Mikko Innanen „A Fusion of the Unknown“

by Martin Longley –

There are plenty of big bands playing at the Moers Festival this year, but the Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen almost attains such full size with his 10+ ensemble, which in actuality hits the 12 mark in its membership. Nevertheless, despite being a touch smaller than a traditional big band, this aggregation certainly wields immense power, as witnessed during their set at last November’s Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland.

Innanen sculpts terse staccato statements, pierced out by the heavy horn front line, setting one of his own solos up for maximum freedom within this nest of organisation, flicking an eye to his bandmates, cue-ing a flurry of group improvisation. He balances dangerously between marshalled composition and uncaged freak-outs, always pulling back towards an ultimate structure. Next, there might be a sparser interlude, devoted to the rhythm section, in the old-timey sense, Innanen switching from alto to baritone, gliding out a warmer ballad seduction. Then, the crew could deliver a modernised vision of a New Orleans procession, full of jolly charm, only to be splintered apart by a ripping free-form incursion. Innanen is intent on including all eras of jazz, sometimes in a single composition, but always ringing out with his own personalised writing tone.

The Moers appearance on Sunday night of the festival will be the third recent gig by 10+, following Tampere and Norway’s Vossa Jazz in March. “We’ll be playing pretty much the same program,” says Innanen. “But In Moers we have to fit everything in to a set of 50 minutes instead of 60 or 70, which makes it a little challenging. I probably have to leave out one or two compositions. Although it’s a shorter concert the music should breathe and have its natural course. It takes a while to write new material for a large band like this, and to make it work, so there’s no need to change it yet”.

Mikko Innanen 10+_photo by Maarit Kytöharju

Innanen believes that the Moers audience emits a special vibration, due to their intense immersion in this music (whatever we eventually decide to call ‘this music’). “I hope we can live up to their expectations and give them some existential extravaganzi,” he says. “It was a long-time dream for me to start a large group of my own. However, it wasn’t until three years ago that I eventually made it happen. It took quite a bit of organising to realise my dream, but I’m so happy about the fact that I did it…”

The first 10+ gig was in November 2012 at Helsinki’s Koko Jazz Club. “It’s a great Finnish venue, loved by many musicians for its great programming and atmosphere. It was rather easy to select the musicians for the band. I had worked with everyone before in various formations and knew they would fit the music I had in mind. The group is almost like Noah’s Ark. Except for the pianist Seppo Kantonen and myself, there’s two of everything”.

So, we have trumpeters Verneri Pohjola and Jukka Eskola, trombonists Jari Hongisto and Juho Viljanen, tenor saxophonists Jussi Kannaste and Pauli Lyytinen, and more unusually, bassists Ville Herrala and Eero Tikkanen and drummers Mika Kallio and Joonas Riippa. As the names sound, all of the membership is drawn from the Finnish scene.

“It’s like a big band and a small group combined, where everyone is featured. The sound is all-acoustic and, in a sense, quite traditional. A fusion of ‘jazz’, ‘free jazz’ and ‘the unknown’, if you will. Almost everything is notated in the traditional way, but most of the improvised parts are all free.”

Still wired following their Tampere appearance, the ensemble went in to the studio to record a 10+ album for the mighty Finnish label TUM, set for release later this year. Gigs by the 10+ are quite rare: they have a booking at the Korpo Sea Jazz Festival, set in the Finnish archipelago, where Innanen is the event’s  2015 artistic director, and that’s their entire datesheet for the rest of this year. The leader admits that it’s quite a trial to get bookings for a 12-piece ensemble nowadays, but has hopes for further ventures in 2016, particularly in the wake of the album’s release.

Innanen first played at Moers back in 2007, with his Innkvisitio band, and he’ll be taking them out on a European tour in November. His most recent album, Song for a New Decade, is also on TUM, and features a trio with veteran American greats, the bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I’m thrilled by that,” says Innanen. “Hoping that we’ll manage to play some live dates soon. I love playing with them and I think the record came out pretty nice, too.”

Innanen recently toured and released a new album, Unicorn, with PLOP, a collective that also includes Herrala and Riippa. The prolific TUM also has another pair of Innanen releases ready: the third disc from Innkvisitio, and a duo set with Dutch sticksman Han Bennink. Certainly, 2015 is a prime year for this hyper-productive hornman. Of course, Innanen’s quality control is also reliably stringent…

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