Jukka Perko and Blue Note
by Petri Silas :: 2001
's juxtaposition of American jazz and Finnish schlager reached historical proportions in November 2000 when the album "Music of Olavi Virta" became the first ever release of Blue Note Finland. The time is now ripe for recounting the tale, weighing up the pros and cons and glancing into the future. Let's meet the album's author Perko and its producer
No European integration can ever change the fact that the archetypal Finnish soulscape is brooding and melancholy. Ergo, most of the local tangos, schlagers and evergreens are minor-key mini-operas of heartbreak and loneliness. The most renowned interpreter of these passionate and often tragic feelings was iconic singer Olavi Virta (1915-72), a Nordic counterpart to the likes of Carlos Gardel and Frank Sinatra. The Finnish tango emperor passed away when saxophonist Jukka Perko was merely four years old, but the universal language of music provided these gentlemen with a meeting point beyond time and place. Without Virta's and Perko's commitment to their art, the first ever release of Blue Note Finland would have been something very different.
History in the making
The most decorated Finnish saxophonist of his generation, 33-year-old Jukka Perko recently took a decisive leap towards the top of the jazz food chain by becoming a Blue Note recording artist. Founded in New York City in 1939 by Alfred Lion and nowadays run as part of the EMI corporation by the equally legendary Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note Records is perhaps THE most respected jazz label in the world.
As renowned for its formidable back catalogue (Thelonius Monk, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, etc.) as for its more current signings (Medeski Martin & Wood, the Doky Brothers, St. Germain, Charlie Hunter, etc.), the company has remained true to its vanguardian spirit throughout its existence. There are echoes of a similar unrelenting attitude in Jukka Perko & Hurmio-orkesteri's deliciously postmodern approach to both hard bop and the tunes originally immortalised by Olavi Virta, so the foursome's debut disc was the perfect album to be released under the Blue Note banner.
“Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was at first rather sceptical when I was offered the deal,” says Perko. “You see, I had developed quite an emotional thing about the whole Olavi Virta project and wanted to oversee every detail for myself. So much so that I had already made plans to release the album independently. But I decided against it after producer J-P Virtanen had convinced me that if nothing else, at least the promotion of EMI Finland would be something I could never hope to achieve as an indie artist. And the label did handle PR remarkably well. Such massive media coverage, both nationally and abroad, would never have been possible without the name of Blue Note opening a few doors.”
An incurable jazz buff since childhood, keyboard maestro J-P Virtanen (b. 1966) is the man responsible for the direction of Blue Note Finland. The proud producer takes us back to the beginning.
“In late 1999, when Wemppa Koivumäki became Managing Director of EMI Finland, we continued our ongoing discussion about the possibility of reviving the jazz department of EMI Finland. Without telling me, he then contacted Bruce Lundvall and managed to get the go-ahead for the launching of Blue Note Finland. I was hugely honoured and even a bit frightened when Koivumäki offered me the job.”
Something borrowed, something blue
Best known for his ongoing involvement in The Poppoo, a group he co-founded in 1993 with vibraphone wunderkind Severi Pyysalo, the arduous Jukka Perko has managed to achieve many things every serious jazz musician dreams about: He has toured Europe and the USA with the Dizzy Gillespie 70th Anniversary Band, performed a full week of gigs as a co-leader with Pyysalo at Ronnie Scott's in London, released a batch of critically lauded albums and taken part in many an interesting crossover project with various symphony orchestras, rock ensembles, big bands and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra.
He has performed in more than 20 countries, and his CV is exceptionally impressive in the award section: Finnish Jazz Musician of the Year 1989, Finland Festivals' Young Artist of the Year 1993, Jazz-Emma (the Finnish equivalent of the Jazz Grammy) for The Poppoo's "Garden of Time" 1993, Jazz-Emma for Hurmio-orkesteri's "Music of Olavi Virta" in 2001, and so on and so forth. Perko entered the Sibelius Academy Jazz Department in 1987 and has taught at this acclaimed seat of learning since 1990.
The Hurmio-orkesteri set off on its maiden voyage two years ago, when The Poppoo was invited to play at a small jazz festival curated by pianist Iiro Rantala (of Trio Töykeät fame). As The Poppoo was unavailable at that particular time, Perko promised his friend he would come up with something special. And this is probably the moment where we might say that the phrase “the rest is history” has seldom sounded more truthful.
Jukka began to draw the blueprints for his quartet by choosing lauded tenor specialist Manuel Dunkel as his fellow saxophonist. For the rhythm section he enlisted bassist Lasse Lindgren and drummer Teppo Mäkynen. All comrades-in-arms from numerous jam and studio sessions, Mäkynen had already performed and recorded both with The Poppoo and the Manuel Dunkel Quartet. In his capacity as a connoisseur of modern dance music, he would also go on to programme a tasty remix of "Hurmio" (Ecstasy), one of the stand-out tracks on "Music of Olavi Virta". Not too surprisingly, this exciting team, which now has close to 50 concerts under its belt, proved to be one of the sensations of jazz year 1999 in Finland.
“The music of Olavi Virta was an integral part of the soundtrack of my childhood,” muses Perko. “And because I grew up in the country, his presence was even stronger. Finnish tangos and schlagers were actually the first pieces of music I ever heard on the radio or my parents' cassettes. So the idea of somehow interpreting this forceful music must have been born in my unconscious at that time already. A major breakthrough came when I really started to mould the idea and came up with the concept of using no harmony instruments but two lead melodies which work together in a contrapuntal manner. After this revelation it was more or less down to choosing the right people for the job and picking the tangos and waltzes I wanted to highlight.”
Birds of a feather
Perko grew up in Huittinen, which is a small town in the middle of a triangle formed by the cities of Tampere, Pori and Turku, and began dabbling in music at the age of thirteen. His first instrument was the clarinet, but he soon switched over to his current weapon of his choice, the alto saxophone. The first epiphanic moment in his growth as a musician came when he heard the mysterious yet muscular sounds of saxophone monolith Charlie Parker on the radio. Instinctively, the budding reedsman knew what he wanted to do. Ever since those days the “Little Bird” has been making waves all over Finland. However, having a record released on the same label as a multitude of jazz giants, Parker included, wasn't such a huge event.
“I have never been a Blue Note freak as such, so I didn't get over-emotional about the release,” confesses Jukka. “I see it like this: Even if you own the same car as a well-known professional driver, it won't guarantee that you will become a better driver. Know what I mean? The best part of the project was the fact that the group and me were allowed total freedom at the pre-production and recording stage. But on a different note, the lives of Charlie Parker and Olavi Virta were actually quite similar – especially towards the end. Now there's a connection I can relate to.”
Judging by the critical response, making this connection was a stroke of genius. And the sales figures have also been pleasing – even in Lundvall's opinion, as J-P Virtanen reports. By August 2001, "Music of Olavi Virta" had shifted more than 7,000 copies nationally. In a country of 5.2 million inhabitants where The Beatles' collection "One" was knocking at the 60,000 mark at around the same time, this figure is very respectable. Finland aside, Hurmio-orkesteri's album is now out in Sweden, Germany, Croatia, Austria, Greece, Italy and Japan. Official figures were unfortunately not available as the FMQ went to press, but J-P makes an informed guess that the sum for the disc's international sales must be around 4,000-5,000.
Although the arduous Perko says that for him the most important project is always the one he is currently working on, he is already preparing himself for the next recording project. Time will tell whether this massive work based on Scandinavian chorales and hymns and involving various arrangers, a 40-piece chamber orchestra and naturally Perko himself will be a Blue Note release. If J-P Virtanen has any say, this will definitely be the case. However, his hands are already full with future Blue Note projects. Having a tentative release date in October 2001, the third Blue Note Finland album - after "New Moods – New Sounds" by saxophonist Antti Sarpila and vibes player Severi Pyysalo, which came out in June 2001 - will be an ultramodern offering, a joint venture involving adventurous reedsman Tapani Rinne (from RinneRadio) and DJ Slow (from Pepe Deluxe).
“Not unlike the legendary Us3 disc "Hand on the Torch", the album will rely heavily on samples, this time culled from the EMI Finland jazz back catalogue,” Virtanen reports. “Artists like Edward Vesala, Ted Curson, Heikki Sarmanto and Mike Koskinen will be featured in absentia in a project geared towards a wider audience than the first two releases. Next we plan to work on an international Blue Note project and then concentrate on Jukka's hymn album.”
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 3/2001.