May 23, 2024

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Interview with Sonja Virtanen: Jazz is intellectual music, but … Video

Jazz interview with jazz alto saxophonist Sonja Virtanen. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Sonja Virtanen: – I grew up in Helsinki, Finland, and I started on the recorder at the age of seven. In addition to the instrumental lessons I also took part in music theory and solfege lessons and studied music history. This is a standard route in our music education system. I studied Finnish and Nordic folk music and my teacher encouraged me to learn music by ear and improvise a lot, and I think that helped me along very much when I started to play the saxophone at fourteen.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?

SV: – I ended up with the recorder as a result of the auditioning system at our local music school when I was a child, but later on got interested in the saxophone, and when I finally had the chance to start lessons on the instrument, it stole my heart. As a teenager, I wasn’t so interested in jazz music, but I was a big fan of the Rolling Stones, and loved the sax solos of Bobby Keys. Later on I was delighted to find out that also Sonny Rollins played on one of their records, Tattoo You, which I had always loved, before I even knew who Sonny Rollins was. I’ve been very lucky to have encouraging and supportive teachers, and each of them of course contributed significantly to my development. My teacher at the Pop&Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki, Antti Snellman, was great, he sometimes told me very bluntly if I wasn’t playing very well, but similarly, when he complimented me on something, I knew he meant it. His approach worked really well with me. At Leeds College of Music, where I studied for my degree, my teachers, Phil Chapman and Richard Ingham, had a different method from one another, but the diversity was wonderful, and I developed a lot during my time at university.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SV: – When I became very serious about playing, I studied the book by David Liebman, Developing Your Personal Saxophone Sound, and followed the practice routine outlined in that book for years. I still use many of the exercises in that book. I have always felt that sound is the most important aspect of one’s playing, and do spend time with long tones, overtones and articulation exercises still. I started off as a David Sanborn fan as a late teenager, but later on fell in love with the sound of Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker, and that’s what I’m still aspiring to. It’s a lifelong journey!

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SV: – As I said previously, tone exercises are essential to my practice routine. As for rhythm, I never play without a metronome, and these days I sometimes use a mobile application, Drumgenius, which is a fun way to practice scale and patterns with, for example. I record myself playing and try to pay attention to rhythmic accuracy. Recording yourself practise is a great tool, it reveals all sorts of things! I listen to musicians who I think have a great sense of rhythm.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

SV: – I’m open-minded these days, I’ll take anything that comes my way!

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

SV: – I’m ashamed to say that I tend to live quite in the past with regards to music, and should really check out more new music. Having said that, I really like the approach of Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia and what’s happening in the London jazz scene now.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

SV: – Jazz is, in my opinion, intellectual music, but it’s just a technical exercise if played without expression and feeling.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

SV: – I suppose any playing I’ve done where the music has just flowed in an almost unconscious fashion without me overthinking, those are always great playing experiences.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating through the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

SV: – Well, I’ve now made my living with music for 15 years, and at times it has been quite challenging. So really if there is one piece of advice I’d give to a young person wishing to make a career in music, I’d encourage them to really make sure it’s what they want, because it is a demanding path, if not also extremely rewarding one at times. And make sure you surround yourself with fellow musicians who will support you and vice versa, that’s really the most important thing.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

SV: – I really hope so. I think it depends on our audience, we need them to have interest in what we do.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

SV: – It’s definitely this current project with my own band, I’ve developed a great deal as a musician during the last couple of years.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SV: – Well, jazz isn’t just about standards, it’s a form of expression, isn’t it? However, I don’t think the age of the tunes is what puts people off.  A student of mine said she doesn’t like jazz because she can’t make any sense of it. It’s an understandable point, and is really a matter of education and exposure. If young people don’t hear the music, they won’t know what they might like.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SV: – I don’t consider myself a very spiritual person, but I try to be aware of myself, my actions and thoughts and how they affect others around me. Music has led a path for me since I was a young child, and I hope it’ll stay that way.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

SV: – Currently I’m feeling very positive towards the future. I feel settled here in Finland now; I lived in the UK and worked on cruise ships for fourteen years, so coming back here and starting from scratch was a big step. But now professionally, both performing and teaching, I have a busy schedule with exciting things lined up, which is great. Of course the uncertainty of making a living in music is sometimes anxiety- inducing, but I’m trying to plan ahead, stay organised and look after myself.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

SV: – I’d hope for less machines and computers and more musicians in the popular music industry. I have a fear that most of the people today are so used to the sound of auto-tuned, overproduced, dispensable music that the appreciation of real musicians and their skills acquired through years of dedicated work will be less and less appreciated.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

SV: – Oh, I don’t know yet, time will tell. Right now I’m just trying to become a better musician!

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

SV: – Yes, I think so, with regards to the improvisation and communication between musicians. But world music is such an umbrella term, just like jazz, really. So this is just a rough generalisation.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SV: – Well, I do tend to stick to the old favourites, Cannonball, Kenny Garrett, EST. I’m really into Grant Green’s funk stuff at the moment, I love the tenor saxophonist, Claude Bartee’s, playing, it’s so raw and instinctive.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

SV: – I play a P. Mauriat  PMXA-67R alto saxophone , Otto Link 6* mouthpiece with a François Louis ligature, and Légère Signature cut reeds.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go?

SV: – I’d like to go to New York to Café Bohemia when Cannonball first visited New York in 1955. Oscar Pettiford’s sax player, Jerome Richardson, was late for work, and Cannonball sat in to cover for him. Pettiford started off with “I’ll remember April” at a breakneck tempo to roast the newcomer a little, but Cannonball aced the solo and became an instant star. That would have been something to see and hear.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

SV: – What is the most memorable jazz gig you’ve seen and why?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Why? It was a Phil Woods concert in Boston, in the jazz club Scullors … and not only, very, very many!!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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