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.

AAJ: You and then the band got very involved in the albums that you were producing for some other Finnish artists?

JS: Yes. First there was Susanna Haavisto and Kadonnut Tie (Lost Way, 2005). It was a very exciting project when Zetaboo was working with other solo musicians, like Severi Pyysalo playing vibes and then Arttu Takalo, who played them on the tour; or working with strings. And of course having Susanna's talented input on vocals and her interpretations, it felt really exciting. We really had something to offer as a band—sensitivity and a willingness to experiment.

Then there was Sergio Machado's album Quintal (InTimeMusic, 2004). In fact Marko had been very heavily involved in Brazilian music since first visiting there in the 1990s with Värttinä, but this gave us the chance to really investigate the music ourselves, and see what could be in it for us. We had the chance to go there and learn as much about the way of life as the richness of the music—its African and American influences. We noticed that it is impossible to come up with any "book of rules for their music, which can happen in jazz music. It was also the way Brazilian musicians present themselves—they don't seem to know about the fear factor! Marko really took this opportunity to go deep into Brazilian styles and arrangements, and also my vocal style have been influenced by hearing people like Joao Bosco and his solo work.

This year also I was involved with producing an album for a young Finnish singer Hanna Marsh, Chameleon Girl (EMI Finland, 2006). So again I could offer some sort of succor to the band, and in turn rely on their support and input. Once again we had a solo artist who felt very comfortable with us and appreciated the chemistry we had between us. It enabled me also to have more freedom by giving more space to them Marko especially took over the percussion, and Arttu Takalo and I did the string arrangements.

AAJ: And so to the latest Zetaboo album

JS: Well, the concert at Ateneum [Helsinki City's main art gallery] last November was part of a series of more folk-oriented Finnish bands. It was very much of an experiment and we only made decisions about the new album after that gig. We felt good enough, so we ended up going to the studio.

Even though some things weren't finalized, we just wanted to run through some fresh tunes. I think we were very nervous, because in a way it was again, after so many years, just the four of us. It was an important gig, as we had to find our old routines. I don't think it always has to be such a superior performance, just a start for some nice times together.

AAJ: What was the process of involvement for the band?

JS: It was a year ago when I wrote little letters to old band members and made demos of these new tunes. I wanted to surprise my friends, so I worked for maybe half a year just by myself writing some music and making demos, and at some point I noticed that there was so much material that it could be an album project. I gave a CD and this letter to everyone just asking them to listen to it, and to individually tell me if they felt like joining me.

It was kind of funny, because the band was already really present in my tunes and all that remained was asking if they wanted to be physically involved! It was very personal music that I had written alone, and it was clear to me that if these people weren't willing or were too busy, then I would leave it and do something else. I wasn't ready to record this material with any other group or ensemble. Always when I'm writing and after the very first ideas I normally know whom I want to work with. I also wanted to write something that would be inspiring for just these personalities. I love the way Anna-Mari plays the accordion and the way she sings, the qualities of Pekka's playing that you don't hear elsewhere, the imagination of Marko I was nervous about how they'd react.

So after just a couple of rehearsals we had this gig, and we all knew that it was far from what it could be, because most of all we were lacking the routine. But Pekka started backing me up with the idea of a new album, already showing a green light to continue with it on Aito Records, even though Zetaboo has always been on the far side of his vision for the label. And Marko was backing me up musically; he kept calling me up, and we met and he said that he had so many ideas how we could do this. When I felt tired and fed up with this material, he was the one who said that now we have to set up rehearsals and I'll show you what I have in mind. It felt really good, that the people around me started to take responsibility, because I had already done so much work. Now I wanted to hear their ideas and stop being the person making all the decisions.

AAJ: Is there any specific inspiration behind the album?

JS: This music was inspired by the trips I made to Cuba and Brazil—it felt like a road diary to me. Some songs may not have any relation to that process, but all the material felt like it was part of this idea. Some had this excitement of being a stranger in a strange place, and this place doesn't have to be this exact Cuban club here or the sound of Rio de Janeiro. The excitement was about not coming up with something pure, but with this exotic, unfamiliar sound. Some of the tunes were about home-sickness. The way I experienced it during these trips was all about this idea of being lost, but trusting the intuition to go to a strange place and still having the feeling of being safe and excited about the new things.

I did some recordings with my minidisc, but it was mainly atmospheric. I had also run into a group of youngsters who were playing football, singing and clapping their hands. I also met this crazy guy on a beach when I was playing the cavaquinho that I had bought from Salvador, and he joined me and started talking and singing. He was nuts and a bit wasted, but I didn't feel that he was dangerous. Some of his songs I got on my minidisc. I also recorded sounds from the street where one of my hotels was in Havana and the sounds of a waterfall in Rio de Janeiro, which actually are the samples on OuterRail. There are many location sounds in the background of the mixes, and also some train sounds to get the feeling of traveling and being on a trip.

It all seemed very clear to me, but it wasn't very easy to explain it to my friends. I told them not to worry about "my philosophies, and let's just try to create some good music. I made lots of decisions on the landscape of the tunes and the instrumentation—there are lots of ideas behind the notes. The way Anna-Mari, Pekka and Marko play on the album is purely great and their ideas make my music sound so much richer than I could ever have thought. Though I made the music personally for them, I could never have expected what they came up with—it always sounds fantastic.

AAJ: When you went to Cuba were you going with the idea of finding material for Zetaboo?

JS: No. But when I went to Brazil for the second time I had Zetaboo in my mind, but it was somewhere deep. But I was traveling for other reasons—the long, cold Finnish winter, and other things. This time it was some kind of a sabbatical break for me. Anna-Mari also was away in Italy for some weeks and I think we are now all at that point in our lives 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.

I also went to Spain last spring, and when you are in the middle of nowhere, on your own, in a strange place and with no expectations, you might just do nothing. But if you start doing something then it really is something you want to do. I wrote lots of music during that week. And I think the same thing happened with Ann-Mari, that after a long period of working with, and even for, other people she had to get away. And the result was she wrote a lot of stuff!

And even though you hear that an artist always writes for himself not the audience, that music just came out from me. I knew I had to share it with these guys. I'm really happy with it now it's released and can be shared with other people. And if any single person can relate to it, or get excited or inspired by it is a bonus, because to me it's like a documentary of the trip I have made. Continuing from there and promoting it is quite hard, because I have already moved on. The most important thing for me is that it is documented, and packaged and can now be shared. That's the way it goes—I couldn't have stayed in this "OuterRail position very long.

Zetaboo: Jarmo Saari, Anna-Mari Kähärä, Pekka Lehti, Marko Timonen.

AAJ: And now we have the product here, what do you think of it?

JS: It looks very nice. I think the designer got the idea very well, and I'm very pleased with the way it looks. Nowadays when so many people download their music from the internet it's important to produce something that is actually nice to handle. And to listen to!

AAJ: And how abut actually performing the material?

JS: Well, truth to say, at the moment all we have planned is the release concert. Of course we are ambitious and are hoping to get more gigs, especially after the concert in Huvila. The timing and everything felt so natural. And psychologically it is good for Zetaboo to have the need to play a great concert...


Zetaboo, OuterRail (Aito, 2006)
Zetaboo, MedZine (Aito, 2000)
Zetaboo, Zetaboo (Texicalli, 1997)

Photo Credits:
Jarmo Saari: Jorma Airola
Zetaboo: Kie Von Hertzen, courtesy of Aito Records Ltd.

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