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Zetaboo: Ethnic Jazz from Finland

Anthony Shaw By

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We are now all at that point where we have two alternatives: we can choose to work, work and work; or we can stop at some point and see that we have the option to take it easy, and take up the opportunity to expand our experience and develop our imagination —Jarmo Saari
Jarmo SaariThe release of the third album OuterRail (Aito, 2006) by the quirkily named Finnish band Zetaboo brings them into the limelight after a break of six years. Active pursuit of solo projects has not diminished the deep bonds that were established in the early 1990s, when all four were young musicians in Helsinki. In fact, during this latter interim they have maintained contact, cooperating together on three of founder member and guitarist Jarmo Saari's productions.

A shifting mixture of music that probably should be classified closer to ethnic rather than the jazz it was expected to follow, Zetaboo's tendency towards pop styles must also be recognized. This new album however is also closer to the acoustic than either of their previous albums, with fine examples of Marko Timonen's deft drumming and percussion guiding the rhythmic changes between Saari's sweet melodies and Pekka Lehti's delicate bass runs.

The predominantly instrumental style was established in the 1990s with their first eponymous album, a sublime mixture of folk elements, leaning heavily on South American rhythms and Anna-Mari Kähärä's accordion leads, combined with a mix of classical structuring and jazz phrasing. The same features on the new album.. There is also Saari's elegant and often restrained electric guitar, adding chords and washes that leave the music edging towards pop expression. The music is in many ways very feminine in its softness and gentle transitions, with Saari's mellow tenor laying out vocalized themes. Add to this the sultry tones of the former enfante-terrible of the Finnish contemporary jazz scene, Anna-Mari Kähärä, adding vocal treatments as well as arrangements of two of William Blake's poems, and you have the new brew.

The interview with Saari was intended to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the band, having only discovered them through a chance library loan just at the outset band's recent sabbatical. This lasted from the domestic tour of their second album MediZine (Alto, 2000), to a strong return to form live in the Huvila Tent at the Helsinki Festival in August. The show featured many of the new album's tracks and old favorites "Tonto, "Mania and "Maria, with the assistance of long-term collaborator Tapio "Mongo Aaltonen on percussion. The interview traced the twelve-year progression of the band from adventurous college groovers to the current tightly focused collective of hard-working professional musicians.

All About Jazz: How did the band start off?

Jarmo Saari: I first met Pekka on a camp of some sort, back in 1991 or '92 when we were together for a week somewhere in central Finland, and in fact Anna-Mari was there as well, although we didn't have much contact. Pekka and I got on and back in Helsinki we met up and started playing together. He had been involved in punk and rock, and had just got hold of an upright bass, and was interested in learning more jazz. At the time AM was already busy with her own projects, doing lots of studio work and backing vocals.

Marko had been involved with one of the best jazz bands playing at that time - Perko-Pyysalo's Poppoo. But in fact he also was looking for something else. So when Pekka and I approached him after a gig, fully expecting to be turned down, he jumped at the idea and we had our core trio. We soon started getting gigs together and sometime in 1995 I think it was we started organizing a club in central Helsinki, at Semi-Final. We started ourselves, but we had a lot of guests there like Maria Kalaniemi, Kimmo Pohjonen, Eero Koivistoinen and Niels Langren. Then one night we had as a guest Anna-Mari, who we expected to be interested in singing, but in fact just wanted to play accordion. But almost immediately we decided that we wanted her in the band. And she also encouraged us to take on vocals which we hadn't done before. Immediately she felt part of the band.

The second album MediZine was really inspired by a chance meeting in a pub in Helsinki with the American saxophonist David Wilczewski. We knew a lot of Finnish sax players—I have a lot of friends who are very good—but we just felt this incredible connection with him. Maybe it was his American background, but also his links with the Swedish scene which all made sense to us. We did a tour with him after the album in Scandinavia, and in fact the two songs on the latest album were conceived at this time. We even made a demo of them with the idea of interesting a record company, but it didn't get off the ground. And at the same time Anna-Mari became very involved in getting her own solo project her band off the ground. And I too became very involved in that. It was a very ambitious project, very demanding, very risky, and as it gained momentum so Zetaboo had to take a back seat.


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