By Laura Palotie

Jazz vocalist Ira Kaspi and guitarist Peter Engberg have performed as a duo for the past eight years. Both academically trained (Kaspi graduated from Berklee College, Engberg from the Sibelius Academy and the Musicians’ Institute), the two add a jazzy spin onto a wide range of melodies, from jazz standards and original compositions to current pop and rock hits. Kaspi and Engberg host a monthly jazz club at Helsinki’s famous hotel Torni, play at jazz festivals and corporate events around Finland, and recently took their act to Prague.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Kaspi and Engberg over breakfast to find out more about their musical background and their reasons for paying a visit to America’s unofficial music capital.

What brings you to Salmagundi?

Ira: Jaana [Rehnstrom] heard us play at a jazz festival in Finland this summer. She was walking by and stopped to listen. I guess she enjoyed it, because she came over and invited us. We are really excited, because New York is such a wonderful place for musicians to visit.

Do you have any regular projects going on in Finland?

Peter: We perform once a month at Hotel Torni’s American Bar [in Helsinki]. Our gimmick is the idea that we invite pop and rock stars to sing jazz music. It’s something that people aren’t used to hearing. We do our own arrangements of their hit songs. Maija Vilkkumaa, Sakari Kuosmanen, Timo Rautio and Mariko have all performed with us.

Do you have any trouble convincing these singers to try out some jazz?

Peter: They are always really excited to join us.

Ira: Some even call and ask if they can participate, that they want to sing jazz too. A lot of these musicians really dig jazz as a genre. No-one’s said no yet.

Ira, are you purely a jazz singer or do you branch out to other genres too?

Ira: Well, I’ve mostly been labeled a jazz musician. On occasion I’ve thought that maybe it’s not such a good thing, but in the end my career has gone exactly how it was supposed to. Jazz is my arena, where I feel at home. I also sing quite a bit with big bands, and freelance a with other bands, so often I end up singing all kinds of genres.

Peter: Don’t forget to mention that you have your own school too.

Ira: Oh, yes, my music school, [called Rytmi Omena] in Lohja. I’m the CEO. It’s a school for pop and jazz music.  There was really a need for something like that in the area, because although they had a very good classical music academy, young people still wanted to play rock. It’s an institute mainly geared for children and teenagers–the average age is between 12 and 15–we have adult students too.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Ira: The challenges are entirely different in teaching kids and professional musicians. Professionally geared students have a very firmly set ambitions and goals, whereas with kids there is a kind of “off the streets”-mentality to it. Music gives them something valuable to do. But it’s also the age where we can discover those, who have professional potential.

Have you been to New York before?

Peter: I’ve only been to the airport, during a layover.

Ira: I got my music degree at Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1990, so I’ve been before.

How did you end up at Berklee?

Ira: As a child, I went to American schools in Brussels and Stockholm, and always had that dream in the back of my mind to return to the US for college. My dad’s cousin, who lived in Boston, sent me the application papers. Boston is a lovely city, so it was a fantastic four years.

Do you have any particular things you have to see or do while in New York?

Peter: We actually plan on recording a song here. One of our friends recommended Uptime Studios.

Ira: We wrote a song specifically for this trip, that describes the feeling of breathing in and seeing and sensing the streets of New York. Even the lights are different here; they are all trapped inside halogen lamps, whereas in Finland the light seems to come from the stars. We wrote the song in a new way too, where we came up with the lyrics and the melody at the same time, in the same space. We really enjoyed it.

So how do you usually write your material?

Ira: Peter usually writes a melody based on my lyrics.

What should the audience expect on Friday night? Do you plan to only perform original songs?

Peter: We’re also going to do some standards.

Ira: And also some of the hit songs we’ve covered as jazz versions with our visiting stars at Torni.

Peter: We recently performed in Prague, and it was so funny and unexpected when they said, ‘play something Finnish.’

You plan to come out with a new album next year. What should we look forward to?

Peter: We’ve always done a lot of standards, so this one will probably include mostly original songs.