Kari IKONEN, a conversation

On August 7th, 2021 pianist, moogist, composer and inventor of a piano device he coined “Maqiano”, Kari Ikonen, gave a fantastic solo concert at Porgy & Bess Jazz & Music Club Vienna. I was part of the audience and had the opportunity to have a conversation for Jazz'halo with the Finnish artist, before and after his great concert.

Kari Ikonen was born in Jyväskylä, Finland back in 1973. He’s not only well known as a pianist but also as moogist and composer. In 2013 he received the “Yrjö award” as the “Finnish jazz musician of the Year”. Currently he’s active as a solo pianist. Besides that he also has several different musical projects: his own trio, a duo with Louis Sclavis, a duo with Tom Arthurs and several other bands and projects like the great ‘Orchestra Nazionale de la Luna’. ‘Orchestra Nazionale de la Luna’, a very original name he came up with to name the band.

Besides playing with the ‘Orchestra Nazionale de la Luna’ with two Belgian musicians, one French musician, you have a beautiful approach to very special music with your Moog and with an incredible singer and composer and your partner in life Mia Simanainen and her Quartet. You also have the trio Toffa. Among these different projects what is the most significant anecdotal moment you recall ?

Kari Ikonen: I don't know if there has been such a moment that would have been more special than all the other great moments I’ve had. I like to look at things as a long process.

Like for example, with my trio I can’t think at one special moment that has been fantastic, but the whole process from the start and how we created the band sound and how I composed new music for the Trio when I had the experience of playing together with the band and then of course, making these albums.. So far we recorded three studio albums and we've played lots of concerts in many different continents. During the years the band has gone so much forward artistically because of the amount of concerts. I would say that the whole process is the most significant moment, the whole ten years.

You have been working with incredible musicians like Lee Konitz, Ra-Kalam Bob Moses, Tony Malaby, Ingrid Jensen, Magnus Bro, Vincent Courtois, as well. The list is very empressive and you are not even 50 years old. Your traject as a musician and composer is amazing, you have performed in the Soviet Union, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Armenia, Turkey, Israel, Senegal and 13 European countries.

Your performances and compositions have been recorded for more than 50 albums and eight of these on your own name. Here is my question: Is there a particular moment on this musical path that you cherrish ?

Kari Ikonen: There are lots of great moments, but I wouldn't say that one is more important for me than any other, although, now that you mentioned the name, Lee Konitz – I just played one of his tunes during the soundcheck - that of course was a fantastic experience to play with that kind of a guy who was an essential part of the jazz history. It was a great experience to play with him, to play his music with him and to hang with him on tour, to chat and to listen to his stories. Because he played with basically everyone.  That’s one of the great colaborations I've done.

We have met in 2018 after the great concert you gave with your trio in Belgium at Macy's Jazz 9. Your compositions have been honored internationally. You've been getting first prizes in the American “Julius Hemphill Composition Awards” and in the Italian “Scribere in Jazz”. Your solo piano album called “Impressions. Improvisations and Compositions” was launched in January 2021 worldwide by Ozella Music (a label that you frequently work with). I’m looking forward at tonight’s concert, here at Porgy & Bess, Vienna.

Some months ago you told me about the compositions for your solo album. You wrote them moments before these Corona times, and I mention this because one might think that you were inspired by the Corona times, but no, it was written months before. Due to Corona your concerts in 2021 were postponed so far, but as I have read, you had solo release concerts in Finland.

Kari Ikonen: Yes. Last autumn, the situation in Finland was better. So I played maybe 20 concerts.

What inspired you to write the songs at your latest solo album “Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions” ?

Kari Ikonen: There are several things and one of them is Arabic music and the Maqams, Arabic Maqamat. And because I invented this device, this system I called “Maqiano”,  I can play the Arabic Maqams and other micro intervals on the grand piano. That was one of the sources of inspiration. I wanted to play like Arabic influenced improvisations and compositions.

Also visual arts have always been an important source of inspiration for me. When I'm touring in Europe or wherever, actually when I'm in cities that have impressive art museums, I usually try to arrange my schedule so that I will have time to visit them.

Once I was in Munich and I arrived one day before the concert so that I could have the chance to go to some art museums there, and I saw a lot of fantastic things. One of them was an exhibition of Kandinsky's works from his Munich period, “Blauer Richter” was the exhibition's name. That’s where I got this idea from for the album title and the concept “impressions, improvisations and conversations”. Because Kandinsky divided his works this way and even in this exhibition there were lots of “impressions”.

“Impression” is an improvisation, but with something external as an inspiration like music, for example. “Improvisations”, like Pure, come directly from the soul of the artist and then “compositions” were more designed and planned. I spent a lot of time at this exhibition. I was watching some of the works for a long time and trying to absorb the spirit from them. When I came home, I returned to them. I took some photos and I found some photos from the internet, kind of to remind me of these paintings. Then I started to compose and improvise with these ideas when I was back home on my own Steinway piano.

Tonight you're playing here in Vienna at Porgy & Bess, one of the best jazz clubs in Europe and considered one of the best five clubs in the whole world, as I've been told. How do you feel about these great tours ? You start in Austria. Is this your first time playing in Vienna ? How was your first Austrian concert last night in Bad Ischel ?

Kari Ikonen: I've played in Austria before with my Trio like some years back, but this was my first time as a soloist yesterday. It was really nice. It was actually not in Bad Ischel, it was organized by the Bad Ischel Jazz Freunde, but the concert was in Bad Goisern, which is another small town just next to Bad Ischel. There was a wonderful hall in the music school with a nice Steinway and a really fantastic audience. Great, great people. Really nice, enthusiastic audience and fantastic organiser. The  hospitality was amazing. I felt so good after this one. That was the first time in half a year, a particularly difficult time, especially after last November, and now I've played two concerts for a live audience. I did some streaming things during the lockdown, of course, but these two concerts for live audience felt so special. So yesterday it was absolutely fantastic to play a real gig.

Do you have fixed plans for 2022 ?

Kari Ikonen: I'm optimistic that things will start happening and I have a lot of plans for the Spring and Autumn too. Fingers crossed...

Solo ?

Kari Ikonen: Yes, solo and some other things as well. I'm going to do a long tour. A solo piano tour that's going to be like a carbon neutral tour. I'm not flying at all. I start from St. Petersburg, I go there by train and then another train to Tallin and then a train and bus through the Baltic countries, Poland to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France.

And Belgium is on your list ?

Kari Ikonen: Yes, Belgium and Holland as well. And then on the way back I stop in Copenhagen and Malmö and Stockholm and Mariahem. Totally no flying. Just train and bus.

Let’s talk about that special project ‘Orchestra Nazionale della Luna’, with three magnificent companions: both Teun Verbruggen (drums) and Manuel Hermia (sax/flute) from Belgium, French double bassist Sebastien Boisseau, and yourself as always on the piano. You have recorded "There's  still life on Earth" and you told us once, the launch of this newest album was problematic. Please tell us a little bit about this project and the tour.

Kari Ikonen: I really love to play with this band and we have been together since 2015. But we haven't played that much actually, because everyone is really busy with lots of other things. So we have to plan everything like a year and a half in advance to make something happen. We released the second album just in the beginning of this pandemic, which was the worst possible period to release an album. But the thing that we haven't played that much it doesn't actually matter because it just works on a different time span in a way that we play a lot, but on a longer period and sometimes we have like one year break or half a year break, and now like two years break.

It always feels super fresh and great fun to play after a long break. And we know each other so well as we have played together so much that it's always super easy to find the common spirit again, even after a long break. I have a special connection with Mauel Hermia because he also likes the Maqams.

How started the “Impressions, improvisations and compositions” project that you are presenting live tonight at Porgy & Bess ?

Kari Ikonen: For a long time I had planned to make the solo album and I wanted to try to make it in my way,  so that it would be very different from all the other jazz solo piano albums. I hadn't played that many solo concerts. I basically always enjoy so much playing in groups, with other musicians. This group communication, playing together and hanging together has been so important for me that I haven't played that much solo piano.

But during the last five, six, seven years I have started to work with that, and now finally, it was about two years ago, in August  2019 I started to record and I did it at home. It was my idea because I have a fantastic Steinway B model from 1969, New York Steinway at home and I just borrowed some very good microphones and pre-amps and I recorded at home and it was really inspiring. But also it was great that my time was limited, I only had a few days for the whole thing,  so I couldn't spend weeks and try to be perfectionist in every piece. I wanted to keep every piece fresh and not pay too much attention to tiny little mistakes that no one would even notice. I’d liked to keep it organic and give the impression of a live performance. All are first takes or second takes and there was not so much editing. That was my idea of doing it. For the improvisations I recorded much more and then I chose the things that I was most happy about.

Well, if you really love music, you get it right away, the quality is top level. It was also with Ozella, right ?

Kari Ikonen: Indeed. It was mixed by this guy Johannes Lundberg, in his studio in Gothenburg, Sweden. He mixed the album but also he wanted to hear my recording like a soundcheck track. I recorded a couple of different things for him with my first set up. Then he very politely told me that "no Kari, it's not good. You need to get this in this mix and put them this way..."

So I borrowed some other mics, some ribbon mics, and then I sent him pictures of my set up and he told me:  "move that mike a little bit that way and then try again", and then I recorded it again and send it to him. Then he said, "OK, now you can start recording".  He was a really good help. After I recorded, I sent him these recordings a few hours later. Some time later he sent me the first mix of one piece and it was just perfect.

We didn't have to change anything. So when the recording, the mics were good and in the best possible position, the recording was good, he didn't have to do that much. He just added some nice reverb and worked a little with the balance of the mics and with the panning and maybe a tiny bit of EQ. But no compression, no plug ins whatsoever. We liked to keep it very natural, and it was easy for him then to do the mix down because the recording was pure.

Tonight you’ll also propose that invention of yours, the Maqiano© (comes from two words: Maqam and Piano), that you used for the first time in 2020 with the ‘Orchestra Nazionale della Luna’, and then with this new album that you recorded in 2019 and published in 2021. What triggered you to create the Maqiano©? You already told us about the maqams, but how on earth this invention came into your brain ?

Kari Ikonen: Well, maybe it started like unintentionally. I can't remember quite exactly what were the first steps, but I think I added something with my fingers or with some magnets on the strings or something, and I noticed that the tuning changed, but it was out of control. Then I started to think how I could change the tuning of the strings and keep it in control? I started experimenting with different masses like metal, heavier metal things on the strings. I also experimented with the way to attach the metal parts at the strings? And then little by little, I found a way to alter the tuning of the strings and keep it in control. So the very first Maqiano was very different to the device that I have now.

It was like one piece with multiple tips for the different strings, different groups of strings. Now I am working with this, like they are all separate devices, one for each group of strings, one for each pitch. I was just trying again and again. And then I got an idea, I went to the hardware store and bought some iron plates and iron bars, and cut them myself with a circular saw.

It now only takes a few seconds per pitch to install it. But if you want to fine tune many different pitches, then of course you need more time.

You also mentioned that it took you around two years to arrive to the final product after trying different maqiano prototypes, and there you mentioned the patent is pending, is it still pending or did you already recieve the patent ?

Kari Ikonen: I have already the patent, it was granted. It was actually published like a week ago, I think.

We can maybe share some information for the pianists reading Jazz'halo. They don't have to be afraid of what happens to the strings after they remove it. The strings remain as they were before.

Kari Ikonen: Exactly and it's totally safe, it's quite heavy and it's made out of steel, but it has these paddings on every side, even if you drop it on the floor it doesn't cause much harm because it has soft paddings everywhere. When you know how to use it and you are careful, it doesn't make any scratches or any problem to the piano, and the metal parts that are touching the strings  are made of softer metal than the strings themselves. So it never harms the strings when you use it properly.

The Maqiano© is actually available. People who want to order it can send an email at management.ikonen@gmail.com.

Kari Ikonen: Yes, they only have to write to me, there are a couple of options there. Actually two options: four unit and six unit sets. They can choose how many pieces they need, and then according to that, there are different prices for the small and the bigger set. In case someone needs more - like for example a couple of contemporary music composers did, they have asked for 10 pieces or 12 pieces - then I can of course, make a special discount for two different sets combined.

Our interview had to wait as Kari IKonen's concert had to start. After a great concert we continued our conversation.

That was an amazing concert, Kari. Especially because listening to your ‘Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions’ played live before I've heard the album several times. It's quite a different experience to hear it live and see your hands moving across the piano, moving on the keyboard and when you stand up and you're “adjusting” the piano strings with your Maqiano. The way it sounds is unbelievable. You simply have to be present there to fully understand what I'm talking about. It's fantastic.

Kari Ikonen: Thank you.

How do you feel about the concert tonight at Porgy and Bess, Vienna? How was the audience ?

Kari Ikonen: I enjoyed it so much. I was really so very happy to play, even if there was this streaming thing. But it didn't bother me. I was still in the same space with the live audience and it felt great. It was one of the first concerts after the long break that I played for a live audience and it felt so good. And the piano is fantastic. That Fazioli is really a great instrument and the sound was good on stage and it was pure pleasure.

As I was part of this audience, I can tell you they were really delighted. Did you play the whole album or what was the repertoire?

Kari Ikonen: Oh, I played some compositions from the album, but also some improvisations. And yes I played some other pieces as well, like some new compositions, some older compositions that I have played with my trio or with other bands. Usually when I tour a lot with the project, wether it's my trio or another band or solo thing, I want to change the repertoire constantly to add other things and leave some things out and improvise and write new music. So it's more interesting for myself to play when I'm not doing exactly the same program every time.

You really are a prolific musician, composer both on piano and Moog. I've heard several of your albums and you have many albums as solo artist or as leader from your trios, quartets, etc. But you are a sideman as well. You play with the Ajaton Quartet. From the many albums do you have special memories at some of these compositions ?

Kari Ikonen: Not really. No specific moments because somehow I find all the music that I've made, all the recordings I've done, all the bands I've played with, are part of the same process. It's still going on. And of course, sometimes when I hear an album that I made 10, 15 or 20 years ago, it brings some very special feelings and memories to my mind. But I had the privilege to have been able to play with some fantastic musicians for the whole of my career, like the last 20 years or even more. Twenty five years I have played with my favorite musicians, and I'm so happy about that. In my old band Karikko, for instance, I played with such great musicians: Vincent Courtois (France), Staffan Svenson (Sweden), and Finnish drummer Mika Kallio. But also with Gunnar Halle (Norway), Laurent Blondiau (Belgium), and Sonny Heinilä, the saxophone and flute player that I worked with. Even then already I played with people that were able to bring so much passion and so much of their own views, aspects and ideas to my music that it has always been equally great for me to play my music with different musicians. And even now playing just solo I enjoy it almost as much as playing in a group. But I have to say that adding a couple of great musicians to play together and communicate with, the music is 110 percent pleasure.

How's the panorama so far for the rest of the trimester in 2021 and 2022 with your solo? Are you touring with groups ?

Kari Ikonen: Yes. Like next week we are touring in Finland with ‘Orchestra Nazionale de la Luna’. And then I'm playing a couple of really nice solo concerts this autumn, I go to Geneva and to Umea Jazz Festival in Sweden and a couple of really nice things here in Finland. Then I'm going to spend some time in France, in Paris. I go there for an artistic residence from the last week of October until the end of November. I got this ‘I-Portunus funding’ for this residence and I'm going to work there with some musicians that live there and meet people and create connections for the future. In December I'm going to Spain to Alicante to record with the Alicante Symphony Orchestra. I'm going to record a piano concerto, a concerto for jazz pianist and orchestra. A Dutch composer, Jesse Passenier, wrote this concerto for me, and we will rehearse and record it in Alicante.

Next year, I'll be playing some really nice things solo and also with some collaborations and other groups. In April and May I will tour with my solo project, and it's going to be a Carbon Neutral tour. No flights at all. I will move by train. I start in St. Petersburg and then I take a train to Tallinn, Estonia and then the other Baltic countries, Poland, Germany, France and the Benelux and back to Denmark and Sweden. I'm going to try to create contacts and check out how it would work to go to Central Europe from Finland without flying. It's very challenging for the production to try to find concerts on the way so that I don't have to travel like 10 hours for a concert. I prefer maximum three or four hours travel and then stop and play there. And if that works out fine, in the future I will continue to do it. Even if it's a single festival concert in Germany or France or somewhere in Europe. I will try to organize it so that I go there by train, but in a few days before the concert and after the concert so that I can stop every
500 kilometres or so and and play concerts on the way.

Of course, Finland is so far that it's not possible to travel by train to a single concert in Germany or France. It just wouldn't make any sense. But if I manage to find these contacts and to create this kind of network of clubs and concert halls so that every time I go to play in different cities on the way, then I could do most of my concerts in this very Eco-friendly way. That's my plan for the future, and of course, it will take time to create these networks of concert organizers.

But it's important and it's also interesting, I love travelling by train. I don't like flying that much. I would be very happy if I could do most of my international concerts by train.

Kudos! The idea sounds awesome and I'm looking forward to have your concert one day next year in Belgium. I wish you a great beginning of this adventure and of course a lot of success next year with these CO2 free series of concerts. All the very best Kari and thank you very much. Muchas gracias.

Text & photos © Federico Garcia (Jueves de Jazz)


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