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Finnish jazz pianist on motivation and life

Aleksandra Line

Tuomo Uusitalo: inspiration is a word for lazy people

Ņikita Kuzmins

Pianist, composer, arranger and educator Tuomo Uusitalo was born in Finland, lived and studied in Austria, then moved to New York, and is now based in Latvia with his family, touring around the world and performing here, as well as teaching jazz composition to the students at the Latvian Academy of Music. Having released three albums as a band leader, and appearing on numerous albums as a sideman, he has established himself on the New York jazz scene, and continues touring internationally both as a band leader as well as a sideman.

Tuomo started to play piano at the age of 6. As a teenager he played different types of music, from classical to pop/rock, and soon became fascinated by jazz and thrilling possibilities of spontaneous improvisation. While studying music in Graz, Austria (University of Music and Performing Arts, the oldest jazz institute in Europe), Tuomo already had the chance to work and perform with many jazz legends including Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Hart, Curtis Fuller, Jimmy Cobb and Jim Rotondi, as well as many other well known jazz artists. After graduating, Tuomo moved to New York City, regularly performing at numerous venues including NYC’s main jazz spots (Smalls, Mezzrow, Fat Cat, Zinc Bar, Cornelia Street Cafe, Minton’s Playhouse, ShapeshifterLab, Cleopatra’s Needle, Garage, University of the Streets, Arturo’s etc.). During his time in NYC he has worked with several legendary jazz musicians including Chris Cheek, Curtis Lundy, Tyler Mitchell, David Schnitter, Jeff Hirschfield, Johnny O’Neal, Greg Bandy and Philip Harper as well as many notable musicians on the scene such as Ulysses Owens Jr., Dayna Stephens, Obed Calvaire, Rich Perry, Justin Brown, Elliot Mason, Peter Slavov, Josh Evans, Brandon Lewis, Gerry Gibbs, Scott Tixier, Jason Brown, Luques Curtis, Tivon Pennicott, Troy Roberts, Russell Hall, Evan Sherman, Alexander Claffy and Kyle Poole, to name a few. Since 2007 Tuomo has played and toured all around Europe as a solo pianist and with various ensembles ranging from a piano trio to big bands.

After Tuomo’s concert we suddenly stumbled upon an absolutely empty bar in the old Riga neither of us ever knew existed with some sad pop music in the background. Then we got some drinks and began talking — what started as a portrait interview ended up to be a philosophically-practical talk about motivation and life.

Your webpage says a lot about your background. But who is Tuomo as a person?

It’s a hard question to answer. I’m not really proud of anything. I’m just happy when I stay focused. I don’t like to tell much about myself, I’m very Finnish in that way. My parents wanted me to play something, and the piano was an easy choice. My dad used to be a professional accordion player, then ended up doing lots of other jobs, but he still plays every now and then. I played a little bit of drums and guitar in my teenage years, but mostly the piano. It was the smartest thing to do — there already are enough guitar players in the world. When I began, I got inspired by Beethoven, and he is still one of my biggest influences, especially in a harmonic sense. To my knowledge, classical music used to have a lot more improvisational aspects, before the recording industry took that away.

Do you consider yourself famous?

No. It doesn’t make any difference. I got lucky, so I got gigs. Luck plays a big part in it. Once you devote all of your time and you work to your craft, you end up at a certain point, you still have to work on playing with people and doing what you love to do, and then things happen or don’t. Thinking about whether you’ve achieved something or not is useless, it’s a waste of your own time. Thinking you haven’t done much is as useless as thinking you’ve done a lot. It doesn’t matter, you just have to keep doing stuff.

Did you ever consider yourself doing anything else other than music?

All the time. Anything. It’s those moments when you are tired and don’t know what you are doing. But then the moments come you realise you’re doing what you wanted all the time, and you get paid for it — there’s nothing better. But when you’re tired and in a bad mood, it’s not that easy. I try to cherish the moments when I feel focused and see the bigger picture — it’s pretty cool that I can do what I want to do.

What attracts you to jazz music now?

When you dig deeper into the subject, you realise jazz is more structured than you think. You have total freedom in jazz, but it comes with a great responsibility to realise there’s a real frame around it. That’s very fascinating to me. If jazz is played good, it’s the most predictable thing in the world. That’s the language.

Even if it’s less tradition and more avant—garde?

Yeap. If you’re an expert in that, if you know the player very well, then yes. I don’t mean predictable in a negative sense, it’s the most positive thing ever. I think it’s very important to keep the tradition as the foundation of everything. Bebop or pre-bebop. If you hear free players who really know the tradition, they really sound better. They have the sense of melody, which is still important. It’s just the same with classical music — you don’t just start playing 21st century classical music, you go through the whole history, and you love the whole history. I don’t know how people can not like Lester Young, what’s not to like.

You’ve studied a lot, lived and toured in a lot of places, but you now call Latvia your home. What does it mean to you?

I like it here. I’m hopefully going to always travel, but my home is here now. It’s a very nice place to be, it’s easy to be here. Riga is small, but big enough to be a city — you get all the benefits of the city, but it’s small enough that you can feel at peace. In New York you can find some peace in the park, but that feeling isn’t long-lasting, you’re out of the park and it’s over again. It also has its beauty, I love the chaotic part of New York, but it’s hard to feel relaxed in this city — you have to get away.

And where, in your opinion, is Latvia in terms of jazz?

It’s all great. For the size of Riga and the country itself I think everything is really fine here, no one on the scene should complain about anything. If you want to have gigs, you have gigs, there are a couple of great places to play at. Money is not good anywhere in the world, so let’s all stop complaining about that. And if you’re doing jazz for money, or music in general, you’re on the wrong path. If you really love what you’re doing, you’re going to find a way to make it work. Good musicians, vibrant festival scene, people playing at some venues…

I think the amount of great musicians in every city is the same. Same positive and negative things as everywhere. In New York you have ten thousand musicians, there’s still the same percentage of amazing ones as here, the city is just smaller. I also really like teaching at the Academy here. People are devoted. And again, just the same problems as in any other school in the world, it doesn’t matter where you go, people are still the same in negative and positive ways. People are working hard here, and we can talk about real things here music-wise.

You’ve been a resident at «Smalls» jazz club — what does residency do to a musicianship, does it change the way you play?

That’s another thing I got lucky with, getting those regular gigs at «Smalls» for a couple of years. I could play whatever I wanted every week — it was amazing. My own opinion is that in terms of jazz there’s New York city and there’s the rest of the world. And it’s not the same. I can hear the difference immediately. The people in NY play so much and all the time. Not only gigs. My usual day in NY might be when I played at two different sessions with people from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., then I went to a gig or two per night. Here it’s really hard to find people to jam together, and it’s not just Riga and Latvia’s problem. People say they don’t have time to make sessions, and I don’t understand how people don’t have time. In NY people are doing day jobs because they have to make money, and they still have time to play a session and a gig every day. It’s more laziness here. Although in Riga there are people who are willing to play, which is awesome that it’s possible to get sessions together, talk about music. You hear it instantly if people do it or not. You can hear the difference, you hear if a person is doing what he loves all the time.

Ņikita Kuzmins

If your son comes to you now and says he wants to become a musician, how would you reply?

Fine, it’s cool. It’s no matter what he does, he can do anything he wants, but he has to really do it for 100%. There’s just one lifetime and it’s really too short to look for what you’re going to do for a long time. I think it’s more important to become an expert in one thing, and then do some other stuff later on. They always mention that ten thousand hour rule — whatever you do, if you practice that certain thing for 10 000 hours, you become an expert, but you also have to do those hours well. You have to use this time well.

How does that correlate to having a non-musical day job you’ve mentioned?

How much is 10 000 hours? If you practise a couple of hours a day, you get it quick. It’s all about time management. I’m pretty lucky I didn’t get to do many day jobs, I was archiving at «Smalls» for some time, when I had to pay for my college — that was computer work. And I still had time to practice and go to all the sessions every day. I’m not saying anything bad about people who don’t work hard, it’s fine too — everything is fine as long as we don’t complain. When a person stays focused and sees the bigger picture — that’s when he sees the meaning of life. You know that feeling of seeing everything clearly, right? When everything else becomes secondary.

I think I did. And I hope I will again.

I didn’t feel it for a while, as well. But I remember how it feels. And I know it’s there. I’m fine.

What does composing mean to you?

Composing is just improvising where you can fix your mistakes. For me, playing standards is way more fun than writing music or playing my original music. Other people’s music is more fun to play for me than my own, for some reason. If someone delivers your music not in the way you like, it doesn’t feel worth letting that happen, right? I have a specific way I want it to sound, and when someone else plays it, it’s not that anything’s wrong, it’s just not how I want it to sound. For me it’s more interesting to put my own self into a frame which is a standard or someone else’s composition.

While doing it, how do you find a balance between emotions and technique?

Technical part is nothing compared to making people feel something. Technical part is only important because it should not stand in your way of doing it. You’re smart enough to use your technique in a way that you make people feel whatever you want them to feel.

When does music come to you, when do you compose?

Sometimes I write if something just comes to my mind. The best way to write for me is a deadline. Leonard Bernstein said something like the best time to write is when you have a plan and just not enough time.

So the deadline beats inspiration?

What even is inspiration? To me, it’s another word that no one knows the meaning of, they just use it all the time. Talent is another word that I don’t understand. It means naturally motivated, not talented. Talent means you were naturally born with some gift — and I don’t believe in that. There are always abilities, being physically more capable of doing something better than the others, but mostly I think talent should be called «natural motivation». I remember one of my teachers always said talent is 2% and 98% is just work. I think inspiration is motivation, as well. I love it when it happens, but you can’t count on that, right? I’m teaching my students what works for me, giving them different tools, how they can start writing music. Somebody said your worst enemy is a blank page — but if you have a little idea, even if it’s a shitty idea, you go from there and you change that because you don’t like it — then you have something you might work with. I don’t like the word inspiration because I think it’s a word for lazy people. Fred Hersch, one of the greatest jazz composers, writes one tune every day, no matter what. He sits down, he puts a timer for 20 minutes, and he writes a song. He told me that most of them are never going to end up with anything, but he keeps writing. Sometimes they’re brilliant. His «Valentine», he wrote this tune in 20 minutes, and it is amazing. You do it as a routine. If you write music, you have to practice, you have to keep doing it all the time. Sometimes you don’t write something you don’t like, it’s fine, just ignore it and go on. That’s why I don’t like the word inspiration.

Don’t you think a composition every single day is forcing it a little bit?

Don’t you think trying to find inspiration is forcing inspiration? If you really want to find inspiration, just don’t give a shit about anything, just sit at home, watch Netflix and see what you’re going to find. You can, of course, go to the forest or use drugs or do whatever you want to get your inspiration. I think routine is a great way of finding it.

When do you say you’re satisfied with yourself?

Are you ever really satisfied with yourself? I think it’s fine when you say — it’s okay. And if it’s not, then you change something. Or you just don’t record it, you do something else.

Do the opinions of the other people, close ones or strangers, ever matter to you?

Totally. In good and bad. Should not really matter, but they do. It’s hard not to make it matter. If someone tells you you’re shit, even if you didn’t feel like it at that point, it is still going to affect you a lot. It can also be good, if you get your butt kicked, in the situations when you deserved it. Sometimes it does — when you get fired from a gig, and you realise it’s your fault, it’s the best lesson ever.

Have there been any occasions in life you regret?

Yeah, those times when I got fired. Although I don’t regret them either, because I’ve learned from them. When you realise that you were arrogant or thought that the gig doesn’t matter — which is the stupidest thing a musician can do, because every gig matters. If you say yes to a gig, you have no right to complain. Except if they don’t pay you what they promised or you don’t get fed or you have to play three times longer than you’ve discussed, then you can mention that. You still don’t have to be a dick about it, just mention it nicely. Those times I was complaining when I still did the gigs, and got arrogant about it — those are the moments when I think I was an idiot, but those things teach you. Now I think I don’t want to be that kind of idiot, because of those experiences.

What would you choose — live or recordings?

Both. Live concerts are great, but recording — you can go back to it. It’s really important to dissect things you really like. Same with poetry, for sure. Go deep into it. And the beauty is that if you have a poem, and there’s a house in that poem, the poet might not have meant anything with that house, but when you dissect that poem, it means so much to you, and you find a gazillion of different perspectives or symbols that house is. Same with music. You can just transcribe the recording and that’s how you develop yourself.

The beauty of New York is that you can hear live music every day. Brad Mehldau comes to «Mezzrow» or «Smalls», sits in with his friends and plays the whole set, and it’s unbelievable you can hear something like that happen, you can do it every night — that’s the beauty. You also hear them being humans. The recordings are edited and done perfectly, but when you listen to them live, you might hear people being humans and laughing about their own mistakes. Whom you thought was a god — hear him being a human. To me, it’s very comforting.

People don’t go out here in Riga. The best players are on every single session, you see them on gigs, you can see them in every place because they can do it and they like the music. There are a couple of students at the academy — I love them — they go out all the time and they try to work on their craft. And they don’t care that other people are complaining about the school or the scene. They can just be quiet and keep doing what they do — that’s why they’re good.

What’s the main thing that you usually teach them?

Try to stay focused. Work hard. Stop complaining. Be on time. Get stuff done by the deadline — it’s better that you learn it at school. I realised I lost a lot of gigs that I’d really love to do, because I was like my students — an arrogant kid who was late and thought it doesn’t matter. I thought I knew something which I didn’t — that’s why those older musicians never hired me. If you start behaving well when you’re in school and get your stuff done, that’s going to bring you to the work life easier — your teachers might be the ones who are going to hire you first. It’s pretty obvious. It hurts less if you learn it in school, not when you need the money and get fired. If they fire you not because of how you play, but because they can’t count on you. That’s how I treated other people at first — I thought okay, I don’t care if a person is an asshole, but if he’s a great player, I’ll play with him. Then I noticed: in NY everyone is great, so it’s more of that — do you want to go and have a beer with this person? Do you want to sit in the same car for 6 weeks, can you handle it? Especially on the road. You’ve got to be cool. You’ve got to be adjusting to new situations, when things don’t go like they’re planned. If you’re going to start complaining, you won’t be hired again — it’s hard for everyone and complaining is just making it worse. And that teaches you a lot about a human being, when you’re on the road with a person.