Jazz interview with jazz vibraphonist and composer Ilkka Uksila. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Ilkka Uksila: – I spent my childhood days in the countryside near the city of Turku in the south west part of Finland. I’ve always been curious about music, especially rhythms. When I was a 6 year old kid my mom caught me lurking around the percussion classroom during Liminka Music Camp in Finland. She asked if I wanted to try playing drums and that’s how I got involved in music. Then a few years later in Turku Conservatory, I was introduced to vibraphone and I just fell in love with it. It felt like I had found a very special sound that wanted to resonate with me.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
IU: – When I was nineteen, I switched my 4-mallet grip from Stevens to Burton, which added more dexterity and stability to my vibes playing. I did a lot of research back then! The years I spent on mastering mallet dampening and figuring out different chord voicings that sound good on vibraphone were meaningful times as well. The other definitive factor of my sound is my equipment. So far I’ve made all my recordings with Musser M55G. In 2015, I took a leap of faith when I bought mallets without any recommendations whatsoever. They were Iñaki Sebastian’s VCS mallets, and I’ve been using them ever since. And of course, the music I’ve listened to has made an impact on my sound, but more about that later.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
IU: – I like to fool around with a metronome by placing the beats in a specific way. If I’m learning rhythmically even music, for instance, I could place a beat on every 2nd quarter note’s second 16th note. I’ve also improvised over the changes of a tune with a metronome, that beats once in 2 bars and stuff like that. When I’m going through new, more difficult material, I like to play it in a super slow tempo. That way I got more time to avoid mistakes and internalize the music. I know this is obvious, but it has to be said. Anyway, none of these methods are my own inventions by any means.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
IU: – I’m not consciously hiding nor denying my influences, which are aplenty. But I try not to be aware of them during the creative processes such as composing and improvising. That way I can at least believe that the music I make is my own. Actually, it’s quite easy for me to spot the influences in my music afterwards. What really matters in the musical process however, is the personal mixture of artist’s musical influences, and the attitude towards music, art and life itself.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
IU: – Listening to music, especially jazz and improvised music, seems to set the right mood for the performance. To me it’s important to avoid excessive rehearsing of the songs on the set list to maintain musical freshness. A nice warm up is good enough for me. I’ve also noticed that the chance of losing spiritual and musical stamina often disappears on the stage, when I concentrate on the other musicians and the music that is happening. I was recently touring with my friend, trumpet player Tomi Nikku’s band, and we had a chance to go to sauna just before the gig. That was a fantastic way to prepare for a show!
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2021: Uxila Exile – Songs for Harry S.Truman, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
IU: – The best thing about the album is the fact that it’s finally out! After all, the amount of work from the composing phase to the actual publishing of the record was enormous, though I’d do it again, of course. But what I really love about this album is the high-quality input of the whole crew. Everyone has done a splendid job! Currently I’m writing new material for the band so that the guys don’t get bored, haha.
JBN: – And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
IU: – All the other three members of Uxila Exile are my good friends, with whom I feel comfortable and relaxed. They are creative, responsible and proficient jazz musicians, and we’ve played together a lot. Yes, I’ve known these people for a long time already. Besides, there aren’t that many jazz quartets with a trumpet and vibes around!
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
IU: – Let’s just say that there’s no way that the both of them aren’t involved. But I kinda like this old saying in Zen: “When I first began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. As I trained, mountains were not mountains; rivers were not rivers. Now that I am established in the way, mountains are once more mountains and rivers are once more rivers.”
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
IU: – Since I’m an artist and not an entertainer, I think I can rarely give the audience what it really wants. But what the audience could get from me, for example is often what it unconsciously desires, I hope. The way I see it, the audience doesn’t necessarily understand that it secretly appreciates the chance to observe the creative process of the artist more than getting its wishes and expectations granted.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
IU: – When I go to gigs, I rarely forget the important stuff like mallets or sheet music. But this summer the worst happened when I forgot a necessary part of my vibraphone at the loading platform. I had to drive back 150km/h, which was way too fast, so that I could even make it back in time. That evening, I was supposed to be playing with The Watercolors. When I got back, the whole band was pretty stressed, we had no time for the soundcheck and the acoustics was super strange so no wonder we performed pretty poorly. Surprisingly enough, afterwards many people said they really liked our concert! A few days later I got a letter. It was a speeding fine.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
IU: – If you think about it, you realize that when people get introduced to jazz music from the 1950s, they don’t normally come up with stuff like ”Yeah I know this music, it’s probably around 70 years old”. It’s often much more straightforward than that: either they like it or they don’t. At least in Finland, a lot of people from kids to young adults are curious about jazz music and improvisation, which is awesome.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
IU: – I find it interesting that according to Wikipedia the word ”jazz” might relate to “jasm”, which is an obsolete slang term from 1860s meaning spirit, energy, and vigor. In my opinion, these ”big three” are often present especially in improvised music. Naturally, spirit goes hand in hand with belief, and indeed the artist needs to believe to be able to create anything at all. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about religions here. But should I dare to understand the meaning of life? No way.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
IU: – There really should be more vibraphones in the music venues!
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
IU: – Besides my wife, I find myself listening to vibraphonists like Joel Ross, Simon Moullier, Joe Locke, Bobby Hutcherson, and many others. Even though my gut feeling says there’s a lot to be discovered in the field of the vibraphone, I have to be proud of the craftsmanship of the vibes players in general. So much talent in the scene!
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
IU: – Well, here’s a little summary of what I wrote earlier about this album: ”Songs for Harry S. Truman takes the listener on a journey to the end days of World War II. The 33rd President of the United States, Truman, is on the brink of fundamental issues. What kind of values you’d have to have to apply for a position where inconsolable decisions about life and death will be made? How does it feel to live with these decisions that can lead to absolute destruction? The album reflects on the importance of love during different phases of life and attempts to show where the lack of it can lead to. The compositions deal with universal themes, such as love and violence, by using both historical and fictional events from near and far as examples. While the album is contemporary European jazz, it is also a message for Harry and everyone alike.”
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
IU: – I’d like to pay a visit to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s first jazz club in Kokubunji, Tokyo, in the 1970s. And I would definitely like to see live performances by the late jazz giants.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
IU: – What do you think of this interview?
The questions were surprisingly difficult, but I managed to navigate through them in a somewhat satisfactory way. This interview made me remember stuff I thought I had forgotten. It even pushed me towards thinking about the fundamentals of music and improvisation. Not bad!
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
IU: – Nothing’s really changed that much. I’ll continue to practice my profession and see where it takes me.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan