Playing the mood: a conversation with Alexi Tuomarila

Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila is in the process of leaving a lasting mark on European jazz. Though still a young musician, he has been playing professionally for twenty years and keeps himself incredibly busy with his varied musical projects. Jazzwise identify him as having ‘a storyteller’s ability’, something which is vital for crafting emotive music and leading his respected piano trio. Ahead of his debut show at Band on the Wall on 18th June, we spoke to Alexi about his most important collaborations, his introductions to jazz and piano playing and his methodology in the recording studio.

You’ve played with musicians young and old; well known players like Tomasz Stanko and lesser known musicians too. Can you tell us about how your collaborative experiences have shaped you as an artist?

I have been lucky to have had the chance to play and learn from great players things you can’t learn in any schools. The most important collaboration for me has been Tomasz Stanko and all the different constellations I’ve played with him. The most recent group I’ve played with Stanko has been with Gerald Cleaver and Ruben Rogers and that has really opened up my playing even further. During the 10 years I’ve played with Stanko it has been with musicians such as Joey Baron, Jim Black, Anders Jormin, Thomas Morgan, Eric Revis, Jacob Bro, Anders Christensen and from all of them I have heard and felt something different and fresh that has shaped my own view on music. Also many other collaborations where I’m actively playing have opened up my ears such as André Fernandes’ ‘DreamKeeper’, my own bands ‘Drifter’, which is more towards electronic and vocal stuff and Skinny Jenny, which is a rock/prog influenced trio. They all shape my music, which is a continuous flow from one place to next, one style to another.

How did you begin playing with Mats and Olavi and referring back to the many collaborations of your career thus far, what do you take away from your performances with them, what do they bring to your music and the dynamic of the trio?

I have been playing together with Mats and Olavi for more than a decade. We have been playing together not only as a trio, but in several different projects. We all have our own specific way and character of hearing and playing music but it has always fit together perfectly. They have been perfect for ripping my music wide open to the directions I haven’t even thought of. We try to make beautiful melodies and then see where ever the song goes. That’s why it’s great to have players like Mats and Olavi who can create something interesting from just a simple melody line, or motif.

Your latest album Kingdom has been phenomenally well received. Although groups consisting of acoustic piano, bass and drums have been common in jazz since the ‘40s, composers like you are still happening upon new styles within this modest framework. When you’re at the piano, developing an idea, are you mindful of the roles the drums and bass will play and how your arrangement arrive organically?

I don’t think or plan beforehand what the drums or bass should play. I think mostly about melody or atmosphere or chord progression. I normally have a sound of the song in mind, which I try to explain by playing the mood. I trust completely the intuition of Mats and Olavi, they always feed me with great ideas, countermelodies, interesting grooves etc. Sometimes I write a certain vamp for the whole trio, but from there we will always get loose and it will always turn out something different. Most of the time it’s great. I like it when there is possibility for the song and playing to breathe. 

You’ve foundations in classical music and figures like Miles Davis helped introduce you to jazz music. Do you remember who first introduced you to the music and have mentors guided you throughout your development or has your musical development been more solitary?

I remember when the piano arrived to my home when I was 5. I was immediately curious and attracted to it and just wanted to play and enjoy it as a child only can. That same curiosity and necessity to play has been present always. I quickly began studying classical piano in the music school at the age of six and continued studying until my jazz studies in Helsinki and Brussels. I have had important mentors both in classical music and jazz, but I feel mostly I have been exploring the piano and music solitarily. Changing ideas with colleagues and listening to a lot of different styles of music. 

There is some studio footage from the Kingdom sessions forthcoming; how at ease are you in the studio, do you find playing with headphones on to be a barrier to communication with your bandmates and if so, have you explored varied recording techniques?

I have always been quite relaxed in the studio. I don’t think a lot has changed for myself during my 20-years of recording. If the piano and the sound that the engineer can create are good, then I can always be at ease. I like to feel the instruments and not to hear them through monitor, but in the studio I guess the best way to record is with headphones, so I have got used to that. The overall sound might be a bit tricky sometimes but if the piano is great then I’m totally relaxed. I’ve also done some sideman sessions with a terrible piano and on those ones I have been fighting and struggling with myself throughout the session.  

What are your ambitions for the foreseeable future and what does the rest of 2017 told?

I’m now mostly concentrated on my trio. I like to develop the sound, the compositions and just basically try to play with the trio as much as possible. My other own long-time project is a Belgian based band called Drifter with whom we are recording our fifth album in the autumn 2017. I also co-lead a Finnish rock/prog trio called ‘Skinny Jenny’ where I play synthesizers and keyboards. Besides those bands I play in many different projects as a sideman in Europe. Basically the most important thing for me for the future is to develop as a player and make great strong compositions regardless the style.

Catch Alexi Tuomarila Trio live at Band on the Wall on 18th June.

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Sunday | 18.06.17

Alexi Tuomarila Trio

Band on the Wall, Manchester