Stepping ahead, together

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The first of the two Finnish groups to appear at this year’s Jazzahead showcase is Joonas Haavisto Trio who have been playing together for more than ten years. While the instrumentation may be conventional, their approach is original and confident and leans on a no-nonsense take on what may perhaps be called ‘Scandinavian freshness’. Seamless communication between the band members is an indispensable part of their playing philosophy.

The internationally awarded pianist Joonas Haavisto belongs to the top of Finnish jazz pianists. He has performed extensively around Europe, North America and Asia, and 2017 saw him become the first Finnish jazz pianist to be named as a Steinway Artist. The nomination is a token of honour that aims at supporting high-level professional pianists and their working conditions worldwide, and it put Haavisto in the company of such names as Keith Jarret, Ahmad Jamal and Robert Glasper.

– Collaboration with Steinway comes in many shapes. For instance, if a venue doesn’t have a grand piano, Steinway may step in and provide one. An artist may also gain more visibility through Steinway and the various events that they organise. I acted, for example, as a member of the jury in Finland’s first Steinway Jazz Talent competition last November. The competition was targeted to young, under 25-year-old emerging Finnish jazz pianists, helping them take the first steps on their careers. The tradition will be continued in the following years and it also aims to grow bigger by encouraging young talents to participate from all over Finland, Haavisto describes.

In Jazzahead, the pianist will take the stage with his trusted trio, formed by drummer Joonas Riippa and double bassist Antti Lötjönen, both prominent Finnish jazz musicians. Despite belonging to various other bands and projects the three artists have held together as a trio already for ten years. In addition to their home country, the trio has appeared on international stages regularly, in particular in Japan, where they are giving a five-concert tour again this May.
- At the time I was still studying at the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, I received an email written in very bad English. The sender inquired whether we were preparing an album. I was accustomed to receiving a lot of junk mail and it was very close that I deleted the message without giving it a second thought. It turned out, however, that the sender was a real person: a person from a Japanese record label, interested in releasing our next recording. We ended up signing a deal and are now about to hit the road for Japan for the fourth time. I didn’t even know that our debut album had ever reached Japan so the message was a huge surprise, Haavisto says about the peculiar event that lead to an international deal.

Piano trios have a very special position in the Japanese music life and they are held in very high regard, so Joonas Haavisto Trio’s music has met with a warm welcome in the country. Indeed, Haavisto says that through his visits his relationship to Japan has grown deeper, and that it is an easy country and culture to visit as a Finn.
– There are many similarities between our cultures, such as politeness, the tendency to give space to others, be a bit quiet and shy and value nature.

But how do three busy musicians work together and how does their music come into being?
– I compose the majority of our music, but every now and then we may include a jazz standard or two in our repertory. I bring the compositions to our rehearsal sessions, we try out different things, and after that I may work on the piece a bit more. Tours and live gigs shape the music further. It’s all about co-work, really. I do my best as a band leader and composer not to limit anyone too much with my writing: I have two exceptional musicians in my band and I don’t want to hold them back. Usually we arrive at the best result and give the final polish to the music together.

Last Christmas saw the group record a new album, but the past few months they have kept a low profile. They do not play together every week; mostly rehearsal sessions take place before tours or hitting the studio. Haavisto confirms that they have come a long way in ten years:
– Nowadays it’s pretty rare for a jazz group to stay together for this long; we have issued three records together. We are progressing all the time, which is why this is so amazing. Our tool, first and foremost, is the band; and it is always a shared effort that takes us forward.

The trio’s new album, Gradation, came out in Japan on 28 March. Besides one track, all the pieces to feature on the album are from Haavisto’s pen. About the European issue, Haavisto still keeps his lips tight:
– Things are still a bit open, so I cannot say anything about it yet. The compositions were written during the past year, some are very new, written just before we hit the studio; some are one year old. Gradation describes my new album as a whole since there is a lot of subtle, gradual and maybe even unexpected change happening in the compositions of the album.

At Jazzahead, the playing time is only 30 minutes, but the pianist promises to fit in both tasters from the new album and some chosen older pieces. What does he, personally, expect to see at the event?
– I still haven’t had the time to look at the entire programme, but at least the Icelandic drummer Einar Scheving , whom I met in Denmark, will be playing. It would be great to see him on stage as well as other old and new faces. I am looking forward to check out what is on offer and to catch some new European and American music.

This year, Poland is the partner country of Jazzahead, and, naturally, it is Poland that also kicks off the showcase concerts.
– Poland fosters a lot of great musicians and they have a long jazz tradition. Surely Tomasz Stańko is one of the biggest stars, and also Marcin Wasilewski Trio will be playing at this year’s festival. Poland is a very interesting country and I will definitely check out their shows if I get the chance.

Joonas Haavisto Trio plays at Jazzahead ‘s European Jazz Meeting concert series on Friday 20 April at 17:30-18:00, in hall 7.2.

After the festival, the next opportunity to see them live in Europe will be on 31 May at Helsinki’s Koko Jazz Club.