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Aki Rissanen Trio



by Ian Mann

November 01, 2013


The trio's blend of chamber jazz lyricism and improvisatory rigour is an effective mix that fully engages the listener.

Aki Rissanen Trio


(Eclipse Music ECD-201318)

I first heard the playing of Finnish pianist Aki Rissanen as part of two very different line-ups led by his trumpet playing compatriot Verneri Pohjola. Rissanen made substantial contributions to Pohjola’s ambitious large ensemble recording “Aurora” released in 2011 and to the quartet follow up “Ancient History” (2012) which featured the trumpeter’s regular working group. Both releases appear on the German ACT label, both are reviewed elsewhere on this site and both are highly recommended.

Besides his work with Pohjola Rissanen is involved in a number of other projects including a trio with bassist Anti Lotjonen and drummer Teppo Makynen. He works regularly as a solo pianist, has played with the Finnish UMO Jazz Orchestra and collaborated with visual artists (Petri Ruikka) and playwrights (Kristian Smeds of the Finnish National Theatre). He’s also been part of numerous other productive but now defunct units over the course of the last decade, many of these international collaborations.

“Aleatoric” appears to be a group name as well as an album title. The term is defined in the accompanying press release as “composing and making music by means of chance and co-incidence”. Meanwhile Matti Nives’ liner notes take a broader view of the phrase, defining it as the spirit of happy co-incidence, or serendipity if you will. Like the way that Rissanen met the Belgian saxophonist Robin Verheyen when both were living in Paris in 2005, an unplanned coming together that in slightly different circumstances might never have occurred but which has produced a fruitful artistic partnership which is still thriving nearly a decade later. Rissanen and Verheyen work regularly as a duo but the Aleatoric trio also includes drummer Markku Ounaskari in an unusual bass-less configuration that nevertheless works extremely well. Ounaskari has previously worked with the Finnish pianist, harpist and band leader Iro Haarla, the widow of the great drummer and composer Edward Vesala, the man widely regarded as the godfather of Finnish jazz. 

In keeping with the “Aleatoric” ethos the album was recorded in a single day, pretty much live in the studio. It’s not a free improv record, the trio did have some sketches and melodies, but much of the finished product was created in the moment and the album includes a number of “first takes”.
In addition to two fully improvised pieces both Rissanen and Verheyen brought tunes to the session and the album is bookended by two Rissanen arrangements of outside pieces which I’ll look at in more detail as we proceed.

The album begins with Rissanen’s arrangement of Federico Mompou’s “Musica Callanda part XV”. The work of this Franco Spanish composer (1893-1987) has been interpreted by other jazz pianists including Robert Mitchell and Pablo Held and here provides a base for the chamber jazz improvisation of the Rissanen trio, building from Ounaskari’s delicate percussion intro through Verheyen’s thoughtful, unhurried sax meditations with Rissanen’s intelligent chording the glue that holds it all together. The trio bring a mix of folk melody and Nordic melancholy to the mix but there’s improvisatory gristle too as Verheyen’s playing grows in intensity and probes deeply before Rissanen takes over shadowed by the distinctive patter of Ounaskari’s percussion. 

“New Life” is the first of two Rissanen originals on the record. It’s a lovely folk tinged piece featuring the warm sound of Verheyen’s tenor, the delightful nuances and small details of Ounaskari’s percussion and the composer at his most lyrical.

Verheyen contributes no less than four pieces to the album. He’s now living in New York and the spiky, angular, Ornette-ish “For P & B” offers evidence of the influence of his adopted city. There’s some fine interplay between the members of this highly interactive trio with drummer Ounaskari enjoying a brief cameo in the later moments of the piece. 

By way of contrast his “Bois Le Comte”, with the composer on soprano, sounds thoroughly European, blending classical sensibilities and folk melody with the trio’s more obvious jazz influences. It’s highly lyrical and often hauntingly beautiful.

The playful “Beeriani”, another Verheyen offering, sees the trio back in “New York” mode, a spirited, sparky dialogue between the group members based around another Coleman-esque theme.

Credited to Rissanen/Verheyen/Ounaskari the back to back “Indeterminate Music, parts I and II” presumably represent two snippets of totally free improvisation. It certainly sounds that way as Rissanen briefly explores under the lid accompanied by the furtive but colourful scrabbling of Ounaskari’s percussion. Verheyen weaves his way in and out of all this and you can almost hear the group members thinking. It’s not roaring free on improv, rather a case of carefully controlled but fruitful exploration that engages the listener’s attention while remaining within the broadly “chamber jazz” aesthetic of the album as a whole.

Rissanen’s title track combines gentle lyricism with the more rigorous improvisatory approach encountered elsewhere on the album.

Verheyen’s final compositional contribution is “Kallavesj”, another effective mix of the spiky and the playful that includes a stunning Cecil Taylor inspired solo from Rissanen, a torrential outpouring of notes.   

The album concludes with “Mr. Nobody”, Aaro Jalkanen’s setting of a traditional Estonian folk melody arranged by Rissanen. It’s a piece that concentrates on the trio’s lyrical side and contains a beautiful passage of solo piano from Rissanen.

“Aleatoric” is a consistently absorbing album, the trio’s blend of chamber jazz lyricism and improvisatory rigour is an effective mix that fully engages the listener. It’s a truly collaborative effort with few orthodox solos but with a high degree of group interaction. The selfless approach works well with all three members of the trio making excellent contributions both individually and collectively and with Ounaskari, a skilled colourist at the drums, worthy of the title of “percussionist”. 

“Aleatoric” is highly recommended but I’m also hopeful of seeing Rissanen play live as a member of the Verneri Pohjola Quartet at the 2013 London Jazz Festival. The quartet will perform at a free event in the public space at the Southbank centre on Monday November 18th at 6.00 pm.
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