JAZZ / The cold dark knight of the soul: Edward Vesala, Finland's jazz maverick, rages at the world and smashes stereotypes. Phil Johnson ducked for cover

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The Independent Culture
The stereotype of contemporary Scandinavian jazz is that of cold music for a cold climate; folk melodies, keening saxophone laments, images of forest, snow and sea. In other words, the music of Jan Garbarek, the Norwegian saxophonist whose icy tone has, in his many albums for the ECM label, come to define a certain kind of doomed Northern Romanticism.

By contrast, the music of the Finnish composer, drummer and bandleader Edward Vesala - who began a Contemporary Music Network tour for the Arts Council last week - not only breaks the stereotype but smashes it to pieces. Here are evocations of the natural world, and beautiful settings of tone-poems worthy of Sibelius, but there is also disharmony, violence, sturm und drang-a-go-go, with the odd tango thrown in for light relief. Not for nothing is Vesala's ensemble called Sound and Fury.

Vesala, aged 48, has a critical reputation higher than that of almost any other European jazz artist. His 1986 album Lumi received the ultimate five-star rating from the normally miserly Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, and its two successors, Ode to the Death of Jazz (1989) and Invisible Storm (1992), rated four stars each. An enigmatic appearance - pony-tail, pop-eyes and Nietzsche- moustache - and an aversion to touring have served to increase Vesala's esoteric appeal; as has his dependence on a limited group of musicians, the Sound and Fury personnel, whom Vesala first taught in a music school he ran in Helsinki, then trained up to be his full-time group.

For Vesala, the Scandinavian parallels may be misleading, for Finland is nearer in spirit to Russia, and the dark night of the Russian soul finds its climatic analogue in Finland's winter darkness. The turmoil over the border has caused a psychic rupture in Finnish society. As an affluent, stable country with ambitions for closer European ties, the spectre of millions of impoverished Russians only 200 miles away in St Petersburg is enough to fill law-abiding Finns with dread. Some shops refuse to serve Russians and a tradition of benign tolerance is being tested to the limit.

Although he was not fleeing from the Russian hordes, Vesala recently moved his studio and home from Helsinki to a country retreat some 50 kilometres from Finland's original capital city of Turku. I met him at a rock music club in Turku late last month, where Sound and Fury were playing a gig as a prelude to their British tour. The maestro turned out to be a humorous fellow in a shell suit, speaking broken English that concealed an impressive idiomatic grasp of swear-words. His music, he says, comes from his life and the time he spent growing up in the countryside. 'I was 20 years in the forest and my music is coming from what I see, what I feel, what I smell. I don't have any kind of system: I write only of my life and of what is natural. This might seem nave but I am very serious.'

He began his career as a drummer manque, wanting to play but having no instruments and no one to play with. 'Before I was 21 1 didn't even know what the blues was,' he says. 'I had no record player and no records but sometimes I heard music in a dance-hall in the countryside, when they played tango. That was my first contact; but when I started to play, I started very strong. Famous European players start when they are seven years old and play every day, but now I think that my background was good. I learnt to be in the country and I didn't even hear people, I heard wind. If you want to copy, to be an American monkey, then it is different.'

He moved to Helsinki, began to play drums with dance bands and eventually enrolled in the local conservatoire to study classical percussion. He left after two years - 'because it was too slow. They said, 'Why leave? You're talented,' and I said that was the reason why I was going.' He played with big bands, classical ensembles and dance groups, discovered bebop via Charlie Parker records and saw John Coltrane in concert in Helsinki. 'It was a very big thing for me,' he says. 'I like very much this music. I feel its energy.'

He began to play free jazz, touring throughout Europe with Garbarek and other Scandinavian musicians and even going to New York to record with bassist Reggie Workman, who had accompanied Coltrane in the Helsinki concert.

In the early Seventies, Vesala first began to compose and he estimates that he has written some 2,000 pieces since, though almost all remain unperformed. 'I hate so much this hassling, this business, this money,' he says by way of explanation. 'Everybody is thinking money, nobody is thinking feeling. If you play the blues without feeling, where is the blues?' He manages to live partly through a stipend from the Finnish government, but his relations with the country's musical establishment is permanently embattled; he gets few gigs at jazz festivals because the promoters think he is too classical; needless to say, the classical promoters pigeonhole him as jazz.

He carries on regardless, working in his studio with Sound and Fury and collecting old instruments and recording equipment. The current vogue for analogue synthesisers is something Vesala has been pursuing for years and he's looking forward to cruising the junk shops of England in search of old machines with soul. In fact, when I caught up with him again last Saturday, he confessed that his experience in London had been disappointing, despite the success of a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. 'Here is so expensive,' he said, 'and in the hotel there is no sports channel on TV.'

Vesala on tour: Congregational Centre, Nottingham (0602 482626) tomorrow; Irish Centre, Leeds (0532 455570) Thursday; RNCM, Manchester Friday; Belfast Festival at Queen's (0232 665577) Monday.

Vesala's albums are on ECM

(Photograph omitted)

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