If music is the universal language of mankind, then jazz is especially cogent since so many musicians from so many other countries are mesmerized by it–enough to devote their lives to this American art form. I’m particularly attracted to jazz from places such as Japan, Cuba, Brazil and even Ethiopia (Ethiopiques, anyone?), but I don’t know if I’ve really focused on Finland’s contributions to jazz until now. There are pockets of stunning jazz innovation all through Europe, everything from Jazz at the Pawnshop to the sublime tribute to Rashied Ali from Dutch bassist Joris Teepe I reviewed a few months ago. But Finland? Set me straight, Tuomo Uusitalo!
Pianist Tuomo Uusitalo has just released a fascinating new album, Stories from Here and There, billed as a “collection of stories from his travels.” This album isn’t flowing with brand new ideas as far as jazz is concerned, but there’s a deep and unmistakable dedication and love inside Uusitalo’s heart. This globetrotting pianist has gravitated to New York City as so many other foreign-born jazz musicians have, but his musical prowess was honed in Austria where he studied University of Music and Performing Arts, the “oldest jazz institute in Europe.” Since then he has played with many greats, everyone from Jimmy Cobb to Billy Hart to Juan Garcia-Herreros. He eventually landed a gig with The One and Only Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and started composing and performing with his own trio. He’s even toured with Postmodern Jukebox. His debut album, Trio, arrived in 2012 and went on to win many awards.
Stories from Here and There is Tuomo Uusitalo’s ode to wanderlust. He does live and play in NYC, but he also lives with his family in Riga, Latvia. His piano style is lively and upbeat most of the times, but there’s a lyricism at work here, a sense that Uusitalo is always thinking of the places where he is not and missing them. I listen to a lot of music from Scandinavia, and I always hear an undercurrent of sadness, an acknowledgement that today’s happiness is only a result of past sacrifices. I hear that in these 11 tracks. Tuomo Uusitalo has enlisted the help of like-minded musicians–legendary tenor sax player Chris Cheek, bassist Myles Sloniker and drummer Itay Morchi, people who have also played all over the place and know what it’s like to absorb all those new experiences and still miss home. This is an excellent, unified quartet.
While Stories From Here and There mostly contains original compositions from Tuomo Uusitalo, the covers from the Great American Songbook are also friendly to these themes. This quartet masters songs such as Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing For You (Would Be Me)” and Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” giving them the air of timelessness. It’s the final track, “Tonight You Belong To Me,” that really delivers the message of coming home and being with the ones you love the most. This is a poignant album, beautifully played, and a strong argument for admiring jazz that comes from faraway places.