Jarmo Saari: Portrait Of A Guitarist As A Young Man
“ I love the moment in music when something is changing and you don ”
Among the countless number of strummers and pickers the world over, there may be a small fraction who do not consider themselves to be artists! There must also be a small number who have only produced a handful of well-respected though modestly selling albums, but who still consider that the meaning of their lives is defined in these and their future releases. Jarmo Saari is a representative of this latter category. Saari has been described by Finnish music critic Petri Silas as an ‘amicable and versatile man, with one foot jammed in jazz and the other firmly rooted in rock’. This article aims to introduce the elements of Saari’s art, and then to give a glimpse of the man himself as revealed in a lunchtime interview in Helsinki in October 2003.
Born in 1970, Saari had the good fortune to grow up in the vicinity of the Finnish capital’s most productive kindergarten of musical prodigies, the Tapiola Music School. Encouraged by his family, he applied himself to formal studies in trombone and cello, progressing through the hierarchy of graded exams and participating in regular revues and concert appearances. But meanwhile, little known to his classical mentors, he was also getting his musical rocks off with friends in garage and cover bands, where he was turning his hand more and more to the guitar. Little wonder then, that come graduation, and the need to choose a suitable institute of further education, Saari launched himself into studies in the then-fledgling branch of Helsinki’s prestigious Sibelius Music Academy – the Pop and Jazz Department.
So we have a collection of ambitious young musicians, attracted and selected from esteemed musical conservatoires the length and breadth of Finland, concentrated in some refurbished outbuildings on the edge of town, keen to put their classical training aside and strike out into new creative territory. For Saari this meant the discovery of kindred Sibelius Academy spirits, and the establishment of an enduring creative partnership with his most favoured accomplice, vibraphonist and percussionist Arttu Takalo.
Although the pair first met in the second greatest single catalyst for modern Finnish rock and jazz performers – the Military Music Academy, where they were serving their compulsory military service – it was at Siba (the Sibelius Academy) that Saari and Takalo put their compositional heads together with fellow Siba students bassist Tuure Koski and drummer Tommi Salesvuo to put up the band XL. Their first release, Xlent, came out in 1995, and from the outset the band bore the hallmarks of a style that is still exclusively their own: a combination of ambitious compositional skills, excellence in individual musical skills, and a vision of music as unashamed glorification - of the grandiose, of the infinite, or of the infinitesimal. Melodies and rhythms swell and subside, punctuated by bursts of often barely intelligible language, frequently held together by the interplay between Takalo’s vibraphone and a guitar that is plucked, strummed, or caressed, and then amplified, distorted or restrained, as Saari sees fit. ( Section 2 )
Despite an early association with Michel Breckner in 1998 – on the band’s second album, Jukola – XL’s music falls into that amorphous area between jazz, rock and even classical, to the extent that the credits of their last two albums ( Surreal 2002 and Visua l2003, both on Pohjola Records and reviewed in All About Jazz) have included a host of classical musicians, including violinist Pekka Kuusisto and harpist Laura Hyyninen. While Saari’s writing credits dominate the first album, as the years have progressed Arttu Takalo’s influence in this area has blossomed to the extent that on the latest album he wins the standoff by six credits to three. As well as continuing to show classical inclinations, the band has officially extended its commitment to sampled effects and sound sources by absorbing Finnish DJ Bunuel, thus relieving Saari somewhat of his role in this area in live appearances.
Another reason for the spreading of compositional credits in XL has been the width of Saari’s involvement outside the band. Throughout his student years he was regularly playing with the renowned Umo Jazz Orchestra, and with the Espoo Big Band recording with them Live in Australia in 1998. In addition to various engagements in the 1990s with prominent Finnish recording artists (such as singer/flautist Vesa-Matti Loiri, and actress/singer Susanna Haavisto), his opus was further extended in 1999 to include recordings and performances with mainstream Finnish rockers Don Huonot, playing as guest guitarist and arranger. Saari acknowledges this experience as valuable to his previously more cerebral, calculated approach to music-making.
Still another important union, which has continued for Saari since the ‘90s, is with the band Zetaboo. Sharing writing credits with other members, Saari continued the investigations he had begun playing duos with bassist Pekka Lehti into combinations of modern electric and traditional acoustic sounds, combining them nowadays with ethno and jazz rhythms and vocalisations in a similar vein to Chicago band Tortoise. Along with his Siba colleague, singer and accordianist/pianist Anne-Marie Kähärä, Saari joined Lehti and drummer Marko Timonen from the ethno-folk group Värttinä to produce two well-received albums: Zetaboo in 1996, and Medazine in 2000 (the latter on Lehti’s label, Aito Records). The band also worked with a number of classical trombone and brass players, as well as percussion guru Mongo Aaltonen, to produce their own blend of supra-national ethno-jazz. The music is typically full-bodied and melodic, but with a lightness and humour injected through an obvious folk influence, whether Scandinavian or South American. The result is a sound which Saari describes ‘as world music without any nationality’ ( Section 2 ).
More revealing of the classical inheritance that Saari himself acknowledges are two products nurtured during his years at Siba: Neandertal Grooves and Filmtet – A Tribute to Finnish Cinema, released on EMI in 2000 and 2001, respectively. As its title indicates, the latter is a collection of music from classic Finnish films of the twentieth century, arranged by Saari, and played also by Pepa Päivinen (saxophones and clarinets), Seppo Kantonen (keyboards and accordion), Hannu Rantanen (acoustic bass), Marko Timonen (percussion), Petri Keskitalo (Trombone) and Olli Haavisto (pedal steel). Saari’s approach to this project is discussed in Section 5 .
Neandertal Grooves is the grandiose title chosen by Saari for his own composition submitted as the final assessed piece for his studies at Siba. Here we find him in the company of the Espoo Big Band, performing this time a modest range of instruments including chromaharp, vocoder and guitar. In addition to the range of guitar styles, from classical be-bop accompaniment to proto-Frippian electronica, we hear now the scope of vision that Saari includes in his work, as indicated by the titles: Krapina, Hymn, Dance by the Bonfire, Funeral, Runabout/Walkabout, Lake Disappointment, and Hunt. This is pure Saari, working with a ‘13-piece wind section and conductor, combining purely ethic percussive sound sources and patterns, with the addition of his guest tabla maestro Trilok Gurtu.
The sleeve notes of this album give credit to two names for whom Saari has used the term ‘guru’ – namely Joe Zawinul, and guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim. In addition to these mentors, and acknowledged influences ranging from Stravinsky to Brian Selzer of Stray Cats, Saari himself recently added at the head of his list of contemporary influences the Finnish composer and bassist Pekka Pohjola. While familiar to listeners to Scando-jazz, or to the oft-maligned ‘Canterbury style’ of progressive rock, Pohjola is little known beyond his work with Mike Oldfield, and with the early ‘70s Finnish ‘megaband’ Wigwam. After leaving the band when his ‘compositions became too complicated for the band to play live’, he continued to work under his own name, producing a series of albums through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. After recording their second album on Pohjola’s own label, XL have invited Pohjola to join them on stage, cementing a relationship that has bound their styles and their careers together over the last decade.
Final mention must also be made of other public projects Saari refers to in the interview. In 2003 under the semi-pseudonym Johnny Island (saari is Finnish for island) playing with the 3-piece Reuna (Edge) he released the album Smelly with fellow Helsinki musicians drummer/DJ Teppo Mäkinen and samplist/bassist Teemu Korpipää. ( Section 6 ) Representing the height of his involvement since 1997 in sampling and electronica, the album is a humorous mix of sometimes extended, multi-language vocalising and post-industrial sounds. Even more exciting though is the currently unrecorded phenomenon of a Saari solo concert, referred to in the interview as Solu (Cell) – a one-man ‘happening’. ( Section 4 ) Far from the grandiosity of J-M Jarre’s solo show, Saari appears alone on stage playing a copious assortment of instruments assembled in groups at three ‘work stations’, aided behind their controls by soundman Heikki Iso-Ahola and light artist Ari Valtonen. Featured in concert in 2003 in Helsinki, this work represents elements of all his past influences, apart from the cello, an instrument which he doesn’t happen to own at the moment. Starting the concert with his face physically and conceptually blindfolded, Saari works his way through the sound sources (ranging from his Salvationist grandfather’s old glass harp, through trombone and Finnish kantele, to his own textured and multilayered guitar), building up patterns and images with the aid of loops, samples and multiple effects. As he himself admits this is the most stressful of performing environments where, with the assistance of his two colleagues off-stage, he proceeds to reveal multiple layers of his musical personality, culminating in his final appearance with an unmodified guitar singing a dedication to his wife and young family.
Saari personifies a young musician whose commitment to his metier is absolute, though at the same time revealing an attitude that is open-minded and at times questioning. The conversation reveals a professional with ambitions to tread a path of unfettered creativity, exploring the bounds of his own technical and compositional skills, and at the same time using the insights he has been privileged to absorb in the intensely Finnish musical environment in which he has so far matured. As a guitarist, his approach is as broad as the influences he admits to. His sounds range from Montgomery’s semi-acoustic chunky be-bop to Jeff Beck-like shrieks and coruscations, and his target seems to be to present them both to the listener on the same plate, for appreciation and evaluation as equals. The listener must also consider his use of non-standard sound sources, the toy robots, the theramin, the trumbone as vocal distortion unit! Behind it all lies a musician eager to thoughtfully follow the newest trends, while showing deep and knowledgeable respect for the extraordinary breadth of popular idioms that twenty-first century music is building itself upon.
For further revelations of Jarmo Saari’s motives, hopes, ambitions and frustrations, read on: