Bewitching brew: Jussi Reijonen’s transcultural blend of Arabic, jazz and prog

Oud player and guitarist Jussi Reijonen grew up in Lapland, the Middle East and Africa, drawing on those influences for "Three Seconds | Kolme Toista", an instrumental suite that defies genre.

So what kind of music is this? From his home studio, Jussi Reijonen grins at the perennial question of how to categorise the album, recorded near New York with a multinational band.

“I’d say there’s something for a broad range of listeners. Some people say it sounds like prog, fusion or world music, which are tricky terms. The closest I can get to defining it is transcultural music influenced by jazz, rock, western art music, Arabic, African music and Indian rhythms,” he says.

His 2013 debut hinted at his influences, including a John Coltrane ballad and a piece named after Malian kora star Toumani Diabaté.

“I've always been drawn to musicians with a distinctive handwriting of their own, whether it’s Björk, Radiohead, Hendrix or Shostakovich,” he says.

“When I was in high school in Rovaniemi, I wanted to start a rock band and play original tunes with some friends. At first I couldn’t come up with interesting riffs on the guitar but then realized that the melodies and ideas I was attracted to – or that I came up with – stemmed from my Middle Eastern childhood, hearing all that amazing Arabic music on the radio,” says Reijonen.

From rock to acoustic fusion

Jussi Reijonen is now based in Amsterdam after more than a decade in Boston and a childhood spent mostly in Jordan, Oman, Lebanon and Tanzania due to his father’s work.

“You’d hear the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, the Syrian-Egyptian oud player Farid al-Atrash and Lebanese singer Fairouz all the time. That was the sonic background to my growing up, a kind of subconscious absorption,” he says.

Back in northern Finland, he soaked up more flavours as he began composing and leading a teenage band, all without formal training.

"Through the acoustic guitar and the new music that I started to write, the Arabic influences started to show themselves."

“My friends and I were into electric guitar heroes like Slash – I’m still a huge fan of Guns N' Roses,” he says.

“Then we heard Friday Night in San Francisco by guitarists Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía as well as the Rosenberg Trio and Django Reinhardt. So our focus shifted to steel-string acoustic guitar. I was also getting into flamenco.

“Through the acoustic guitar and the new music that I started to write, the Arabic influences started to show themselves,” he recalls. That led to an “acoustic fusion” quartet that played jazz festivals around Finland.

Oud to get me

On a visit to Morocco, Reijonen picked up an oud, a lute-like instrument that in his hands can sound haunting or exuberant. At 22, he began his formal music studies at the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory, including oud lessons with the Egyptian Aladin Abbas.

A few years later, he was at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, studying jazz guitar with Mick Goodrick, who also taught giants such as Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and later at New England Conservatory, studying oud with Palestinian virtuoso Simon Shaheen.

“Simon has been a huge figure in my life, along with his brother Najib Shaheen, who’s also an incredible oud player,” says Reijonen.

“Another mentor was the Lebanese multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba, director of New York Arabic Orchestra, who sadly died of Covid.”

Three Seconds is dedicated to Saba, who played with the legendary Fairouz for decades and founded the NYAO. His successor as director of the orchestra, Iraqi-Jordanian violinist Layth Sidiq, is among the nine top-flight multicultural musicians recruited by Reijonen for the Three Seconds album and concerts. Those include four dates in Finland in February and a Jazzahead showcase in Germany in April.

“This suite is quite a challenge to play live; it’s intricately composed with a lot of layers, textures and dynamics – and sometimes I switch between different guitars and the oud within movements. Performing in front of an audience changes the dynamics for us players as well,” says Reijonen.

Loosen it up

Reijonen says that when playing live, he likes to "loosen it up" and push the music more into an improvised direction.

"It’s exciting to see what ideas the musicians have. The album was composed during the pandemic when I couldn’t interact live with other musicians, so it’s more through-composed. I was isolated in my basement in Boston and at a cottage on Lake Saimaa, eastern Finland. Otherwise there would have been lot more experimentation with the guys.”

One area of experimentation involved playing microtonal music on a regular piano. For this, Reijonen got help from Finnish keyboardist Kari Ikonen. He invented the Maqiano tuning device, which enables a standard piano to do just that.

“I tend to lean toward a certain level of microtonality, whether it’s Arabic, blues or Billie Holiday. There’s so much expression in those notes that are considered to be out of the 12-tone temperament system"

“I tend to lean toward a certain level of microtonality, whether it’s Arabic or blues – even Billie Holiday. There’s so much expression in those notes that are considered to be out of the 12-tone temperament system,” Reijonen explains.

“So it was quite a puzzle to put this all together, especially being non-native to these traditions that have influenced me so much. How do you acknowledge their inspiration but in a way that’s authentic to yourself? How do you attain depth, not just an oil-and-water layering of different elements? After all, it would be disrespectful and dishonest if I didn’t reflect these influences, because they’re all part of my story.”


Jussi Reijonen: Three Seconds | Kolme toista

(Challenge Records, 2022)