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Alexi Tuomarila: From Helsinki to Timbuktu

Bruce Lindsay By

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Sometimes a person can be in the right place, just not quite at the right time. So it was for Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila. After his debut album with his quartet, Voices of Pohjola (Igloo Records, 2001), he signed to Warner Jazz in the early '00s, while he was still in his 20s. The second quartet album, 02 (Warner Jazz), appeared in 2003. Tuomarila seemed poised for great things. Then a sudden decision by the label to cut its jazz roster left him high and dry. It was a shock, a decision that threatened his career and caused him to leave music behind for a few months while he reflected on events. Eventually he returned to the music scene and carved out an increasingly vibrant career without the aid of a major label. By 2005 he'd formed the Alexi Tuomarila Trio, releasing the trio's debut album, Constellation (Jazzaway), that same year.

In his All About Jazz review of Seven Hills (Edition Records, 2013), the second album from the Alexi Tuomarila Trio, John Kelman describes the Finnish pianist as "not just a pianist of watch-worthy merit, but a composer of equal value." Tuomarila's talent is being recognized by an increasing array of jazz writers and musicians. Brad Mehldau was one of the first internationally known musicians to sing the pianist's praises. More recently, Tuomarila was invited by Tomasz Stanko to join his quintet: he performs on Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009).

Seven Hills is named for Lisbon, the Portuguese capital city, which is built on seven hills. The city is also home to Timbuktu Studios, where the trio recorded the album. Tuomarila, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Olavi Louhivuori are all Scandinavian—Eilertsen is from Norway, Louhivuori from Finland—and Northern Europe has plenty of recording facilities on offer. So why travel to Portugal? Tuomarila is happy to explain. "I was planning to make a new album with Mats and Olavi. I decided to go to Lisbon because I knew Andre Fernandes. He's an amazing guitarist and he has a studio in the city. I asked him if we could use his studio. He has a great piano, a Yamaha C7. I decided to go there and see what happened."

The trio recorded Seven Hills in September 2011, without the backing of a record label. Tuomarila took time before deciding to release it, then took the completed album to Dave Stapleton at Edition Records in the UK. "I wasn't really sure if I wanted to release it at first. Eventually I decided it was good enough to release. I had known Dave a little for about 10 years. I was looking for a label and Dave was interested."

Tuomarila's name is at the head of the trio but the band is clearly much more than a "pianist plus supporting musicians" setup. Both Louhivuori and Eilertsen compose—the drummer gets the same number of composer credits on Seven Hills as Tuomarila—and they are also more than capable of soloing. Tuomarila's enthusiasm for his compatriots comes across clearly when he talks about them. "I trust them so much, they are such amazing musicians. Their compositions are so beautiful I just wanted to play them. The chemistry between us works so well that nobody has to be the leader. We can build things together and give freedom to each other."

Tuomarila, Eilertsen, and Louhivuori arrived in Lisbon without having made any final decisions about the intended record. "We didn't plan the album. We just decided to go to Lisbon and record. So there was a lot of free improvisation. We decided eventually to concentrate on songs, although there are a few improvised sections. We could have done an album of improvisation but we decided we wanted to play the songs."

Tuomarila had already decided to ask Fernandes to play, but here, again, the plans were far from finalized. "Before I went to Lisbon I had already decided I wanted to record with Andre. I had played with him before, a long time ago, so I wanted him on a couple of tracks." Fernandes performs on "Ceremony" and "Prologue." "I made the decision about one minute before we recorded. I just gave him the scores. He hadn't seen them before, we didn't rehearse, we went straight to the recording, playing everything in the moment.

Although the trio has been in existence for eight years, Seven Hills is only its second album. This might suggest that the three musicians have had few opportunities to play together, but this isn't the case, as Tuomarila explains. "The first time we played together as a trio was in 2005. Since then we've been playing regularly. It feels so natural, we don't have to talk about things too much."

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