Aki Rissanen: interview with the Finnish pianist

The pianist Aki Rissanen is regarded as a 'heavy weight of Finnish Jazz'. He was educated in classical music first before he discovered Jazz and improvised music. Rissanen studied Jazz and improvised music at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris and Sibelius Academy Jazz Department in Finland (2002-2009). He won the Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland) and the La Defence competition in France. He is well known for his cooperation with the Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjala and the released albums by the German ACT Music label. Rissanen has lately issued the album 'Amorandom' and with Aleatoric a trio incorporating the Belgian musician Robin Verheyen 'Songs for Solstice'. By the way: 'Amorandom' won the Emma award, the Finnish Grammy for the best jazz album of 2016!

Do you think that it is relevant for starting a career as professional musician that parents are either Jazz music lovers, play an instrument or are Jazz musicians themselves? Or do you think that can be neglected considering that Finland has a very good early education system?

AR: Yeah, it’s been said in the press that Finland has one of the best education systems, if not the best and Scandinavia is generally well known for the excellent education for children. We have specialized classes with music as a major subject for kids at the age of nine on. I attended such a special class all the way to the high school. I started to play the piano when I was seven. The education system was very good and my parents were very supportive. They are not musicians themselves but my grandmother had an ear for music and could play the keyboard with two fingers. She was definitely musically talented and maybe I got it in my genes. My family was not much involved in music and rooted in a working/middle class background.

How important was music during your childhood? Was music of any kind surrounding you when you grew up?

AR: My aunt, the sister of my mother, was a teacher in an elementary school and also played piano. She, and also my grandmother, introduced me to music, piano playing and Finnish folk songs and hymns. Through my aunt music was very present for me. My parents didn't listen much to music but through school and my friends and of course my aunt music was part of my life.

How important were and are the compositions of Sibelius and Finnish folk music for you considering your career as pianist? You are a trained classical piano player?

AR: Yes, I am. I think it is important. I often accompanied the music classes in my school and we played folk songs and hymns, yeah Finnish music. Of course the more melancholic-lyrical sounds stuck to my mind and I feel that I got something out of the Finnish folk music, not Scandinavian folk songs because they are different. Well. the Finnish-Eastern European melancholy is something I can relate to. Last night I played an arrangement of a folk song and I like to keep a small connection to my roots in my music. I would say my musical influences are around 70% Jazz and approx 30% classical music. But few percentages of my Finnish heritage I want to keep as well.

Do you remember the first Jazz tunes you heard?

AR: Not really! Probably is was something like “Oh, when the Saints go marching in” from the school song book. But the first record I bought was Oscar Peterson's “Tracks”. It was released in the 70s and is really a great album. I was maybe 16 when I bought it and felt in love with Oscar Peterson's music straight away. I had a good classical Jazz crossover teacher who played at the time in the style of Oscar Peterson. Maybe that was the start of my Jazz career.

There are quite a number of well known Jazz pianists apart of Oscar Peterson like Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul and others who shaped Jazz as a genre. Did they influence you and your performance at all?

AR: They are of course very influential. The base of my playing is related to those great musicians and that cannot be denied. I try to build my playing on that heritage but try to avoid to do much the same things as those 'idols' as every artist of course does. That means not to repeat what was already done. That is a lifelong challenge to create something new. If I would pick one pianist you mentioned I guess it has to be Bill Evans whom I studied most, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley … the usual suspects, too. For example, playing like Herbie is super dangerous. He is so one of a kind and I think if someone wants to play his style the game is already over. I try to avoid that. Bill Evans is a little bit more like Bach or something, like standards being the base of everything. Of course Bill Evans is Bill Evans and the way he is playing is very personal.

Instead of studying at the Berklee School of Music or the New School you went to Paris for your studies. By purpose? By random?

AR: It was made possible thanks to the Erasmus programme. During that time it was not as simple to go to the USA as to Europe I think.  I applied for the scholarship and I picked Paris because I thought I want to go to a place with a totally different culture and French culture has not much in common with Finnish culture. I wanted to go to a place where I did not know anyone nor the culture either. I wanted to learn everything from the start. I think Paris is very inspirational. I did not study much in a formal way because the Academy in Paris gave a lot of freedom to do what you wanted to do. I went there to practice my piano playing and attended lessons for only a few hours a week. I went to concerts every other day, met many nice people, received lots of inspiration. In some respect I regret that I did not go to New York to study and make connections when I was 20 but I believe that is not that necessary nowadays to go to study in America. I think the Jazz scene is more global today.

Is there a specific Scandinavian or Finnish sound of Jazz referring to the likes as Jan Gabarek and his “mystic Fjord sound”? Some regard it as a special branding and a myth. In regards to Finland you might think in terms of the Finnish Tango and the movies by Kaurismäki with a sort of strong melancholy and black humour.

AR: Scandinavian, I think yes because everything we do has to do with the people around us and space. If you go to Manhattan compared to Trondheim you easily understand how much space there is. I think there is a big difference how to create music, too. Nordic music is more spacey. There are not many sounds around to interfere. Music in Manhattan has to be totally different because life is so hectic there. Space is a very good description for Nordic or Scandinavian music. The term Jazz and Nordic music can be sometimes not the correct term because I feel that many Nordic Jazz bands play pop or folk music with improvisations but not super jazzy.

Would you see yourself then more in the American tradition of Jazz?

AR: Maybe 50/50 or 60 in favour of American tradition. When I improvise or phrase my music, I kind of think of how Bud Powell would do it and then decide my own approach … so to speak! I always like to have the feeling of Jazz in a dynamical and rhythmical sense even when I do not “swing” or play “swing eight notes” . I like to achieve that the lines are going really somewhere with syncopes and the accent is not on the first or the third beat- which is often present in Finnish or European music. All in all, I try everyday to find my own voice using all these traditions as my inspiration without reducing the power of the key elements of each style.

Is there a distinctive difference between American and European Jazz if there is something like European Jazz at all?On one hand side the Americans claiming Jazz as their 'native language” and on the other side the Europeans questioning that claim and putting forward that Jazz is performed in Europe as well maybe with another connotation and rooted in the European history of music which is mainly classical music from Bach to Schönberg.

AR: Right. Jazz is invented in America. This is the only art form which is entirely American. It could have not happen anywhere else. For me it is quite hard to say what the differences are exactly like. Let me say that European Jazz is less based on the Bebop language being a fusion of Bebop, European classical and folk music and free improvisation. For instance, I think the French way to play Jazz is based on more modern classical music and free improvisation than Bebop; even though they improvise in the jazz way and play same kind of rhythms and lines.  I think in France they don't want to sound like American Jazz musicians at all, and that is being proud of their own heritage. Maybe in Finland we don’t want to hide the Bebop influences and we fuse them to Finnish folk music sounds. Of course Europe or even Finland does not have only one sound of Jazz. There are so many different nations. Copenhagen has a different scene and sound than Oslo, very different.

Why did you decide to form a 'classical Jazz' trio instead of a quintet or quartet?

AR: I kept clear of it for quite a while because I thought everything is already done with a piano trio and the competition is too strong. But it is the basic formation for a pianist and I find it’s the best set-up for performing the music I want to present now. I have as well another trio with saxophone and drums.

Why did you form a trio with the Belgian saxophonist Robin Verheyen and how did it happen?

AR: We met in Paris when I was studying there. He was living there but not studying. He had moved from Belgium to France to play with different musicians there and check out the local Jazz scene. We met each other during a  jam sessions,  quite a stereotypical place to meet musicians. We realised that we have the same musical language in common.  We started to play in a quartet with a Belgian bass player and a Finnish drummer, Robin as the saxophonist an myself at the piano. That group faded away in few years but we continued as a duo and released one record as a duo and now two albums as a trio with Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari. It is not easy to organise gigs with Robin because he lives now permanently in the States. Anyway, we try to play once or twice a year in Europe if possible. We have played now 12 years together and this is quite a success.

Let us talk about your latest album titled 'Songs for Solstice'. On this album you dedicated one composition to Alexander Nikolajewitsch Skrjabin. Why?

AR: This tune on the record is based on a Skrjabin's tune. I improvise with some fragments of that tune. I studied his music quite a bit as part of my classical piano repertoire. In circles of classical music he is known but Jazz musicians don't use his music very often. He has a very melodic way to compose with something east and something west I think. It think it is very French considering the aspect of the sophisticated harmonies but in a sort of melancholic Russian and Slavic language. Maybe that attracted me because it is a combination of cultures of the East and the West. The music is very attached to me.

On the last album you are as well focused on solstice, on the changes from winter to spring. What is the idea behind such very special subject?

AR: Well, the idea popped up during a tour in Finland when we played during the winter solstice. And in Finland the winter is very special I have to admit. It is very dark and the winter solstice is the day, you know, when everything is getting a bit brighter day by day. So I stuck to that theme for that record. Speaking about a theme for a record I have to say that figuring out a theme is very, very difficult. When I write a composition I do not have any connection to anything but to the music. Even finding a name for a tune is very difficult for me because it is so abstract. The title of a music piece can be anything, basically. I think the music we wrote for this album has some ethnic or even shamanistic influences and in the music I can find a connection to Nordic people’s mentality influenced by the course of nature and the sun.

Another record you released is called 'Amorandom' which has a sort of very light spring and summer touch. Considering the way you play reminds me to pearling or running waters after the ice broke and the streams can flow freely again. Could you relate to such description considering the character of the compositions?

AR: Quite frankly I did not think about it. We recorded the album in a very nice old villa outside Helsinki in June. The weather was great and the beginning of summer, not too hot and it rained a little bit.  The connection with spring or summer might be present in the music because that was the time when we recorded the tunes. It is true that this trio has a little lighter touch playing music compared to many others, lighter and sensitive and reacting fast to each other without the normal “high energy” of Bebop. The tunes are more lyrical the Finnish way, more restraint.

Thanks for the interesting talk.

Interview and photos: © ferdinand dupuis-panther


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