Jussi Reijonen: Playground of Sound and Texture

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Jussi Reijonen is an exceptional musician. On his debut recording as a leader, Un (Self Produced, 2012), the Finnish guitarist/oudist has succeeded in crystallizing a spectrum of influences, sounds and textures into a highly personal, sensual mosaic that blurs the distinction between jazz, Middle Eastern traditional music, West African music, and even Finnish folk elements.

Since his childhood, Reijonen has been a citizen of the world. He was born in a small town above the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, but moved with his family to Amman in Jordan, then back to Finland, followed by Dar es Salam in Tanzania, Muscat in Oman, Beirut in Lebanon before returning to his hometown for high school. He now resides in Boston, where he has been taught by Lebanese oudist Ziyad Sahhab and Palestinian oud master Simon Shaeen, as well as guitarists Mick Goodrick and David Tronzo.

All About Jazz: How did you first hear the oud? What attracted you to it?

Jussi Reijonen: The oud was an instrument that I think I was aware of peripherally since I was a child—especially due to where I grew up—but it never crossed my mind to try and play it until I was 22 or so. My guitar playing at the time had started to naturally take on more and more of an eastward orientation, if you will—no pun intended—and the acoustic quartet I was part of was working on new original material that incorporated more and more influences from flamenco and the Middle East.

Melodies and rhythmic ideas that I realized I could trace to the Middle East started to pop up more and more in my guitar playing and compositions, and I resolved to try and pull that string and trace where it all came from, and try to understand why. I realized it had to do with the influences of my childhood, the cultural environment where I had grown in Jordan, Lebanon and Oman. I was backpacking through northern Morocco in 2003 and I had an instinct that I should buy an oud, found one in Fés, and that was that. I took some initial lessons from an Egyptian oudist in Helsinki soon after that, but most of my early learning was just listening and learning through trial and error. Aside from several weeks of study with Ziyad Sahhab in Beirut in the summer of 2008, I was more or less self-taught until I started to really dig deeper with Simon Shaheen, when I started at the New England Conservatory (NEC) in 2011—which, actually, was after Un was recorded.

AAJ: Do you see yourself indebted to the great Arabic traditions of playing the oud, or is the oud used as an extension of your vocabulary on guitar and/or fretless guitar?

JR: I have so much respect for the tradition and lineage of Arabic music that I can only hope to come across as someone trying to pay respectful tribute to it—as much as an ajnabi [foreigner] like myself can. I am forever a student of that lineage, trying to understand it through my own cultural lens, ears and filters. Especially after beginning to learn from Simon Shaheen, I've realized more and more how much more I have to learn—in some ways I'm still a beginner. I don't believe I am at any level where I am playing the oud in a very tarab [a state of ecstasy and surrender entered while listening, with body and soul, to music] way at all, but I'm working on getting deeper and deeper into it. Maybe, at the time Un was recorded, I would say the oud was more an extension of my guitar playing, but I think I'm slowly developing a more personal relationship with the instrument, and playing it more like an oud. I feel I play very differently today than I did when we recorded the album—studying with Simon changed everything for me.

AAJ: Can you elaborate on your relationship with Simon Shaheen? Do you listen to other contemporary oudists?

JR: My relationship with Simon has been very much of the master-disciple type... both very challenging and rewarding. Let's just say that my first lesson started with him asking me to play something, I responded with a sama'i [one of the important forms in Ottoman Turkish music, often composed in 6/8 meter] and, after I finished, he burst out laughing. He shook his head and told me I had to unlearn everything I thought I knew, and begin from zero. And I did. From that moment onward I knew I was in good hands. We've had a wonderful relationship—he is a very challenging and demanding mentor, and does not mince his words, and I always respect teachers of that mindset. Same goes for guitarists Mick Goodrick and David Tronzo, with whom I studied guitar when I was at Berklee.

With Simon we've worked on maqamat [the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic], taqasim [a melodic improvisation, traditionally follows a certain melodic progression], phrasing, techniques, classical repertoire from the tradition; like I said, we really started from the beginning and went from there. That was my main focus during my time at NEC. As for contemporary oud players, I think my research has gone back towards the roots of the instrument and the music more than listening to modern players much; this, in an effort to understand where the modern players came from. That being said, I love the music of so many of them—Anouar Brahem's sound has been an inspiration, and he is an amazing musician. Ahmad al-Khatib is an incredible oud player, and obviously many of those who have already passed—Riad el-Sunbaty, Farid el-Atrache, Munir Bashir...there are so many.

AAJ: Do you see the connection between the guitar, oud and West African string instruments, Malian blues guitar, and even the kora?

JR: I think they are all branches of the same tree. And maybe what you refer to is exactly the parameter of my "playground," if you will. I've always been very curious about the richness of the different traditions of phrasing on different instruments—not only strings—and trying to bring that into the guitar—or later, the oud. I know that the oud has influenced a lot of how I play the guitar, and vice versa; then again, there's a piece on Un , "Toumani (Blues for Mick)," that is a direct attempt to assimilate the sound of the kora onto the electric guitar. Also, I find that what ties these traditions together in a certain light is that all of them seem to aspire towards expressing and embodying a certain type of emotion: some call it the blues; some call it soul; some call it tarab or saltanah [the enjoyment transmitted by the performer to their listeners through the technical and artistic mastery of the instrument or voice]; some call it duende [having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco]; what have you. Blues comes in many shades. Maybe that is the tree itself.

AAJ: Are you making a conscious attempt to create a new vocabulary for the guitar and oud that will embrace the genres of jazz, Arabic/Turkish classical music, African—and, obviously, Finnish folk music?

JR: It's so difficult to define the difference between the conscious and the subconscious sometimes, isn't it? I don't know that I'm trying to create a new vocabulary for the instruments themselves—that sounds quite ambitious. Someone like Paco De Lucia has created an entirely new vocabulary for the flamenco guitar, but that's Paco. What I'm trying to do is much more modest—I'm only trying to find my own vocabulary and own dialect that I can speak and sing through the instruments that is in balance within itself. I'm just trying to make sense of my own cultural identity as someone who was born above the Arctic Circle but grew up in Finland, the Middle East and East Africa. Someone just pointed out to me that babies who grow up in a bilingual home—where the father speaks one language to the child and the mother another—learn to speak much later than children who are raised in a monolingual home. It occurred to me that maybe there's a parallel there to what I've been trying to figure out for so long and why it's taking so much longer for me to learn to "speak," musically.

AAJ: Your music is often characterized as having a kind of Nordic sound, calm, confident and sometimes silent. Can you elaborate on the influence of Nordic jazz, especially the ECM school?

JR: I'm happy that people also notice the Nordic influence and, I suppose, not only the more immediate Middle Eastern undercurrents in there. I think that, more directly than Nordic jazz or the ECM sound, though, what has influenced my music is the landscape and nature of northern Finland: the open spaces; the purity of the nature; and the silence. A bit of a cliché, maybe, but that's how I experience it. I've been told that I'm on the calm side, personality-wise, as well—I don't say too much unless I have something to say. Maybe that's the part of my character and the music that I've been given by the North.

That being said, I do feel very at home listening to the Nordic stream of jazz—artists like [trumpeter] Arve Henriksen, [pianist] Alexi Tuomarila, [guitarist] Eivind Aarset and so forth. Obviously, when I lived in Finland and began to work as a musician, there was a certain common understanding of a certain dialect of improvisation among those I played with that were considered jazz musicians—it gravitated towards the more spacious, more textural and less... hurried. I think that on some level, that—and my own naturally slower pace of doing and processing things—has been reflected into the music, especially a piece like "Kaiku," and my arrangement of "Naima" [both on Un].

Plus, I just enjoy sound, and sometimes it takes a moment to let it be enjoyed. Another factor has been that I went through a period of wanting to purify my expression in a way—to cleanse it of unnecessary filler words, commas and non sequiturs—and to only play what I heard instead of following what might be more physical or mechanical impulses. Because of that, the pace at which I hear things and sounds occur to me make me slow a lot of the music down. Many times, the silences are me waiting for that next impulse of what to say, and how to say it.

AAJ: What will be the next project? Are you working on it already?

JR: right now I'm still concentrating in getting the word out about Un and trying to play as many gigs as possible with the quintet, but I have tentatively started to sketch ideas of new music in my mind. At this point it's still very vague, but I have some instinct about what it may become. I definitely want to avoid repeating what I did with Un, so I'm trying to find new angles into composition.

I have a possible title for the next project, and that is sort of the main guiding light at the moment. I've composed some new music, including a maqam-based string trio for kamanche, cello and upright bass, but whether or not that is a piece that will fit into the context of the next album remains to be seen. I do have a feeling that the new music will explore resonance in ways that are, at least, new to me. I may also play more acoustic guitar with the new music.

Aside from that, I'm always open to interesting projects as a sideman. Two vocalists who I've been working with, Gabriela Martina and Sissy Castrogiovanni, are releasing new albums that I played on this year, and there are some performances in the works with both. I really feel like now that school is finally over, it's the time to dig into the soil and get my fingernails dirty.

Selected Discography

Jussi Reijonen Un (Self Produced, 2012)

Photos Credit

Jaako Huikari

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