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Alexi Tuomarila Trio

Seven Hills


by Ian Mann

July 18, 2013


Immaculately produced and featuring powerfully descriptive and melodic writing allied to some great playing "Seven Hills" heralds the arrival of a major new European piano trio.

Alexi Tuomarila Trio

“Seven Hills”

(Edition Records EDN 1041)

I first encountered the playing of the Finnish pianist and composer Alexi Tuomarila when he formed part of veteran Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s “Nordic” quintet at a live performance at The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock back in November 2009. Also present in that line up was his compatriot, drummer and percussionist Olavi Louhivuori who forms part of Tuomarila’s current trio. Along with the Danish musicians Jakob Bro (guitar) and Anders Christensen (bass) the two Finns appeared on Stanko’s excellent ECM release “Dark Eyes”.

In January 2013 I witnessed Tuomarila’s trio, also featuring Norwegian double bassist Mats Eilertsen, perform much of the material from this new album in a rare UK appearance at Warwick Arts Centre. That show is reviewed elsewhere on this site and I suspect that the liner photo of the trio on stage may have been taken by Edition’s co-founder Tim Dickeson at the same event.

“Seven Hills” more than fulfils the promise suggested by the Warwick show. That performance included artful deconstructions of the jazz standard “What Is This Thing Called Love” and the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A’ Changin” in the style of one of Tuomarila’s musical heroes Brad Mehldau. The nine originals on this album are all sourced from within the group with Tuomarila and Louhivuori contributing four tunes each and Eilertsen one. All three are talented composers and the writing throughout the album is consistently excellent. The guitar of guest performer and album engineer Andre Fernandes graces two cuts, broadening the group’s sound to beneficial effect. 

Now in his early thirties Tuomarila has been on the scene for a while. I have a copy of his album album “02”, released eleven years ago, a good, if somewhat dated, effort with distinct fusion leanings. Following a dispiriting management hiatus involving Warner Brothers’ French arm Tuomarila re-emerged in 2005 with the current trio and the album “Constellation” (Jazzaway, 2005), a recording of a session made for Finnish radio. This was the first time the trio had performed together and their rapport was obvious from the very beginning. 

Nevertheless “Seven Hills” still feels almost like a début -  a breakthrough certainly. Recorded by Fernandes in Lisbon, hence the title, the album was subsequently mixed and mastered in Copenhagen with August Wanngren (fast becoming Edition’s answer to Jan Erik Kongshaug) at the desk.

The album commences with Tuomarila’s title track. Many of his pieces embrace Scandinavian folk melodies and the pianist cites Bobo Stenson from neighbouring Sweden as an influence on his playing. But his free flowing soloing style also incorporates elements of leading Americans, past and present, among them Mehldau, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. The opener incorporates both these aspects of Tuomarila’s musical personality with a gently melodic, folk flavoured theme providing the basis for some expansive, richly fluent piano soloing. Eilertsen and Louhivuori make substantial contributions too, there’s a good deal of interaction between these Scandinavian all stars.

As well as being a distinctive and talented drummer Louhivuori is also a composer of some substance. He leads the all Finnish group Oddarrang whose 2012 album “Cathedral” is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Oddarrang have since signed to Edition and are due to make their début for the label later in 2013. Louhivuori’s lovely “Cyan” begins as a spacious Nordic ballad with Tuomarila later taking the opportunity to stretch out. However the sense of gentle melancholy that pervades much of Louhivuori’s output never entirely leaves the piece. 

Fernandes’ ringing guitar adds extra colour to Tuomarila’s “Prologue”, another strong melodic theme that provides soloing opportunities for guitar and piano on what is essentially a two part composition. Fernandes goes first, utilising his effects wisely on a probing solo. Tuomarila then solos joyously above the fiercely propulsive grooves of Eilertsen and Louhivuori.

“Jibeinia” is another good example of Louhivuori’s spare, melancholy writing. Eilertsen impresses here with his richly resonant bass statement in the tune’s opening stages. The composer’s busy but subtle brushwork is also distinctive,  Loihivuori’s idiosyncratic drumming style is sometimes similar to that of the Bobo Stenson Trio’s Jon Falt.  As ever Tuomarila expands upon the theme as the piece gradually becomes more animated mid tune but essentially this is another excellent example of folk tinged Scandi piano balladry.

Also by Louhivuori “Sculd” begins by exploring similar territory and features the excellent Eilertsen on dark and grainy arco bass. Later his deeply resonant and propulsive pizzicato pushes the music into more outgoing areas with Tuomarila soling rhapsodically above the backdrop of the composer’s richly detailed, odd meter drumming.

Eilertsen’s powerfully plucked bass introduces Tuomarila’s “Pearl”, another example of Tuomarila’s richly melodic writing. The pianist was initially classically trained before studying jazz at Espoo in Finland and later in Brussels. Like many other young players he’s an international musician who is involved in bands in several different countries, including the quintets of Eilertsen and Stanko. Tuomarila cites the influence of Russian classical composers on his work, particularly their passion and depth of feeling. There’s something of that on this richly varied piece with its strong melodic themes and subtle dynamic shifts, plus Tuomarila’s classically honed technique and touch is exceptional. It’s hard to believe that he once nearly opted to become a tennis pro instead!

Also by Tuomarila “Visitor Q” is one of the album’s most outgoing pieces. It seems to start mid tune and may represent an excerpt from a longer take. There’s some sparky, meter bending interplay between piano, bass and drums and the whole piece is great fun with the leader undertaking some vertiginous piano runs as his colleagues match him every step of the way.

Eilertsen is perhaps best known to UK jazz listeners for his membership of the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble but he’s also a fine composer and bandleader in his own right and heads his own influential Hubro record label. The bassist’s abilities as a melodic composer are showcased on his 2012 quintet album “SkyDive”, released by Hubro, featuring Tuomarila and Louhivuori, and reviewed elsewhere on this site. Those writing abilities are demonstrated on this album by the lushly romantic “Miss”, his only contribution with the pen. Tuomarila is at his most lyrical above a backdrop of purring bass and filigree cymbal work.

Louhivuori’s appropriately hymn like “Ceremony” closes the record with Fernandes adding his guitar to the group sound. His tone is initially bell like but his subsequent solo explores feedback and other effects, first ruffling up the waters then dragging the music in the direction of deep space. Tuomarila’s piano restores a sense of order and lyricism backed by Eilertsen’s deep bass growl and Louhivuori’s responsive drumming.

Immaculately produced and featuring powerfully descriptive and melodic writing allied to some great playing “Seven Hills” heralds the arrival of a major new European piano trio. This is an album capable of exerting considerable popular appeal (in jazz terms at least) and Edition must be hoping that Tuomarila will achieve the same sort of breakthrough with UK audiences as his label mate, the Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset.

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