Iiro Rantala (Interview): "Everybody can be serious. It is much more difficult being funny."
Updated: May 10, 2021
It is the richness of classical music, the substance of its compositions, the brilliance of its orchestration that is a big part of Finnish composer and pianist Iiro Rantala's musical grounding. Of course, there's also jazz — its improvisational freedom, joy of exploring and sense of unpredictability. The latter adjective works well with the man himself. "I am constantly looking for new things that I haven't done. That's why my career might look messy or unfocused for an outsider. But that's the way I am", Iiro Rantala says in our interview.
Rantala is neither a jazz player doing classical music nor a classical pianist doing jazz. He's at home in both fields … and then some. Besides the obvious — being a virtuoso on his instrument — Rantala is also an outstanding composer, never short of strong, beautiful yet accessible melodies (take a listen to his albums "Anyone With A Heart" or "My Finnish Calendar").
There is one thing, though, that Iiro Rantala is definitely not: An elitist or jazz traditionalist. The famous Blue Note sound (the holy canon of jazz music for many) – has never had much of an impact on him, he admits. Sticking to the Real Book did not seem like his idea of developing his own creative freedom. Combining composition, improvisation and humor felt more like it. Rantala, in a very refreshing way, does not take himself (or anything else) too seriously. Much more so, humor and comedy is a formative part of his persona and work – which can be found in his own concerts, his YouTube videos, his TV/comedy performances or more recently, in his opera work.
Markus Brandstetter of hyperlocrian.com spoke to Iiro Rantala about his career, singing for the pope and Ronald Reagan as a kid, how Esbjörn Svensson helped him to a record deal, the unimportance of jazz traditions in his own life, how humor can save the world and why jazz should really focus more on its audience. Read the full interview with Iiro Rantala below.
What brought you to music? What were your early influences?
My early influence was singing Bach in the boys' choir. That's how I started. When I was six years old, my mother took me to a traditional and professional boys' choir called Cantores Minores. The choir's still going strong. So I started as a singer. It was a really profound hobby – I wasn't just doing it once a week, I was basically doing it every day after school. Sometimes we had rehearsals with only sopranos, sometimes with the whole choir, on Sundays we sang in church, mostly Bach. We also did many tours, we toured in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy. I sang in the Cologne Dome when I was eight years old. We sang for the Pope at the Vatican square when I was nine. Every year, there was a European tour. We also toured the east coast of the US. We sang at the White House for Ronald Reagan. It took at least ten, fifteen years to realize for me how good of a school that was. When you are six or seven years old, you don't realize those things. Singing Bach, those polytonic fugues. It was just fantastic training.
When did the piano come into play?
When I was ten years old, I got interested in playing in the Bach piano parts. I learned piano by myself quite quickly. The choir made me an accompanist. I started being the rehearsal pianist for the choir. I was still singing in the choir, but I started playing the piano more and more. When I was 12, I left the choir and just focussed on the piano. It was classical piano at first, but quite early I switched to Jazz. I was 14 years old. But I never stopped practising classical piano, there was never a period when I didn't do that. I've been playing both styles all my life.
As a choir boy, did you already envision a life as a professional musician? Well, it was fun, but there was never a moment that I decided: This is what I want to do. When I was 15 or 16, I simply realized that all my friends play music, I'm in five different bands and all my time goes into making music. But as I said, it was never decided, and I think this is the best way to do it. One day you find out: It's the only thing you can do, it's the only choice. Of course it's more relaxed in the jazz world. If you're aiming to be a classical soloist, everything is much more structured. You have a teacher who tells you: "This year you have to play Rachmaninov. Next year you're going to a piano competition". The path is much more planned. But I was just hanging around in music. It was always fun. I always worked a lot, but it never seemed like work to me. I played, and I liked the other people who played. It is more like a coincidence that I am a musician. I grew into it.
You didn't remain an autodidact your whole life, though – later you went to music school.
In Finland's basic school system you apply for a music class already in third grade. It's a normal class, but with more music. From the third grade on, I was in a music class. Later I went to another school in a suburb of Helsinki. I had to travel a bit just to go to that special music school. I was never a good student, though. In any school. In my first classical piano school outside the regular school, I never did the exams. Later on I went to the Sibelius Academy to study at the jazz department. I left after four months. The jazz department was all about teaching the jazz style of the 1960s, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock. The mainstream, the heritage of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I couldn't have cared less about that period. To this day, I don't like what they call mainstream jazz. It has no value to me unfortunately. Very early on I was listening only to new recordings, Chick Corea Akoustic Band, Chick Corea Elektric Band, Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, Steve Gadd Gang… I was always looking for personalities in jazz, not the mainstream. The Blue Note sound, the Verve mainstream sound – I never liked that. Of course I respect it. But I always thought in jazz the main idea is to find your own voice. That should be the principle in jazz. When you play Beethoven, it's written down and there's the tradition. But in jazz, the core is the solo. And the solo is the most personal thing you can do in music. You're composing in your head and making this music in the moment. I don't see the point of going to school and learning about something that was done in the 1950s and 1960s, spending three years trying to copy that before trying to find your own voice. I don't understand those jazz schools, even to this day. I totally disagree with what's happening there. I was a rebel in that sense. I wanted to have my own bands, write my own tunes, search for my own sound. And I'm still doing that.
Around the time you went to Sibelius Academy, you founded Trio Töykeät.
Yeah, we put it together in the school yard. I met this drummer [Rami Eskelinen], he liked Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Chick Corea and Michel Petrucciani. We just wanted to play that music. Then we talked the bass player Eerik [Siikasaari[, who was ten years older than us, into it. He was playing double bass. Most people around that time were playing electric bass only, because the influence of Jaco Pastorius was so big. But we wanted double bass, so this guy was the first choice. First we played Caribbean and Latin tunes. Then I started composing, because in my opinion we had to have our own tunes. Otherwise, we'd just be a cover jazz band. I immediately started writing new tunes for that trio. It developed very quickly. We worked very hard. We rehearsed every day, we were really focused.
You kept this trio going for a long time.
For eighteen years. One of the first gigs in Germany was at jazz club Unterfahrt in Munich – and the last gig was also there, in November 2006. We didn't announce that it was the last gig. But the manager of Unterfahrt, Christine, heard the rumors. She went on stage, showed the audience a C-Cassette and said;: "I got this C-Cassette from Finland in 1989. It was the first demo I got from Finland ever. I booked this trio and since then they've played in over 50 countries. This is their last night". She had kept that C-Cassette. I couldn't believe it.
"Okay, I'm here in New York and the jazz department sucks"
You also went to the Manhattan School of Music to study classical piano. What was that like for you?
The initial idea was to study at the jazz department. That was another disappointment. I didn't like the jazz department and I didn't like the head of the jazz department. I thought he was a dick and actually his real name was Dick. (laughs). He lived up to his name. He put me in the big band to play Glenn Miller. I have nothing against Glenn Miller, but I had already played Glenn Miller eight years before I went to New York. I thought: "I'm not going to waste my time on this". Then I switched. I thought "Okay, I'm here in New York and the jazz department sucks". I was trying to make the most of it and switched to classical piano. I had a really great professor there, Professor Zimmermann. We did Beethoven sonatas and such things. I didn't like that school either, though. I have always enjoyed the life of a musician. Creating music, having band rehearsals, trying to get gigs, aiming for a recording. These are the things I'm good at. But being in school, doing something that somebody else has designed for me, that has never been my thing.
What was Helsinki like for a young musician? Was there a jazz scene, many opportunities to play?
There was one aspect about Helsinki. There was a scene, but not too many players. I got to play all kinds of styles when I was very young. I was in a tango nuevo band when I was sixteen, playing Piazzolla – ten years before Piazzolla became really popular. I was in a salsa band, I was in a rock group, in a pop group. I worked with contemporary classical musicians. That was fantastic. When I went to New York I realized: Here are the jazz players, and they only know other jazz players. The classical players are somewhere else. The circles were much bigger. In Helsinki, almost all the musicians went to the same bar. All you had to do was to go there and connect. When I started playing gigs with 15 or 16, the word got around that there was a guy who could read music, keep time and play solos – and drink beer. In a few months I knew everybody and had a lot of work. I was always very grateful for that. If I had been born in Los Angeles, getting into a circle of musicians could maybe take ten years, and then I would be just in that circle. In New York or Los Angeles if you write film scores, you're the film score guy and only know the film score people. In Finland everybody knows everybody.
I am constantly looking for new things that I haven't done. That's why my career might look messy or unfocused to an outsider.
You always seemed to have fun to do different things. You collaborated with a beatboxer, played in all different kinds of groups and ensembles.
That is and will always be my thing. Keith Jarrett is known for two things: the solo piano stuff and the trio. Basically he only did those two things. Or a guy like Esbjörn Svensson, who put all his energy into E.S.T. I Knew Esbjörn, I tried to convince him to play a double piano concerto with me once. I thought that it would be refreshing for him to jump out of E.S.T. only for one week to play Mozart with me. But he was totally focussed on E.S.T. I am the total opposite of that. I am constantly looking for new things that I haven't done. That's why my career might look messy or unfocused for an outsider. But that's the way I am. I always have to jump into something new. The 18 years with Trio Töykeät was the longest I've ever stayed with a project, even if I did other things in that time. Now I have a focus of one year per project, and then I like to switch. If I do a mellow album for ACT, something beautiful, Scandinavian slow tunes, you can be sure that the next album will be something completely different. I never want to repeat myself or my sound. That's the way I like to operate.
Humor has always been a big part of your work. You hosted TV shows, you do comedy. That always struck me about your work: Your virtuosity has this lighthearted side to it. You seem to be able to take the piss out of yourself and everybody else for that matter.
Everybody can be serious. It is much more difficult being funny. At the same time a lot of serious people are quite boring. Starting from school, everybody's serious. That's the normal thing. Being serious and down to earth and sticking to the business. I've always been against that. It's much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. You start talking about your problems, tragedies, you make people sad. They feel the sorrow and the misery. Try to make people laugh, for a whole evening. That's a real challenge. I don't want to be the serious guy. If a young music student came to me and asked advice, I'd tell him not to pick up this route. It's not the easy route. When you're young and funny, that means many people will think that you're not being serious. They'll think everything is a laugh to you. They don't know comedy. It's the opposite. You have to work ten times more if you want to be funny. If you're aiming for a laugh, there's a lot of extra work behind it. In the first ten years of my career I got a lot of that. Especially in Finland where everybody's so serious. In Finland, I was the first guy in jazz to be funny on stage. There were a lot of musicians that were very funny in the backstage room – but as soon as they went on stage it was a totally different thing. That's the old tradition. Miles Davis being Bohemian. You need some extra courage when you bring your humor on stage. Funny things are difficult to make. You can be very serious, there can be a lot of depth in what you do – but also a funny side. Mozart had that thing: There's a lot of depth in his work, but the surface is funny and light. Anyways, I just keep doing it. If somebody doesn't like it, they can easily find some serious looking jazz player – because 99.99 % of jazz performers are very serious.
How about classical players?
It's the same thing. If you're looking for a funny conductor, there's zero. They come on stage, they bow, and then they turn their back on the audience. How about saying something, just a couple of sentences? The whole thing is so serious. Many people hide behind the art. They think that Beethoven is so serious, so I better be serious. Let's hide behind the Beethoven. Most of the classical soloists and conductors actually are very funny, but only backstage or in the restaurant. When they're on stage or doing interviews, they're oh so serious. But I just laugh about that.
Your YouTube channel shows that hilarious side. There's this video where you explain playing piano by saying "All you have to do is to play the right key until you get a lot of money and backstage sex with groupies."
(laughs) Yes, that is the real goal. Last summer I was bored and started this music course called "Iiro's Hotline". That was a fun thing to do. Humor could actually save the whole world. I think there should be so much more humor in politics, media, in schools, in everyday life. Our time on earth would be so much more enjoyable.
In the 2010s, you've signed with ACT music. Since then, you have released one album a year, starting with "Lost Heroes". Would you say that was a turning point in your career?
Yes, it was. Esbjörn Svensson gave me Siggi Loch's [founder of ACT Music] phone number. A few months before he died, I met Esbjörn at a festival. We had a chat and I told him that Trio Töykeät is over and that new trio is kind of over too, the one with the beatboxer. I just mentioned that I'm looking for new ideas and a new label. He strongly recommended ACT and told me to call Siggi Loch and go to see him. He died two months after that. I was really as devastated as anyone. It took more than a year, maybe one and a half years, until I contacted Siggi. By that time, I had a whole solo piano record ready. Not recorded yet, but the ideas were ready.
"Lost Heroes" contained your tribute to him, "Tears For Esbjörn".
Yes. Every song was dedicated to some hero of mine who has already passed. Now it's been ten years and ten albums. I think my main work at ACT is the first album and then the last album, "My Finnish Calendar". I think those are the main things I have done. "Lost Heroes" is the melancholic side — and on "My Finnish Calendar" every piece is a different genre. And it has the humorous side. The live performance for it is a mix between Stand-up comedy and a jazz standard – that was something I have been wanting to do for years. I have already decided that I will slow down on my record releases. That is my own wish. The label would like to have an album every year, and they have already knocked on my door during the pandemic. But I have already said that I need a break – and in the future I won't record as often. I'm not leaving, but I don't even know when the next album is coming. I will dramatically slow down my recording. If somebody wants to hear my piano playing, there are enough releases already. The first album of Trio Töykeät came out in 1990 — the last 31 years I have been focusing on what to record next. Now I don't want that stress anymore. I have negotiated that kind of freedom for myself.
But you won't slow down with touring? I might also slow down with the touring. I would like to see more classical projects in my life. I started as a singer, doing classical repertoire. After the New York studies, I did a lot in the theater, mostly comedy. So I have the singing, the comedy side to me. Now I have this opera coming up, I'm really into that. All these influences come together in writing comical operas. I would never like to write a serious opera where the soprano dies of leukemia. I want to operate in the comical opera, the heritage of the Italian opera buffa. There are not many composers who want to make this Napoli based opera, melodic and funny. That's what I want to do. It ims group work, but the group is not really big. First it's me and the librettist. Then it's me and the director and maybe the conductor. It's a different kind of work than being at home, composing jazz. If I get my foot more into the comical opera, I will do that more. We'll see.
Because you had just mentioned that your two big works in this decade were "Lost Heroes" and "My Finnish Calendar": I think you forgot a third one, "Anyone With A Heart". It's such a timeless and accessible, almost classical album.
Yeah, that's my third favorite! I should have mentioned it. It's like the middle of those ten years. That could be one of the most personal albums, that's really showing what my sound is. The classical influence in me is so strong, you know, I don't like the walking bass and the ride on the cymbal. It's melodic, there are improvised solos everywhere, but the melodies are the main thing. The violin and cello are perfect melody instruments, I like the sound and the long notes you can get with them. We had a really nice two-year period with the string trio. I had to push it a bit with the label – piano, cello and violin is quite unusual for Jazz. I had to convince them, but I'm pretty good when there's a little resistance. The Finnish "Sisu" starts coming up at me in those moments. I'm really happy that I got to do that record.
"Nobody wants to hear a flute solo after they have heard 'The Rite Of Spring'."
What projects were you working on during the pandemic?
The first thing I did, already a year ago, is new music for a play in Stockholm. It's a historical Swedish drama for children. It's in the main stage of the city theatre in Stockholm. The premiere was supposed to happen on December 4th, 2020. The second thing I did: I notated the sheet music for "My Finnish Calendar", that was a job for three weeks. I did the sheet music, so my publisher can publish it. That's the way it works: You notate it yourself. Then I started working with this double concerto for the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which is now finished. A classical concerto for violin and piano. It will premiere next January in "Die Glocke". The biggest thing I've done is a new opera for Komische Oper Berlin. It is opening this year, October 24th, 2021. It's called "Die Zaubermelodika", it's a sequel to "Die Zauberflöte". Same characters as in "Die Zauberflöte", but it's about what happens after. I worked with Finnish librettist Minna Lindgren, she wrote the libretto and I composed and orchestrated it. Then the chief dramaturg of the Komische Oper, Ulrich Lenz, translated it to German. It's my second Opera. I haven't done so much jazz – but I did some. I have a new quartet with some very young Finnish players. The drummer is 19, the keyboard player/singer is 22, the bass player is 23. Very young cats. The group is called called Iiro Rantala Flock.
You once said that classical music is richer than jazz when it comes to substantial compositions, but jazz music has the improvisational side. Why do you think that in the classical world the concept of improvisation is so absent? Well, I think it's because the material is so good. Nobody wants to hear a flute solo after they have heard "The Rite Of Spring". The pieces are perfect. Puccini, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Mozart, Beethoven: The material is perfect. It's so well written. You don't want to hear anything else. The material is unbelievable, unbelievable writing. It's one of the miracles of the world, how they could make such perfect scores. How the orchestra sounds, how the instruments blend. Puccini for instance, the orchestration is unbelievable. When you have material like that, there is a challenge for everybody in the orchestra. Nobody needs a solo, it has to be a fucking amazing solo if you want to top that material. It has to be a Keith Jarrett level solo then. There is also so much challenge to make it work, the scores are so colorful, there are so many levels. All the energy goes into making that work, 60 people playing together – or with Wagner or Mahler 100 people. In jazz, the compositions are much more simple. It could be eight bars of written music and then somebody blows a solo for twenty minutes. What I wish is that people in jazz would focus much more on compositions. And remember that not everyone has to be a composer (laughs).
So the perfect combination would be great improvisation and great composition.
If the improvisation is really good, you don't need a good composition. Keith Jarrett is a great example for that. Basically he was playing jazz standards from the Real Book for 35 years with his trio (laughs). Those are good tunes, but they're broadway tunes, AABA tunes. Stil, his piano solos were always amazing. Jarrett was a very promising composer when he was young, but something happened, he wanted to play standards. Nevertheless, he's a good composer. I'd say Chick Corea was the leading jazz composer. Especially in the 1970s and the 1980s. Also, Pat Metheny has to be mentioned, a great writer. One of the most amazing writers was Jaco Pastorius. Unfortunately he only did two albums, but you could hear that he was a real genius. "Liberty City" and "Three Views Of A Secret" may be the best jazz compositions of all time, at least in the top ten. It's so personal. He has got that Florida sound, the calypso, some funk, some Bach. Amazing mix.
What would be your advice for young jazz players regarding composition?
I'd advise jazz players to think about the audience much, much more. Jazz players are thinking about themselves and the band members. How the colleagues see them. They want to be in the jazz circle. But for the future of jazz I would think much more about the audience. How to connect with it. Do they get some kind of reaction from the music, emotional, sad or funny? Do they understand what's going on? These are the basic questions. That's why many people rather go to Beethoven's 5th symphony or Puccini's "La Bohème". They're sure that they'll have an emotional reaction. In jazz, it is is often unclear: Who is it for? Is it for the tenor sax player? Did the tenor sax player just do it for himself? You can tell a story in so many ways. Unfortunately there's this Bohemian tradition that jazz players should never explain themselves. That's why we lose the audience. Pop music, that's the easy way. You get it immediately, there's no mystery. Backbeat, groove, "I love you", "I want to love you" or "I want to fuck you". It's so clear. There's always a great show, they're thinking about the audience. In the old days it was the opera composer who was thinking about the audience, putting everything in the score. The performers could just go and do it, because the composer had thought it through for them. If the jazz players think about the audience more, it would be their advantage. They'd probably get more work, their albums would sell more, and it would be easier for them to navigate in the jazz field where there's lots of competition. I have said this for many years: This is something they should teach in every jazz school. You have to connect with the people. If you're in an orchestra playing violin, you don't have to do that, the material does that for you. But if you're a jazz player, especially when your name is on the album, that is something you have to think about. We don't need more boring jazz.
Find more information about Iiro Rantala and his various projects on his official website.
And make sure to check out records like "My Finnish Calendar", "Anyone With A Heart", "Lost Heroes" as well as the rest of his rich discography.