The energy both musically and personally between the three of us is unbelievable, and I’m really looking forward to going in front of audiences to test our new concepts and ideas. So now we’re doing a concert at Brookline Music School’s Bakalar Recital Hall on Wednesday June 3rd, then playing the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on Sunday June 7th, and after that I’m hoping to spend the summer composing for us. If the stars align, I’m hoping go record in the late fall and hopefully have a new album out early next year.”
Read Finland Tour Reflections from Jussi here.