|Iiro Rantala. Photo Credit: Steven Haberland/ACT|
Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala has a major presence on the European jazz scene. Kathryn Shackleton spoke to him ahead of four dates in the UK and Ireland in March:
LondonJazz News: Despite your big following in Europe, you are not very well known in the UK. How would you describe your music to UK jazz fans who haven’t heard you yet?
Iiro Rantala: Lively and lovely too! My music is a mix of my own musical history. I started singing J.S. Bach Masses and Passions at the age of six, moving on to classical piano, then jazz and then going back to my roots – sad Scandinavian folk melodies and simplicity. Sounds like a mess, but that’s the formula.
LJN: You started singing in a choir at six? Is that normal in Finland?
IR: No, it’s not normal. Ice hockey is normal! But my mother had an idea that I could sing, when she heard me singing with the radio. We have no musicians in our family but she took me to a very professional choir called Cantores Minores and I started touring with them around Europe at the age of 7, and we even sang at the White House for Ronald Reagan!
I was always interested in the piano and there were pianos at the choir rehearsals, so I started playing and they couldn’t get me off the piano bench. I quickly learned the Bach piano parts and had a huge interest in the keys. When I was about 10 I switched to accompanying the choir on the piano. Piano technique always came easily to me.
My piano playing developed when I went to a classical music school and learnt first Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart and then more complex works. Next I went to a secondary school which was the only school in Finland that was also very strong in pop and jazz. In a few weeks I found myself in 4 or 5 bands and rehearsed every day after school. I loved it and my strong classical background meant it was easy for me to get into improvising.
LJN: What other influences made you become a jazz musician?
IR : Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, who I heard as a teenager. I started with the modern pianists and never got into swing and more traditional jazz. Chick Corea was my idol as a composer and Keith Jarrett as a player. Also Leonard Bernstein who’s like a perfect example of a human being who donates his life to music – not just boosting himself, but by helping others to develop and succeed.
LJN: You worked for many years in the successful Finnish band, Trio Töykeät. What do you get out of playing solo as opposed to playing in a trio?
IR: I spent 18 years working hard without breaks with the same people in Trio Töykeät and we played all the continents and over 40 countries. After that ended I approached ACT and Siggi Loch and suggested a solo album. Playing solo, it’s all in your hands and there is no bass solo where you can rest! In a band, if you’re not having a good evening or the sound or the piano is bad or you are tired, you really get the support from the others, but that is not the case if you are on your own. If the magic doesn’t happen in the first 5 minutes of a piece, then playing solo is really hard.
I like playing solo as much as in a trio, though – it’s more challenging but I get a kick out of it and my solo recording ‘Lost Heroes’ has become my best selling album.
LJN: What is the premise behind the album ‘Lost Heroes’?
IR: Some artists want to hide their influences, but I’ve always been very open with mine. Each track on the album honours a different pianist who has influenced me and who is no longer with us. My idea was to give something back and to point out that in music we don’t have to come up with everything ourselves.
When I was working on Lost Heroes it was the first time that I had ever been really ill. I had a slipped disc for 5 months. I was on strong pain-killers and I thought I would have to live with the pain for the rest of my life. The most melancholic compositions like Tears for Esbjorn came out, and it was a special time for me, preparing for that album. It was also the first time I had worked with a producer. On the 7 or 8 Trio Töykeät albums we were our own bosses. On Lost Heroes, though, I had Siggi Loch – ACT owner and producer – in the studio with lots of opinions, and he wasn’t hiding them! Siggi is always keen that a concept should flow through an album and he kicked 2 or 3 tunes out because they didn’t fit the mood. He was absolutely right and I really wanted him to be close to the recording as he has so much experience.
LJN: What defines the Finnish jazz scene to you, and how does it differ from the UK jazz scene?
IR: Actually, I don’t see myself as part of Finland’s jazz scene as I work mostly around Germany and I live in Majorca. I don’t know much about the UK jazz scene, except that you have some excellent musicians like Gwilym Simcock, who I work with, and John Parricelli, with whom I just played in Lars Danielsson’s band.
LJN: Who would be your dream band – living or dead?
IR: Peter Erskine on drums and Lars Danielsson on bass – in fact we are starting to work together this year. Bobby McFerrin could join us for a couple of songs, but I wouldn’t let him steal the whole show!
LJN:As well as your trio with Peter Erskine and Lars Danielsson, what other plans do you have for this year?
IR: This is a very busy year. I’m releasing a duo album with a great Finnish saxophonist, Jukka Perko and touring in duo with Marius Neset. As well as this I may be hosting a TV programme where we travel with a grand piano across 5 countries and I play in the streets with local guests. I’m also recording a solo piano album of John Lennon’s music for ACT for his 75th anniversary this October, and I’ll be touring heavily with that. I won’t be changing every chord and making it sound like Giant Steps with lots of improv. I’m trying to change as little as possible and still trying to make it sound fresh.
LJN: How do you compose?
IR: It always starts the same way. I do my piano practice, and then I start improvising. My piano practice involves scales, then I play Bach, then a Chopin Étude and sometimes I take a difficult piece that I would never play in a concert, like Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata. After that I start working on new compositions. I try to make up simple melodies, and there is a fine line between simple melodies and something that sounds like Richard Clayderman!
In Trio Töykeät everything had to be very fast and technical, but I’ve done that now and don’t need to show off my technique anymore, so I try to find perfect melodies. I like composing, but the main motive for me is to do it because I need new music to play in my concerts. I don’t really wake up in the morning and feel the need to write a symphony! I’ve always loved performing. That’s my thing.
Iiro Rantala will be appearing at:-
– Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean St., London on March 9th – with Gwilym Simcock
– Watermill Jazz, Dorking on March 12th – solo
– The Model, Sligo on March 14th – solo
– Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin on March 15th – solo
Iiro Rantala’s first solo CD Lost Heroes was released in 2011 on ACT. He releases his next solo album in celebration of John Lennon’s music on the same label later this year.
LINK: Review – Iiro Rantala with Gwilym Simcock and Florian Ross at the 2010 European Jazz Piano Summit in Cologne