“I find myself more and more interested in breaking down the genre walls between jazz and classical,” says composer and saxophonist Esa Pietilä. “I just think about it as music without any stylistic borders, because I like to mix different forms of expression. That’s what I’d like the audience to think, too.”
Over the past decade, Esa Pietilä has led parallel careers in jazz and classical, with the two tracks crossing more and more often. He gravitates toward collaborators who are equally at ease in many genres, from orchestral art music to free and mainstream jazz to electronics.
These include American jazzers such as Dave Liebman and Marilyn Crispell, as well as the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra and the Espoo Big Band.
Alongside three albums with his free-jazz quartet Liberty Ship, he released a solo double album entitled "Times and Spaces" in 2016.
That same year he earned the Finnish Jazz Federation’s Yrjö Award and stepped further into the classical world, premiering a saxophone work by composer Kalevi Aho, following one by Eero Hämeenniemi a few years earlier.
A turning point came in 2014, when Pietilä took what he calls his “first big step into the contemporary classical world”. He premiered his first concerto, Graffiti Play, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Avanti! chamber orchestra, later reprising the work with the Kuopio Sinfonia.
I’m now writing fewer jazz pieces because of the other compositional work. I guess we could call that ‘contemporary classical’ music for lack of a better term.
Since then Pietilä, now 56, has written two more concertos and an array of smaller pieces for chamber groups, duos and solo instruments.
This summer, Pietilä has been busy completing several solo pieces, including one for cello and electronics for Iida-Vilhelmiina Sinivalo. He is also overhauling his solo saxophone programme, writing new solo pieces for next year’s recitals, and preparing for concerts in August and September.
“Another big project is fine-tuning a concerto for violin, tenor saxophone and orchestra,” says Pietilä.
“It’s intended as a companion piece for György Ligeti’s violin concerto. Pekka Kuusisto and I will premiere it with the Jyväskylä Sinfonia as soon as Pekka finds a date in his calendar, which is not easy,” he says with a laugh.
Another unusual new work is a collaboration with painter Eveliina Hämäläinen and harpsichordist Anssi Karttunen.
“I’m doing a sketch composition as a vehicle for improvisation and communication with her visual outcome in the live situation,” explains Pietilä.
“She’ll paint while we play, inspired by our improvisation, so it’s a dialogue of sound and visuals.”
Pietilä will play both sax and live electronics – which he admits is a bit tricky.
“Yeah, you need two heads,” he says with a grin.
“There are wireless motion sensor controllers and other controllers attached to the sax to control the Ableton Live electronics.”
Classical needs more improv
Pietilä’s work has long been split 50/50 between composing and performing, but in the past couple of years his compositional commissions has expanded rapidly.
“That means that I can concentrate more on performing the complex, larger orchestral pieces that I’ve written for saxophone, as well as pieces by other composers, as well as keeping up with jazz,” he says.
“I’m now writing fewer jazz pieces because of the other compositional work. I guess we could call that ‘contemporary classical’ music for lack of a better term.”
As Pietilä sees it, the classical field should delve more into improvisation.
“There used to be more improv a few centuries ago, where did that go? There are so many excellent improvisers around today. Composers and orchestras should take that into account when commissioning new pieces,” he says.
Pietilä combines classical and improv at two concerts in August with organist Pétur Sakari.
For jazz improv, there are rules and formulas, but I’ve gotten rid of those. I started playing free improv in a free jazz style, but then I noticed that it doesn’t have to be any certain style. I just want to play without genre.
The programme includes one new Pietilä piece as well as works by the likes of Bach and Rachmaninoff, embellished with improvisation.
“Sakari doesn’t have a jazz background but he’s a very skilled improviser, so that makes it interesting. We have lot of fun every time we play,” he says.
Rather than approaching each classical piece as one would a jazz standard, “we twist it around and find ways to play it differently, then go off to various directions. But the original piece still has to be recognisable,” says Pietilä.
“Improvising in a classical setting is different. For jazz improv, there are rules and formulas, but I’ve gotten rid of those. I started playing free improv in a free jazz style, but then I noticed that it doesn’t have to be any certain style. I just want to play without genre. But you still have to follow the same baselines like rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, dialogue and communication. You have to master them as tools to be able to play with other people,” he says.
Pietilä cites influences from twentieth-century European composers such as György Ligeti, Luciano Berio and Olivier Messiaen, as well as contemporary Finn Magnus Lindberg.
Ligeti, Messiaen and Frank Zappa are among the inspirations for Sonic Decode, a new ‘supergroup’ of multi-genre Finnish artists featuring Pietilä, drummer/percussionist Janne Tuomi and guitarist Raoul Björkenheim – who has recorded with Lukas Ligeti, son of György Ligeti and a noted composer in his own right.
“We’ve played a few gigs and will release our debut album next year. Sonic Decode plays composed as well as both structurally and non-structurally improvised music that points in many directions,” according to Pietilä.
At sea with Liberty Ship
Also next year, Pietilä plans to reassemble his daring free jazz ensemble Liberty Ship, its nautical name and album titles inspired by the skipper’s love of sailing. The band has had a fluctuating line-up since its 2013 debut, with two Norwegian members coming on board for its latest record in 2018.
In the meantime, Pietilä is performing as a duo with the group’s only Finnish member, drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who also leads the group Superposition.
The only other permanent member of Liberty Ship since its inception, Louhivuori has high praise for his saxophonist colleague.
“As a band leader, Esa gives a lot of space and freedom for the other musicians. He’s a very strong and powerful player – I think he’s unique in that sense compared to other saxophonists,” says Louhivuori.
We should first try to sound like an extension of our influences, whatever the mix of them is. But eventually you have to forget them and be stubborn enough not to sound precisely like anyone else.
Pietilä’s playing ranges from mellow romanticism to conversational storytelling through menacing drones to the piercing intensity of late-era John Coltrane.
Developing his own sound was a long process, he says. His first early influence was alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, followed by tenors John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Jan Garbarek, the latter a Norwegian who also plays in various genres including classical, ecclesiastic and world music.
“That process took me 10 years from when I was studying at Sibelius Academy. I was finally happy with it when I was 30-something,” says Pietilä.
“The route to finding a sound of your own is different for everyone, but it starts with analysing what ingredients could create a good sound and the timbre you want. We should first try to sound like an extension of our influences, whatever the mix of them is. But eventually you have to forget them and be stubborn enough not to sound precisely like anyone else.”
Esa Pietilä live:
Aug 6: HOB, Helsinki
Aug 19: Espoo Organ Night & Aria Festival (with Pétur Sakari)
Aug 26: Kuopio Cathedral (with Pétur Sakari)
Aug 30: Laulumiehet, Helsinki (with Olavi Louhivuori)