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."

When Tuomarila talks about the trio playing regularly, he's referring to membership of a wide range of ensembles, including Eilertsen's own quintet—Tuomarila and Louhivuori both play on the quintet's SkyDive (Hubro Music, 2012). "The great thing about the trio is that we play together in different settings. We are always playing something. It helps the trio a lot. Even if we are in a quintet or a bigger group there will be moments when we can play as a trio, even if it's just one song or just a couple of minutes."

Tuomarila's other projects usually involve a trip beyond the boundaries of Finland. "As musicians we have to work as much as we can. It helps us as players because we always learn something new. Unfortunately there isn't enough of a scene in Finland at the moment—it has been better—so it's difficult to get enough work here. I have bands in different countries. It's nice to tour here and there. I play in a Belgian band, led by Lionel Beuvens, the drummer. We have a big European tour in November and December. Then I have a tour with the Belgian saxophonist Nicolas Kummert. He's releasing his album and we will tour in January and February. Stanko's Dark Eyes quintet will be together in December."

It's important for any jazz musician to stay busy, for economic as well as artistic reasons, but Tuomarila's keeping focused on the trio. "It's my priority at the moment. I want to get as much playing and new compositions as possible. That's my target for the next year. Basically, I want to write as much as possible. I don't usually think in terms of projects. Musicians are creative, they bring the music alive. Sometimes I feel a melody and I want to write it down. At other times I hear strings, for example, then I'm thinking terms of a special project."

When Tuomarila took his break from music, he went to Spain to work as a tennis coach. In his teens he was a promising player and he continues to enjoy the sport. The link between tennis and music seems worthy of exploration—how does the need to improvise on court, to predict the moves the other player will make and respond accordingly, affect the nature of improvisation on stage? Tuomarila acknowledges the possibility of this influence but doesn't explore the idea any further, preferring instead to briefly consider the impact of another of his favorite sports. "I also played soccer for a long time. For that, there's teamwork. The chemistry on the field is important but there's also space for individuality."

Now that he is almost 40 years old, Tuomarila's chance of sporting stardom is probably gone. However, in the contemporary jazz world he is still regularly referred to as a "young" artist—another four decades of creativity is well within the bounds of probability. Tuomarila's work takes him across Europe and beyond, but for the time being at least he prefers to call Finland his home. "I still live in Helsinki. It's still my home even though I work abroad so much. Sometimes I have a feeling that it's hard to get to the main parts of Europe from here but we do have planes. Sometimes I think I would like to live near Paris or Amsterdam."

Does this sense of isolation affect Finnish jazz? Is there a Finnish characteristic to the music? "I believe so. But I don't know what that characteristic is exactly. Maybe it's something melancholy, some kind of sadness—but in a beautiful way, a good way—a kind of longing."

Selected Discography

Alexi Tuomarila Trio, Seven Hills (Edition Records, 2013)

Mats Eilertsen, SkyDive (Hubro Music, 2011)

Tomasz Stańko Quintet, Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009)

Alexi Tuomarila Trio, Constellation, (Jazzaway, 2005)

Alexi Tuomarila Quartet, 02 (Warner Jazz, 2003)

Alexi Tuomarila Quartet, Voices Of Pohjola (Igloo Records, 2001)

Photo Credit
Tim Dickeson

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