Contributing something to this music that maybe nobody else could play on, they like it, and a smile comes to my face.

(Freddie Hubbard)

Tucked in the northern tip of Scandinavia, and practically a bridgeway to the largest landmass in the world, Russia, sits a rather calm and unruffled country of a population less than 6 million, and ranks as one of the most stable habitations in the world. Where government corruption is almost invisible, educational system highly admired, and SPA relaxation is limitless, Finland is said to have about over 3 million saunas for more than half of the population.

Not many know, perhaps, that Finland is also home to a very lively music scene. It surpasses its neighbors Sweden and Norway, for example, in hosting the greatest number of metal bands per capita in the world—approximately 53 bands for every 100,000 inhabitants. In the genre of jazz, like most of its Nordic brothers, Finnish jazz musicians sprouted during the arrival of American immigration in 1926. Although the word “jazz” itself surfaced earlier, before 1920, but because of the country’s traditional ties with German and Russian marches and waltzes, it was not until the 1920s and 1930s when young jazz enthusiasts could finally listen to Count Basie, Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington.

Today, a highly acclaimed trumpeter and progressive key instrumentalist has brought Finnish jazz to a loftier level. Jukka Eskola, a product of the prestigious Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, is busy trotting music clubs and jazz festivals around the world with his three bands Jukka Eskola Quintet, Jukka Eskola Orquesta Bossa and Jukka Eskola Soul Trio. He is marked for his lyrical interpretation and crisp rendition of jazz classics and his own compositions. Jukka also garnered the Sony Prize in 2006 and Pori Jazz Artist of the Year award in 2007. This year, he and his band have been invited to the Montreux Jazz Festival Japan, a project commenced in 2015 as a collaborative effort to bring Japan and Scandinavian jazz closer together. The Swiss Montreux Jazz Festival itself has been celebrated for over 50 years. The music parade is coming to the Nihonbashi Music Hall in Tokyo on October 12-14 with a red carpet of Japanese and international top musicians.

Jukka talks about his love of music and involvement with the Montreux Jazz Festival in Japan.

The Early Years

“Surprisingly, I come from a family with absolutely no musical background. The nearest musician relative was my uncle, who used to have a band in the 60s. His band was backing up some local singers, but secretly getting into jazz, and naturally The Beatles. But, the real push that drove me towards music came from my older brother Jari, five years my senior. He began music classes from the age of nine, and I basically followed his footsteps when I turned nine myself. He played the alto sax, so naturally I went for another direction and chose the trumpet just by coincidence.

My hometown Kuopio had three wind bands at that time, so there was an innate tradition for brass instruments there. From nine years old I played weekly in an orchestra, which turned out to be a real good school and built up nice routines for me. A little later, I started to get more interested in rhythm-based music and jazz, as opposed to simply classical style. There were a couple of decent big bands in my hometown that I really loved playing with. When I got a little older, around 15-18, I joined a few smaller bands. Since some of the band members were a lot older than me, I learned a lot from them. During that time acid jazz and bands with horn sections, such as Jamiroquai, the Brand New Heavies and Incognito where quite popular. I found myself into that kind of music, too. Though I played in some musicals at the Kuopio City Theatre, I still did not think I would become a musician, until I was 19 years old when I started to realize that being a musician could actually work out. I got a call to do a TV show in Helsinki as a substitute for the show’s regular trumpet player. Playing those gigs with that band convinced me that my quality of playing was rather equal to those of the professionals, and that was when I decided to give it a shot.”

Moving To Helsinki

“I entered the Pop/Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki, which paved the way for my serious studies in music. I diligently practiced properly for the first time in my life, and started to understand how to improvise and what it takes to play chord changes. Before that, I was mainly playing by ear and not really understanding that playing the trumpet needed everyday practice, just like a top athlete would do. I was immensely inspired by the great American trumpet players Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham and Clark Terry to name a few. During that time in school I learned to know a lot of musicians mainly in the Finnish pop scene whom I still work with today. In 2001 I got in the Jazz Department of the prestigious Sibelius Academy, which is a university level jazz school. From then on, my jazz career started to evolve. Twenty years later, I have released seven solo albums and have been featured in over 200 albums. I have also been travelling a lot around the world doing almost 200 gigs a year for the last 15 years. That is quite a lot.”

Finland Jazz Scene

“I was not exactly around in the heart of the Finnish jazz scene as I moved to Helsinki in 1998. But, as far as I know the scene has taken massive leaps forward. There has been a proper jazz scene in Finland since the 50s and early 60s, though it has always been quite a small community. Naturally in the 60s great American musicians came and played in Finland, and jammed with some of the local musicians who learned a lot from them. Some of those locals are still playing today, and whom I even have the privilege to play with. In the 80s the scene moved forward when the Jazz Department at the Sibelius Academy was founded, then some Finnish players went to live and study in the US. They brought the knowhow back to Finland and it has been an evolving circle all the time. Around 2005-2010, there was a big boom during the active time of Ricky-Tick Records and the Five Corners Quintet. We have been reaching out to the younger audience that has been luckily going more often to concerts. Finland at the moment has a lot of good jazz players, and more vibrant activity in the music field.

Nowadays I am involved in two jazz festivals as the artistic director, and in that work I have noticed that we are living in a good time, also audience-wise. People go to jazz concerts more and respect the unique live experiences. Let’s hope this era lasts, as I’ve noticed the trend can be bit wavy. Sometimes the scene is very hip even media-wise, and sometimes it is bubbling under a bit. Internationally the problem with Finnish jazz scene is still the fact that we are a bit far away from the rest of Europe. It is hard to break through if you are a young band just starting, as it is more expensive to travel to the jazz festivals and clubs of middle Europe. So, from the start you have to work a lot more for the attention and possibilities to play abroad.”

Next Step To Band Formation

“The first band I formed was Jukka Eskola Quintet, a traditional jazz combo with trumpet and sax upfront. Compared to the classic sound of this kind of quintet, maybe my band had a little bit more electric angle to it, as I had a Fender Rhodes electric piano in the band. I made two albums with that group, and even went to Japan twice. It was a good band, but I wanted to do something else musically, so I created a bossa nova-oriented album with Jukka Eskola Orquesta Bossa, a great jazz quintet topped with four strings. We played original material in bossa nova style, which eventually got me playing with a big symphony orchestra in Finland. After that phase, I thought it was time to get back to basics and I formed the Jukka Eskola Soul Trio, which consists of the organ, drums and the trumpet, playing swing influenced by the 50s and 60s soulful jazz sounds. It is a nice little combo with a big sound if needed. Our first album was released by a soul music-oriented label Timmion Records that was able to hit a different market. The new album, which will come out around the timing of the Motreaux Jazz Festival in Japan, leans again more towards Brazilian and South American rhythms.”

The Japan Connection

“Interestingly, there are some similarities between Japan and Finland, particularly in the audience’s response to music and musicians. Both Japanese and Finnish audiences are quite polite, and have a lot of respect for the musician. I think the Japanese jazz scene is unique in the world as it has hundreds and hundreds of small and comfortable jazz clubs everywhere, even in the smallest towns. We don’t have that in Finland. In Japan jazz music can also be heard easily everywhere, like you can hear John Coltrane as background music in a café or in department store, which is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. Music-wise the Finnish and Nordic jazz music somehow seems to appeal to the Japanese audience. Maybe it is the tiny bit of melancholic tone we have in our music that somehow speaks to the Japanese as well.

I remember my first trip to Japan around 2001 when I played in Tokyo and Osaka with Jimi Tenor. I wasn’t ready for Japan then. I was just a young boy just who had just moved away from a small town to a big city, so the metropolis life and the business related to that was overwhelming for me back then. But, the next time I went back to Japan in 2005 with my own quintet, I started to fall in love with the country. I think I have played in Japan over ten times since then, and realized it is now my favorite country in the world. The food, the people, the tidiness and the audiences all make that my favorite choice. I have also made friends with some Japanese people during the years and even visited a Japanese wedding and the SPA onsen baths. Great experiences! I’ve been to Japan quite a few times, too, to play in smaller clubs with Japanese musicians. There are many great ones, such as Terumasa Hino, Sadao Watanabe and the virtuosic Hiromi Uehara to name a few, and some good players in the grass-roots scene, too.”

Meeting The Montreaux Jazzfest

“Coming to Montreux Jazz Festival in Tokyo1 may be my first time to do a festival gig in Japan. I have always just played in the clubs, so this opportunity will be extremely pleasant. I met the head of the festival, Junichi Harada, when I performed with the Jukka Eskola Soul Trio at the Motion Blue in Yokohama. He liked the band and we discussed the possible performance at this year’s festival. This year also celebrates the 100th year of friendship between Japan and Finland, so it’s going to be monumental.”

Jukka Eskola From Here

“I feel I have basically topped all of my dreams that I had when I was just starting as a musician. I have been very fortunate to be able to play my own music with great musicians around the world, not to mention making a pretty good living with just playing the trumpet. I never thought I could do that when I was a teenager. I think in the next year at least, I would like to take things a little bit more slowly for a while and not do 200 gigs a year! We will release the new Soul Trio album and naturally do some gigs with that material. After that, I have some plans to collaborate with sax man Timo Lassy again. My plan is to go back to practicing more and doing bigger solo performances. I have a classical trumpet concerto written for me by Marzi Nyman, which hopefully I could get to play with the big orchestras. I also have a big band project, which will be performing with some Finnish big bands. In fact, next spring I plan to move to Spain for about six months just to concentrate on practicing and staying well. Looking forward to that moment!”