It is said that music does not lie in the notes themselves but between them, and it is exactly in that space where Boston-based Finnish fretless/fretted guitarist and oudist JUSSI REIJONEN‘s music thrives and blossoms. His eagerly anticipated debut album, un, due for release in early 2013 on unmusic (Finland release 25 Jan 2013 / US release 26 February 2013), has been a lifelong musical journey in the making – a journey that spans three decades and four continents, and which has taken him from his native Northern Finland to years spent living in the Middle East, East Africa, and now the United States. From the very first notes of opening piece Serpentine until the last echoes of album closer, Kaiku, have faded into the ether, the album never once loosens its grip on the unsuspecting listener; what lies between the bookends is a breathtaking musical journey that walks a crooked tightrope between tension and resolution and gracefully dances between the traditions of American and Scandinavian jazz and the folk musics of the Middle East and Africa in its thirst for new sounds and textures. In this day an age, where the term is so frequently misused, un is true world music from a true world citizen – music in its most honest, heartfelt true sense; music with no frontiers.
Although born in Rovaniemi, a picturesque small town on the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, Reijonen did not grow up an ordinary Nordic childhood; the decade between age 6 and 16 was spent moving between Finnish Lapland, Jordan, Tanzania, Oman and Lebanon as his family followed his father’s work around the world. Since relocating to the US in 2008, he has had the honor of performing with the likes of renowned jazz drummer Jack deJohnette, flamenco cantaor legend Pepe de Lucia, Spanish multi-Grammy-award-winning producer and flamenco guitarist Javier Limón, Palestinian oud/violin master Simon Shaheen, fretless guitar pioneer David Fiuczynski, Turkey’s gypsy clarinet legend Hüsnü Senlendirici, and Lebanese nay virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba, to name a few. As a result, in both his original compositions and his playing, the open spaces and silences of Scandinavia effortlessly rub shoulders with the maqamat of the Arab world and the rhythmic richness of India and West Africa, creating a truly enchanting musical mosaic. As he puts it himself, “This music has come to me over a period of several years… a lifetime, almost. Un is the result of a childhood spent growing up in five different countries on three different continents, and an adulthood spent wondering where I am really from and where my true roots are. For years, I have been trying to find answers to why all these seemingly disparate sounds pull me towards them so strongly, and how to bring what they have given me into a musical handwriting that makes sense and is in balance with itself. For me, un is a journey Home… wherever that might be.”
In keeping with the idea of creating true modern world music, un brings together a unique and international cast of five seasoned musicians from Finland, Turkey, Sweden, Palestine and Spain. Between the five of them, JUSSI REIJONEN: un - Reijonen on fretless/fretted guitars and the 11-string Arabic lute oud, Utar Artun on piano, Bruno Råberg on acoustic bass, and Tareq Rantisi and Sergio Martinez on percussion – shares an impressive resume that reads like a who’s-who of contemporary jazz and world music: the members have worked with the likes of Paul Simon, Jack deJohnette, Pepe de Lucia, Enrique Morente, Diego el Cigala, Simon Shaheen, Javier Limón, Maria Schneider, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bobby McFerrin, George Garzone, Ben Monder, Mick Goodrick, David Fiuczynski, Steve Smith, and Alejandro Sanz. With Reijonen handling compositions, arrangements, and production on the album, the Quintet traverses the supposed boundaries between musical cultures effortlessly, with a blend of humility, grace, and presence.
On the aggressively driving, Arabic quasi-rumba of Serpentine, Reijonen’s oud takes centerstage from the get-go, accompanied by Martinez’s cajón, slithering through the labyrinthine rhythms before a chaotic warzone of percussion courtesy of Rantisi, Martinez and Artun takes the band on a left turn towards North Africa. After the oud’s lone lament, Artun brings the Quintet back to an even more intense restatement of the main theme before taking the band out, leaving only the dust to settle. As if to evoke a heartbeat struggling to stay steady in recovery of what just happened, Reijonen’s daring take on John Coltrane’s classic ballad Naima follows. Set to an unusual Indian-based rhythmic ostinato propelled by Bruno Råberg’s acoustic bass, the piece provides a welcome, yet curious, relief after the chaotic opening, and lets Reijonen’s fluid fretless guitar work pay tribute to one of his musical idols, with Utar Artun taking a stellar piano solo. Although tackling a jazz masterpiece such as Naima with authenticity while still offering something new is no easy feat, the Quintet pull this off with confidence. Bayatiful, in turn, introduces the first of the album’s two guest artists, Palestinian qanun prodigy Ali Amr, for another rhythmically intense journey through the souqs of the Middle East, and features a truly virtuosic solo by Amr. Amr is also credited as co-writer on the piece.
The second half of the album moves away from the strong Middle Eastern flavors of the first towards more spacious, calm soundscapes, and a new side of Reijonen’s personality emerges. A gorgeous solo guitar improvisation introduces Toumani (Blues for Mick), his heartfelt tribute to his mentor Mick Goodrick - a duet between Reijonen and Rantisi which imagines a blues played by Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté, lullabying a child to sleep. Another duet, this time between Reijonen on fretless guitar and Råberg on acoustic bass, follows in Nuku Sie, a free-flowing quasi-Indian exploration of resonance and microtonal harmony. But perhaps the most evocative statement is saved for last: Emma-nominated (Finnish Grammy Award) vocalist Eva Louhivuori, known best from her work with up-and-coming duo Eva & Manu, joins the Quintet on the breathtaking Kaiku, as Reijonen returns to the sparse, open spaces of Finnish Lapland. Louhivuori’s voice soars as Reijonen’s fretless guitar echoes and dances around Artun’s piano flourishes, ending the album on an almost shamanistic note.
Reijonen goes on to say, “I believe in two musical fundaments – Honesty and Presence. For me, for any art to communicate and connect, it has to have both, and neither can exist without the other. The album title has multiple meanings, some of them contradictory. ‘Un’ is a reference to a Persian poem by Hafez. ‘Un’ in Persian can refer to Presence. ‘Un’ in French is ‘one’. ‘Un’ in English is ‘not’. I was never fully of any one culture, of any one walk of life, of any one mold, yet this is exactly what makes me the individual and musician that I am. Growing up how I did, I am by default a fusion of cultures, so for my music to be honest, it must be a fusion of cultures. Ultimately, un is me both defying being any One Idea exclusively, and embracing the concept of being One – defying definition but embracing what it is that makes each one of us an individual.”