By Laura Palotie
Valentine’s Day (known as ‘Friendship Day’ in Finland) will get off to an early start this evening at 7 p.m., when one of the most influential figures in Finnish jazz gives a celebratory concert at the Salmagundi Club. A pianist and composer whose career spans to the early 1960s, Heikki Sarmanto got his training at the Sibelius Academy and the Berklee College of Music, and over the past four decades has premiered his works at venues like Carnegie Hall and the Finnish National Opera.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to chat with Sarmanto about his career, his recent projects, and his insights into the state of jazz music today.
You studied at Boston-based Berklee College of Music in the '60s. What were some of your first impressions of the U.S., and how did your time at Berklee shape the direction of your career?
It was a fantastic experience, and influenced my music, my way of thinking, and my worldview in remarkable ways. In terms of its musical offerings, Boston is an incredibly international place. The local universities attract students from around the world, and there are artists from different fields, not just from music. I had a band during my time in Boston, and some of those recordings have just made their way to the U.S. One, entitled ‘Boston Date’ recently got a good review on All About Jazz. Imagine it, 40 years later. So like I said, my time in Boston was very important to me as a musician, it allowed me to form fantastic relationships with other artists—musical contacts that remain to this day. And it wasn’t just with fellow Berklee students; I studied piano privately with Margareth Chaloff, a legendary teacher.
How would you describe the '60s jazz world, as opposed to the scene today?
Art in the '60s and ’70s was very progressive, forward-thinking and liberal. These days we are living in relatively conservative times in terms of jazz. The “mass production”-side of jazz music has progressed in a significant way. There are numerous institutions that produce skilled musicians on an assembly line of sorts, but individuality is currently a rare phenomenon.
How do you, as a composer, move against this trend of so-called “mass production”?
I don’t know if I have to go against it per say, I’m just being myself. I’m a product of a particular time period, and musical trends that happened then are still considered very modern and avant-garde today.
How about the state of Finnish jazz specifically? How would you describe it?
It’s exactly like I said. We train tremendous amounts of skilled individuals. The technical and theoretical skill level among today’s musicians is currently very high, and in general we are living in a very technical age. If you think about it, in all professions we are spending a lot of time staring at computer monitors.
You travel a fair bit between Finland and the U.S., and maintain close collaborative relationships on both continents. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between European and American jazz traditions?
The U.S. is the country of origin for jazz, which creates huge differences. But jazz also takes its strength from discovering remote locations like Finland. There’s a degree of artistic tension these days between Europe and the U.S., with Europeans saying “we can do the same things here and we can be better.” It can be fun to adapt this attitude, but you can’t take it too seriously. And on the other hand, because jazz has spread like wildfire around the world, there’s also a degree of ‘America-imitation’ in Europe, in which local musicians copy their American role models. In the end, everyone creates the kind of music they want to create, and there’s no use getting competitive about who is better.
Where do you spend most of your time?
Mostly in Finland, but I might find myself spending more time here in the future. I see a lot of American qualities in myself actually, so when I go to Helsinki, I often feel like a visitor. I have a lot of colleagues and collaborators here, for example, and I frequently perform new works by American composers.
What should the audience expect to hear at this Thursday’s concert?
I’ll be playing my own compositions, of course, including a new piece called ‘All About You.’ I’ll also be premiering a series of jazz pieces by an American composer named Laura Clayton, whom I studied with in Boston in the ’60s. She’s a notable composer who, among other things, won the ISCM [International Society for Contemporary Music] award. She was also recently commissioned to write a piece for the American Composers’ Orchestra. You never know, maybe I’ll throw in my own arrangement of a Chopin composition or a Finnish folk song into my repertoire as well.