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Composed Spontaneity: The Music of Kari Ikonen, Mikko Innanen and Esa Onttonen

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"Music is music. You can't put it into state borders." — Mikko Innanen

Saxophonist and composer Mikko Innanen has a story that should make listeners think twice about reading too much into a performer's nationality. A Danish critic titled a recent review of an Innanen concert "Tales from Finland" and singled out his composition, "Second Night", as "sounding very Finnish". The problem is that the tune has nothing to do with Finland; it was based on the mood of a Gregory Corso poem, "Second Night in N.Y.C After 3 Years."

Innanen and his fellow composers, guitarist Esa Onttonen and pianist Kari Ikonen, speak unpretentiously and freely, with conviction and some Sahara-dry humor. Yes, they are from Finland, and yes, their label Fiasko Records is based in Helsinki, but those facts are just geography. They are more interested in discussing their composing, their education and the challenges of running their own label. Avoiding generalizations is definitely a priority, as many answers are prefaced with a disclaimer against taking anything too broadly.

All three are young, rising musicians and already they have staked out their own creative and professional territory. They founded Fiasko Records in 2000 with a group of other young musicians. Ikonen's latest album, Karikko , won the Emma (Finland's Grammy) for the Best Jazz Album of 2001. Innanen, 24, has been working on a variety of projects in Denmark and Finland, including a recent tour with John Tchicai. Onttonen, 27, performs with Ikonen, 29, in Gnomus , composes material for Gourmet , plays in a handful of Finnish pop groups and still finds time to take care of a lot of Fiasko's day-to-day operations. The only category safe to put them in is provided by Ikonen, who says, "The musicians on Fiasko represent an alternative to the mainstream."

However, their roads to the present started from distant points. Innanen has the purest jazz roots. He started playing saxophone at the age of 10, and a "jazz freak" father's influence made it inevitable that jazz would become his preferred musical language. At age 11, Coltrane worked his magic on the young ears, and more education saw to it that Charlie Parker became an influence. Ikonen's musical life started with classical piano, but an older brother's rock band and interest in Chick Corea's fusion sparked his desire for jazz improvisation. Onttonen, like so many young guitarists, could not resist Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore. Later he became a self-described "bebop freak."

Their musical paths converged at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy, considered by many the top jazz institute in Finland. According to Ikonen the academy contributed to their growth as artists in a number of ways. He cites as positives the invaluable opportunity to meet other musicians, the collective striving for development that infects all the students and ample time allotted for independent study. But all agreed that the Sibelius Academy's downsides have had an influence as well. The school's sometimes too rigid focus on its idea of the jazz canon caused the inevitable, and in Innanen's opinion necessary, rebellion. In '97 Innanen formed Nuijamiehet with a group of other dissatisfied Sibelius students as a way to work through their own ideas, away from the academy's system. As his means of rebellion, Onttonen turned to exploring other musical directions besides bebop.

Their artistic identities have certainly flowered, as evidenced by the body of compositions each one is building. All three take their composing very seriously, for nearly every day they are developing new material. Yet however common their recent musical education has been, their composition styles very much reflect their own personalities and original musical roots.

Ikonen draws inspiration from classical composers like Debussy and Ravel, but his music remains wholly his own. Karikko seethes with melody, tonal colors and slippery rhythms. He erases the line between composition and improvisation with a loose, organic style. "Unia" has a soprano sax melody full of flourishes and runs that sound extemporized, but Ikonen explains that he wrote it all out in great detail. And he admits to being a stickler: he wants his compositions played as written. His manner reflects this attention to detail, earnestness and careful economy of expression. He is attentive and forthright in his answers, but says only what is needed to satisfy the questions.

Ikonen's musical personality incorporates more recent developments as well. His work in Gnomus, in addition to being centered on improvising, makes imaginative use of various analog synths. He creates his own voice samples, then feeds them through his keyboards in order to produce his bizarre sonic palette. He says some of his most meaningful playing moments have come with Gnomus, including one gig in a spacious, reverb-heavy church.

The energy of the moment is something Innanen likes people to take advantage of, and in conversation he seizes upon any moment that inspires him, throwing out ideas as they come, yet never gratuitously. Listen to the free-flowing dialogue of "If I had a rope…" or the restless drive of "Loch Lomond", both on Nuijamiehet , and one can hear his improvisational spirit in his writing as well as his open-ended, blues-tinged playing style

Still, Innanen's desire for spontaneity does not preclude thoughtful composition. He strives for melodies that have enough heart to survive numerous permutations. Compare the two versions of "1334" which he has recorded. On Gourmet he scores a tight arrangement for a larger band that focuses on the melody. With a quartet on Delirium he loosens the structure, enabling the group to engage in warm, spontaneous discussion. When he talks about his recent tour with John Tchicai in Denmark, you can clearly discern one goal he has set for himself. He tells of marveling at Tchicai's on-stage ability to do anything that comes to his mind, be it scat-singing, guiding the drummer or incorporating calypso rhythms-all without planning. Being only 24, he realizes that ability requires years of experience to develop, but he appears ready to take on that challenge.

Onttonen has the same desire to capture spontaneity in his composition, so he opens himself to inspiration from anywhere. He claims a special affinity for rock and pop music. When he listens to jazz, he prefers the more serious composers such as Mingus. This open approach lets him transform even elements that might be deemed "bad taste" into engaging statements. Gourmet's "Thy Master" grew from a basic rockabilly-like beat, only to be invigorated with carefully composed detail, like off-kilter alto sax, accordion and dirtied blues guitar riffs.

Onttonen explains that he tries to compose music that requires intelligence from the listener, much in the same manner that The Simpsons requires the viewer to catch its sly cultural references in order to fully appreciate the humor. On Gourmet , he integrates a Greek bouzouki into "Mihail & Katjuska", and the result is a lightning-fast melody line that simultaneously astounds with its dexterity, makes you laugh and gets you humming it like some pop hook. Or try a country arrangement of Schubert's "Ave Maria", which Gourmet plays in live shows. In Onttonen's sound-world, even that seems perfectly natural.

Being from Finland, they inevitably face the "Nordic sound" label and the obligatory ECM comparisons. But they brush this generalization aside as easily as their music does. Ikonen grants that the Scandinavian nature is beautiful and inspiring, then punctures that stereotype with a sardonic comment: "Look at Kallio (a neighborhood of Helsinki). In the middle of a rainy Autumn day, it's suddenly dark and all the people are drunk and throwing up and have no work-this is also Nordic." Innanen is more diplomatic when he says "If you live in Mexico City or if you live in the forest, the music will probably sound different." But against assuming too much, he warns "Music is music. You can't put it into state borders."

While being professional musicians and very serious about their work, they do not burden their music with grandiose notions, thereby they free it to directly express their feelings and ideas. When asked why he has chosen music as his mode of expression, Ikonen replied, "If I could paint, I would use painting. Music is what I am good at." Neither does the fact he is a professional stop Onttonen from describing a recent acoustic guitar-violin duo with a friend as a "hobby." Onttonen, as well as Ikonen and Innanen, may talk quietly, but their attitude speaks at high volume: in music they do what comes naturally to them, what resonates with meaning, pleasure and feeling. They certainly do not speak for an entire country, just themselves and their evolving artistic visions.

Related Article: Fiasko Records .

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