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Artist spotlight: Aki Rissanen

Designers live at G Livelab Helsinki in December 2022Designers live at G Livelab Helsinki in December 2022

Pianist Aki Rissanen was one of the most important and interesting musicians in Finnish jazz in the 2010's. His music combines many elements ranging from baroque to contemporary electronic music. In 2022 the debut album from the trio Designers lead by bassist Joachim Florent demonstrates that the best may be yet to come from the currently France-based pianist - it's one of this years absolute jazz album highlights for new releases.

Beautiful Anxiety (2009)

In 2009 Rissanen was finishing his studies in Sibelius Academy. That years release Beautiful Anxiety presents Rissanen as a mature jazz modernist. It's an interesting album to look back on after almost 15 years - some elements that today feel like Rissanen's definitive qualities are already there, particularly the musics roots in classical music tradition reflecting Rissanen's long classical piano studies, but as a whole Beautiful Anxiety seems to point towards a different career trajectory that we got.

The album has two strong guest soloists. Sax player Rick Margitza who is likely internationally best known for working with Miles Davis in his final years, but here in Finland also for recording with Trio Töykeät and Jarmo Savolainen, one of Rissanen's teachers and key influences, plays on three tracks recorded in 2007 while Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo plays on two tracks. The strong soloists on different instruments give the album variety and rich texture.

Aki Rissanen // Jussi Lehtonen Quartet with Dave Liebman (2015)

Another great example of Rissanen as a pianist in a more traditional jazz quartet is Aki Rissanen // Jussi Lehtonen Quartet with Dave Liebman released in 2015 by German Ozella label. Here the quartet co-lead bu Rissanen and drummer Jussi Lehtonen gets another great sax player who rose to prominence in Miles' band in Dave Liebman whose exciting soloing really lights the fuse on this album where intensity meets pensive and thoughtful ruminations.

The key track is the opener Scriabin where the quartet (with Jori Huhtala on bass) goes all out on an intense exploration of Rissanen's composition dedicated to the Russian pianist/composer. The albums greatest moments are those of greatest intensity - the other standout track is Lehtonen's tune In the Corner. These tracks offer strong evidence how important it is in jazz for musicians to both inspire others and be inspired.

Aki Rissanen Trio - Amorandom (2016)

Rissanen played in the Verneri Pohjola Quartet from the early 2010's onwards for some years. During that period that group became my personal favorite active group in Finnish jazz, culminating in the Bullhorn album and gigs with that albums material. That group featured Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums who together with Rissanen also were Aki Rissanen Trio from 2012.

The trio took their time making their first albums and in retrospect it feels like it really paid off. Some of the music on their debut album Amorandom on Edition Records was recorded for the 2012 short animation of the same name by Tuula Leinonen and Antti Peränne and the trio performed it live several times and by the time it was recorded for the album it felt like the same material was alive with more vigor than before.

At the time of release and the gigs that followed, the trio became my new favorite group in Finnish jazz and in my Jazzpossu blogs yearly tallies of best Finnish jazz releases both Amorandom in 2016 and the follow-up Another North in 2017 were my picks for album of the year.

Aki Rissanen Trio - Art in Motion (2019)

The trios third studio album Art in Motion had to settle for second place with Tapio Ylinen's great prog flavored Mortality taking the top spot in 2019 (with Rissanen on keyboards, though), but from the three Aki Rissanen Trio (ART) studio albums it is perhaps this third one that demonstrates best the groups biggest strenghts.

The opener Aeropeans is almost like the trios most important elements in one tight package. There are hypnotic rhythms tightly executed by Lötjönen and Mäkynen and repetitive piano figures with clear electronic music influences that suddenly transform into a little fugue - the old and the modern meet and become one. The repetition grows the tention level that ultimately is resolved abruptly in a single note.

Rissanen has grown into a master of building tension, sometimes even playing around with expectations in mischievous ways. This is demonstrated by Das Untemperierte Klavier where the tune starts in a straightforward and harmonious way and gets progressively more chaotic building tension as it goes, but instead of resolving the tention, the tune just fades out aggravatingly. Genius!

The history of art music is clearly present. The trio interprets Carlo Gesualdo's madrigal Moro lasso al mio duolo from the 17th century and a section of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus from the 1970's making both compositions their own, seamlessly integrating them stylistically into the original material. Perhaps the greatest strength of Aki Rissanen Trio is that they combine diverse influences into a whole that feels personal and unique - one would imagine a Nordic piano trio with some electronic music rhythmic influence would feel like yet another Esbjörn Svensson Trio influences group, but ART feels like they do their own thing.

Designers (2022)

In 2022 Aki Rissanen Trio released a digital only live album on Edition Records that offers a glimpse into how the trio is able to build on the compositions in a live setting - well worth exploring if you haven't had a chance to see the trio live as they are not afraid of going off the beaten path in the solos. But even more important is the debut album from the new trio Designers released in late 2022.

Designers consists of three musicians from different countries who currently operate in France. Versatile Belgian bassist Joachim Florent is in charge of the compositions while Australian Will Guthrie is on drums and Rissanen on piano.

Florent's compositions are an excellent fit for Rissanen's style. For fans of Aki Rissanen Trio, Designers album feels even like a natural evolution of that music into a new direction, familiar but with the promise of new opportunities. Like ART's music often, Designers also builds tension with minimalist motifs that grow into something larger. Florent's versatile bass playing using different techniques enriches the musical palette nicely. After seeing the trio live at Helsinki's premier music club G Livelab at the We Jazz 2022 festival, I became convinced that this has to be one of the key album releases in jazz this year and hopefully a start of more great things to come. If you would check just one 2022 jazz release from a Finnish label, Designers released by We Jazz Records would be an excellent choice.

Edited 29.12.2022