Iiro Rantala –My Working Class Hero
(ACT 9597-2, CD review by Mark McKergow)
Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala is nothing if not versatile. He can move from madcap jazz to the neo-classical improv of his new trio to Bach and Sibelius, creating thoughtful and novel renditions apparently at will. Even so, it’s a surprise to find his latest album is dedicated to the music of John Lennon.
Rantala has recorded this solo piano set of Lennon tunes as a tribute to his own childhood hero, to commemorate what would have been the 75th anniversary of Lennon’s birth on 9th October 2015. Using the Steinway D concert grand piano employed by classical legend Alfred Brendel with the Berlin Philharmonic (with even the piano tuner getting a sleeve credit), this is a session of brooding textures, space, touch and nuance. Rantala has mostly approached the project using a pared-down idiom, and the results are a late-night liturgy of memories and love for the music.
We are reminded early on that John Lennon was, at his best, a truly great songwriter. With the other Beatles, Lennon grew up listening to the Gershwins, Kern, Cahn, Porter and the like, and knew what made a song tick. (I wonder what will happen when the performers of the future are making tribute albums of Katy Perry?) So, Rantala has something to work with, and he finds elements and structures within the material to build distinctive readings which very much stay true to the source material.
The tone throughout is thoughtful reflection. Rantala starts with a run at Norwegian Wood, one of the most jazzed Beatles tunes, and conjures a sparse waltz. Working Class Hero, a much less examined tune, is opened with deftly plucked strings sounding so natural that it takes a moment to work out quite what’s going on. Just Like Starting Over sounds like a song from a musical, with Rantala finding the rich harmonies and letting them sing.
Much of the material is post-Beatles, but there is room for a fascinating take on Help, rapidly rumbling ostinato figures pleading for attention which resolve into a plaintively distant ‘Please, please help me’ phrase left to linger and linger. Rantala finds great power in the anthemic Happy Xmas, War Is Over, and closes the album with a delightfully fugal All You Need Is Love (complete with God Save The Queen introduction in place of the Marseillaise). Only on Woman does the music drift into cocktail-bar ordinariness.
This is a very individual album by an extremely thoughtful musician. With subtle touches and gorgeous tone, it’s one for late-night listening over a glass of fine malt whisky.
For Katy Perry, see Stanley Jordan's cheeky version of 'I Kissed a Girl' on his album Frinds (2011): a really good straight-ahead jazz reading.