You can not outsource curiosity


So you think you are open-minded? Journalist Petri Silas digs into the heart of the question in the new Jazzpresso article.

Text: Petri Silas

Do you regard yourself as open-minded? Most of us will reply to this question with a straight forward and resounding yes. This usually comes off the cuff, without even thinking. But intuition really isn’t the best gauge here as the truth lies somewhere deep inside, hidden in the farthest recesses of our being.

Being open-minded and tolerant is also something very subjective, something that manifests itself in different shades to different people. But since a quick ”Yeah, of course I am” shot from the hip also automatically makes us seem one of the good guys, it is a safe and more common reaction than the negative one. Nevertheless, we all would ourselves a favour if we paused for a while and really thought about the issue and measured our motives more carefully.

And of course there are people whose actions speak so loud that they really don’t need to answer the question with words. A case in point is the writer of the last Jazzpresso article. Even though very busy with his professional and personal life, Dave Stapleton dedicated part of 2008 to co-founding a record label that would help him spread the word of music close to his own heart. A calling became a labour of love became Edition Records and that is a fact we all can enjoy.

For us Finns, famously cursed with low self-esteem, it was brilliant news that Stapleton hand-picked some of our countrymen to be represented in the roster of artists at Edition. Especially as he sees that many jazz musicians and composers from Finland are driven by nobler goals and core values than their collagues globally on average. But however warm and cuddly gestures like these make us feel, they are also something we should learn to put in perspective. Stapleton is undoubtedly honest in his evaluation but in the big picture we as a nation perhaps should stop making such a big fuss when someone from abroad gives us a pat on the head.

Another wake-up call is imminent as regards our relation to the polemic book Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? by Stuart Nicholson. It was of course all sweet and nice that Finnish jazz got its share of the limelight in the debate that followed the book’s publication. But that was a full ten years ago.

What is needed now is a collective leap of faith towards understanding the intrinsic value of Alexi Tuomarila, Olavi Louhivuori and the other Finns on Edition Records. Yes, they are signed to a vital British label and at least minor prophets in their own land, but they are also operating at a unique point in time. Who knows, it may even be a paradigm shift.

Whereas too many of our musicians in the previous generation were still like trapped in the old joke where a Finn goes to a zoo and instead of marveling at the wildlife spends his day agonizing at what the animals see when they look at him, the forty-somethings of today have broken these mental chains. Relying on their education, skills and European openness they embrace the post-modern work environment with their heads held high.

And this attitude is important not only for them, but also for the ones that now look up to them waiting in the wings to one day make their own mark. Therefore it is doubly important to acknowledge that lasting success is constructed on a basis where open-mindedness and tolerance are among the main building blocks. In the long run, these assets mean so much more than a fleeting increase in value caused by outside recognition. The importance of being open was also referenced by (another Edition Records artist) Verneri Pohjola and Jukka Perko in their Jazzpresso articles.

At the very heart of progressive and creative musicianship lies the will and skill to peak behind the corner and apply the findings in one’s own work. Nothing new here, as pathfinders like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis have proven in the realm of jazz. Among other visionaries, they played a crucial role in moulding the expression of the genre to what it is today. And we can rest assured that headstong pioneers like them were more aware than most that curiosity is a thing one can’t outsource.

However, being courageous or leading by example is not about donning blinders and stubbornly treading a path through the undergrowth. It is about accepting the prevailing circumstances, viewing new things critically and also stepping at least momentarily away from the comfort zone. In one word, it is about being open-minded.

A prime example of this among the Finnish jazz musicians who have been around for a while is Pepa Päivinen. The saxophonist, who recently turned 60, has worked with a vast range of bandleaders from Esko Linnavalli (of the UMO Jazz Orchestra fame) to Edward Vesala to Jukka Tolonen, Anthony Braxton, Pekka Pohjola, Jarmo Saari and beyond. In addition, he is a founding member of Finland’s first ever sax quartet Saxperiment. Päivinen has also released numerous critically acclaimed discs as a leader. And as the album and live reviews always prove, he is a soulful and skilled musician called upon when the task requires such vision and value which your regular session saxman even from the A-list just won’t be be able to provide.

But what is it that ultimately makes Päivinen so respected and revered? For one thing, his open-minded nature and humble attitude. By taking things at face value Päivinen has managed to work with the trad jazz taliban as well as the free jazz puritans. No mean feat, as the demarcation line is littered with mines on both sides. And his example is worth its weight in gold if it helps the budding musicians to understand that choosing one path over the other often leads to unnecessary polarization.

In the next generation, the forty-somethings of today, we find a similar voracious craftsman. The horizon of drummer and percussionist Janne Tuomi stretches from traditional hard bop to the most demanding classical percussion pieces to avantgarde rock to pseudo-Balkanese brass band band schlager to free improvisation and all the stops in between. The versatile Tuomi has appeared on dozens of albums and released three solo discs.

It would be interesting to hear Janne Tuomi's own views on how being open-minded has benefitted him as a working musician and why it is important to stay curious. Furthermore, as the Tampere-based man is now living in Berlin for a good six months, he is in a unique position to comment on what the Finnish jazz scene looks like from the outside. What are the pros and cons of Helsinki being the hub where most of the action is?