Teemu Viinikainen was the guitarist in the Finnish group U-Street All Stars, who were signed to the European arm of Blue Note records where they recorded two albums for the label. Even back then he was a very good young guitarist but has subsequently developed into a virtuoso. Pledging allegiance to Wes Montgomery, and even sporting a rare 1959 Gibson, he’s built on Montgomery’s inspiration and now probably numbers among the top twenty jazz guitarists in the world. Pity not too many people outside of Finland have heard of him. His trio, with Timo Hirvonen on bass and Jussi Lehtonen on drums, was not simply guitar, bass and drums, but like most of the bands that appeared at Winter Jazz, had an integrated group concept. He performed a set that while not reaching for extremes was content to explore precisely focussed moods where intensity and rapport meant even the smallest musical gesture grew and took on a life of its own. It was a perfectly judged climax to a weekend when jazz did what it was supposed to, sound surprising. And whenever this happens, wherever you are in the world, it can be a profound experience.
Since 9/11, visa paperwork and expenses have made it increasingly difficult for musicians outside of the U.S. to play American clubs and concerts. It’s a shame because jazz is now a world music that needs cross-cultural access and collaboration to stimulate growth and reinvention. Despite stiffening bureaucratic obstacles, Washingtonians had the rare opportunity to recently sample five very different Nordic groups at Blues Alley, four of them making their D.C. debut.
With little local press attention, the Finnish trio Hear Hear opened the series to a nearly full house. Though the sign out front referred to them as the Jukka Perko Trio, the group is really a cooperative, with equal contributions from soprano and alto saxophonist Perko, vibraphonist Severi Pyysalo and guitarist Teemu Viinikainen. Playing an intimate kind of chamber jazz, they opened with Pyysalo’s brisk “Little Word,” notable for its cascading lines, shifting meters and conversational call & response solos. A bright, dancing “Devotion” followed, with a lovely soprano sax/vibes duet and a catchy theme soon hummed by the woman sitting next to me. Perko explained that in Finland they have no Broadway show tunes or blues, so folk songs and hymns are their “standards.” One of these hymns, “Guardian Angel” featured a strikingly beautiful four-mallet solo from Pyysalo. Throughout the set, Perko blew with a distinctively pure, almost classical tone, with little vibrato but lots of feeling. Though often under-miked, Viinikainen played lush chords and nimble darting solos on acoustic guitar, sometime tapping the instrument’s body for percussive effects. Though the trio records for Blue Note/EMI, the sound and aesthetic is more reminiscent of ECM.
In his debut as a leader, Finnish guitarist Teemu Viinikainen and his regular trio of Timo Hirvonen on electric bass and Jussi Lehtonen on drums encounter American trumpeter Tim Hagans for a session of adventurous originals and freewheeling groupimprov numbers. Viinikainen, a prominent figure on Helsinki’s jazz scene as a member of the U-Street All Stars, is a fearless improviser and fluent player who uses guitar effects creatively, as he demonstrates throughout the daring, three-part Sneaking suite and also on Hagans darkly angular Space Dozen.
Viinikainen teams well with Hagans on the frontline, engaging in some sparkling exchanges on Two Grooves. The guitarist and trumpeter offer some of the most affecting moments here on two intimate Duo Improvisation pieces. Viinikainen also showcases some nifty fingerstyle playing on a haunting, Delta-flavored soloacoustic number, The Blues. An openminded, technically proficient player, Viinikainen makes a strong statement with this CD
There are 180,000 lakes in Finland, so the chances of finding at least one lake-inspired tune in the repertoire of the Finlandia Jazz Trio were always going to be high.
As it turned out, the trio's concert on Friday night included two pieces named after lakes: a tranquil, gleaming ballad (Kaituri) and a zany traditional polka (with a title that translates roughly as Sack Lake).
The contrast between these two pieces - one graceful and delicate; the other deliriously energetic - revealed the surprising versatility of the Finlandia Jazz Trio's instrumentation. Jukka Perko (on soprano and alto saxophone) could hover over a melody with feather-like weightlessness, or produce sharp-toned, staccato lines that gave the music a firmly rhythmic drive.
Severi Pyysalo, Perko's creative partner for the past 15 years, was equally expressive on vibraphone. His instrument often shaped the dynamic contours of a piece, as he combined miraculously precise, fast-flowing cascades with spare passages of luminous beauty.
Guitarist Teemu Viinikainen only joined the trio a few years ago, but the strength and imaginativeness of his playing created the clear impression of a conversation among equals. His flexibility allowed him not only to augment or ornament a tune's melody, but to double as a bassist (using elegant, measured contrapuntal lines) and even a percussionist, as he vigorously strummed or knocked, tapped and slapped the body of his guitar.
On Get Up, My Soul, all three players explored the rhythmic capacities of their instruments, ingeniously turning this traditional Finnish hymn into a spirited Afro-Brazilian dance.
But the most ardent applause at Friday's concert was reserved for another medley of hymns - this time performed with exquisite restraint and aching tenderness.
Here, the melodic thread of each passage was passed carefully from player to player, accompanied by a subtle pulse that gave it the feel of a walking meditation: a link to the ancient folk traditions from which this music grew, and a reminder of the value of stillness in this busy, noise-filled world.
Jukka Perko the Finish saxophonist and Severi Pyysalo, are well known to Australian jazz audiences via their tours with the group 'Perko Pyysalo Poppoo', one of the most exciting jazz groups to ever to appear at the Manly Jazz Festival. The name Perko came to the forefront of the jazz world when at age 18 at the 1986 Pori Jazz Festival he wowed audiences with virtuosic performances which received rave reviews and the word 'sensation' was used freely. He went on to tour with Dizzy Gillespie in 1988.
Severi Pyysalo's rise is just as meteoric having been discovered by Paquito d'Rivera and Sarah Vaughan at the 1982 Pori Jazz Festival.
Teemu Viinikainen is the newest addition to this trio on guitar and he shares compositional duties on five of the thirteen original pieces.
The pieces are best described as musical poetry of the highest order.
The format of saxophone, guitar and vibes create a minimal, uncluttered and refreshing sound which focuses all your attention on melody, harmony and the introspective improvisations that abound on these Nordic ballads.
On Olin nuori Perko shows his glorious alto tone and superior technique bending notes and playing triplets like a Terence Blanchard on the trumpet. On soprano, his tone is not unlike Wayne Shorter.
Atmospheric and beautiful - 4 stars