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

Matthew Wuethrich By

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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.


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