Mondays with Morgan: Kaisa Mäensivu (Kaisa’s Machine’s ‘Taking Shape’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with bassist, composer and bandleader Kaisa Mäensivu; her ensemble Kaisa’s Machine’s new album, Taking Shape, is available now.

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Kaisa’s Machine will perform in Philadelphia and NYC later in August, and in Europe in the autumn.

Kaisa Mäensivu holding bass
Kaisa Mäensivu. Photo credit Oskari Joutsen

In the category-fueled jazz industry – where everybody must be stamped with a descriptor and shipped off – by all rights, Kaisa Mäensivu should be moving pretty smoothly. 

She’s a bassist, composer and bandleader, terrific at all three. From a branding perspective, how could that be overly complicated – especially for the fairly straight-ahead world she occupies?

“It’s actually getting a little hard for me,” Mäensivu – a New Yorker – tells LondonJazz over Zoom from her native Finland. “Because I do love playing other people’s music, and I love doing different things.”
Mäensivu is referring to her parallel career as a freelancer. But these days, she’s increasingly focused on her ongoing ensemble: Kaisa’s Machine

Given the nature of the business, Kaisa’s Machine’s lineup is somewhat fluid. But their new album, Taking Shape – out now via Greenleaf Music – features perhaps their most inspired iteration.
Therein, Mäensivu is joined by tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, guitarist Max Light, pianist Eden Ladin, and drummer Joe Peri.

As an outlet for original music with ample room for evolution, Kaisa’s Machine is a creative vehicle at a crossroads. Because there’s a flipside to leading your own project.

“If you do a lot of things as a leader, then you’re seen as a leader, and I don’t know how it might affect what other work I get as a freelancer,” Mäensivu says. “I could keep doing my sidewoman work and focus on my thing as much as I want,” she adds. “But you have to make a decision at some point.”

By the sound of Taking Shape, Mäensivu’s made the correct one. Tunes like the iridescent “Floating Light”, the urging “Aurora Unbound” and the wheeling “Eat Dessert First” prove Mäensivu is a compositional and instrumental force to keep an eye on.

Read on for an interview with Mäensivu about how Kaisa’s Machine came to be, her approach to her instrument and why pursuing “new sounds” is the name of the game.

LondonJazz News: Tell me about your conception of Kaisa’s Machine. In the New York landscape, where musicians sub all the time, having a solid, regular ensemble feels evermore rare.

Kaisa Mäensivu: I love the idea of having a band – playing with people who know the music. I feel like that’s sort of important – especially in the kind of music I write – because it allows it to develop while you play it more and more.

That’s my goal, and I really wanted to establish a band and have those same musicians play the music with me. Obviously, it’s not always possible, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’ll be a mix. 

I have my core cats, and then there’s always some instrument – most often it’s the saxophone – that’s always changing. But the rhythm section instruments are especially important to me; that’s the same people in all the music. That way, I feel like I can get even more out of the compositions.

LJN: How did these particular musicians constellate in the first place?

KM: It’s kind of a mix of people. Some of the people are quite new to my musical circles, and some of them I’ve played with for years – or basically, the entire time I’ve been in New York.

That was my idea with the album, too. I really love Tivon’s playing, so I wanted to feature him; I’ve always thought he sounded so amazing on my music, but then again, I haven’t been able to have him on any of my live shows, because he’s touring the world constantly, with Gregory Porter.

Joe, the drummer – also my husband – we went to school together. That was back in 2016, and we’ve played a lot since then. He was an obvious call for drums. Even before the album, before this lineup, he would play with my band.

Eden, on the piano, was someone I’d played with a bunch on the scene, but not really my original music. We didn’t really play much of my music before the record date. But I thought he’d be a great fit for it.
Max has been in the New York version of Kaisa’s Machine; I used to have a band back here in Finland. I did my first Kaisa’s Machine recording with an all-Finnish band. When I moved to New York, Max was in the original lineup, just like Joe.

So, he’s been playing it for a while now. Sasha and Tivon are kind of the wild cards.

Kaisa Mäensivu sitting on chair with the upright bass lying in front of her
Kaisa Mäensivu. Photo credit Oskari Joutsen

LJN: I appreciate that you lean back with your instrument and let your accompanists shine. Not every bassist-bandleader does that.

KM: I see the bass in a traditional way, in that sense. I see it as an accompanying instrument; that was the bass’s original role in this music. I love featuring other instruments in the band.

But I guess my writing is going in a more bass-centric direction. It’s not extreme yet; it’s still in the traditional role of the accompanying instrument. But I feel I have an increased amount of bass vamps and grooves – a lot of things that are based on bass. Most of my tunes rely on it.

LJN: Which bassists influenced your thinking as to the role of the bass?

KM: My first bass idol was Ron Carter. I started to get into him when I was already understanding a little bit about jazz, and that way, I could have appreciation for all these subtle things he could do on the bass, in terms of harmony. And rhythm, obviously, too, but in Miles’ second quintet, all the reharm stuff he could do.

And then, Dave Holland is another bass idol. He definitely loves to vamp – I can tell by his writing. He’s also a compositional influence.

LJN: In return, how does Taking Shape reflect where you currently are as a bassist and composer?

KM: I feel like it’s taken a big step from anything I’ve done previously.

My first album with Kaisa’s Machine – the Finnish version – was more in the straight-ahead jazz idiom. Long solos; maybe the compositions didn’t play as big of a role. It was more about improvising. My second release was an EP, where it was a mix of everything – a Covid project. 

This third one, Taking Shape, is the first release I’m happy with – it’s the first time. I guess it took three releases. It’s a lot more compositional and thought out. I really put my mind into making it a full album – a complete thing, rather than just a mix of random things that I liked, or felt like doing.

LJN: Can you talk about working with Greenleaf Music, and how [founder/trumpeter] Dave Douglas’s ethos played into the equation?

KM: I really like that label, and Dave’s vision with it. We just met in New York kind of randomly, and started to talk about it. At some point, he just sent me a message: “Let’s do it.”

I remember I had a couple of other options in Europe, but I’d heard a lot of great things about Greenleaf. It’s kind of a small label, but they have a tight knit community; there’s five or six people who work there.

It feels like they really put effort into everyone they work with.

LJN: Let’s get back to your accompanists. Tell me what you appreciate about each of them as a musician.

KM: Tivon plays on five tracks on the album, and I feel like every single note is just pure gold. [Laughs.] It’s boring, but it’s just so true.

[As far as vibraphonist Sasha Berliner,] I think that sound really adds a lot to the ensemble. I really love the combination of guitar and vibes. That’s a new thing I’m trying.

[Max] was definitely the MVP of that session. He’s just so effortless. I feel like when I was choosing the takes and going over everything we did over those two days in the studio, Max just nailed everything.

Every take, he got it down. No questions asked.

Eden’s actually touring with me right now, in Europe. We have a really similar vision of harmony.
The music was new to him when we first started playing, but for piano, I don’t write so specifically. I have chords with not even specific voicings sometimes. A lot of stuff leaves it open for the pianist to do it how they hear and feel it, and Eden really figured out a great way [to approach] the music.

[Joe and I] have played together in many different settings. The amazing thing is that over the pandemic, we started to play and practise even more together.

We’ve been able to develop a lot of things together; he worked with me on some of the grooves on the album. I would come up with something, and then we could go to the practice room and make something out of it. So, he’s been crucial in that sense too.

Kaisa's Machine musicians in a row
Kaisa’s Machine. Photo by Luke Marantz

LJN: What were some unexpected moments that bore fruit on Taking Shape?

KM: On “Floating Light”, that take I chose: we tried many things in the studio, like leaving out some backgrounds, trying to make it less busy. Every take had a little bit of a different arrangement, but this was the first take that had all the original stuff I had written there.

I remember everyone thinking it was so crazy – there was so much arranged stuff going on. But then, when I heard the actual take, it was not overwhelming at all. So, that was a nice surprise.

We did a full day first, and then the second was a night session at the studio. Eden started with a bottle of wine, and then he brought in the hard liquor. Then, he started to record those piano intro takes. We were all sitting on the couch in the control room; it was just magic after magic.

LJN: Creatively, where do you want to go from here?

KM: I’m really getting into playing my own music, and having my own band, and touring with them. When I’m ready for it, I’ll definitely start writing new music.

Right now, I feel like my head is still in this music, but I’m sure there will be a time soon when I’m ready for some new sounds, so I’ll definitely start writing more stuff and focus on this group.

Like an average freelancer, I do a million different things in different styles of music, and all that. But I do feel like I want to focus more on Kaisa’s Machine.

LINKS: See Kaisa’s Machine live

Purchase Taking Shape

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