Juhani Aaltonen

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This Finnish saxophonist and flutist is largely associated with the fusion jazz efforts of bandleader Edward Vesala. Juhani Aaltonen began playing professionally in the late '50s and, by 1961, was somewhat…
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This Finnish saxophonist and flutist is largely associated with the fusion jazz efforts of bandleader Edward Vesala. Juhani Aaltonen began playing professionally in the late '50s and, by 1961, was somewhat of a veteran at the numerous dance gigs his fellow countrymen used to keep from freezing to death. One of his first professional jobs was in a sextet led by trumpeter Heiki Rosendahl. More serious matters on his mind, he began studying the classical flute at the Sibelius Academy, then came stateside for a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. At this point, he was heavily influenced by John Coltrane and was leaning toward the free side of things, as in free improvisation and free jazz. Berklee did not round this up to a threesome and offer free tuition, however. Soon after returning to Finland, he made the jump to the big city, in this case Helsinki. There he found plentiful work as a studio hack, but was also making a name for himself on the jazz scene. It was certainly the ground floor for jazz-rock and fusion experiments, and while American artists such as Miles Davis led the way, there was much interesting music in this idiom coming out of all parts of Europe, as well. He began a successful collaboration with Edward Vesala, in the beginning involving long duo sessions. Aaltonen blew in the jazz-rock outfit Eero Koivistoinen, also laying down his first creative recording tracks in his stint with the band. He worked with this group off and on for the next four years, but the association with Vesala was also going on during this entire period. A fellow Finn, the percussionist and composer Vesala was actually the younger man by a decade. Because of this bandleader's success at cracking the international fusion jazz market, these recordings remain Aaltonen's highest profile work. A recording with the big band of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis represents even further mainstream jazz identification, although the jazz-rock ethos made an impact on this band as well after the '60s. The recording does not provide Aaltonen with much soloing space, however. He recorded with Heiki Sarmanto in 1969 and 1972, and from 1974, concentrated his energy on his efforts as a leader. He released his debut solo album, Etiquette, in 1974. In 1975, he was a member of Helsinki's New Music Orchestra. The Nordic All Stars have of course called on Aaltonen, and he has worked with the quartet of bassist Arild Andersen in the late '70s and with the hearty German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Aaltonen nabbed a lot of studio work in the '80s and also toured Europe with Andersen, regularly appearing on albums. The UFO Big Band project allowed him a regular solo spotlight in this period, putting him in the company of both Jan Garbarek, perhaps the most famous Scandinavian reed player, and Charlie Mariano, a bop-era saxophonist who expatriated to Europe. In the mid-'80s, something of a dream for any musician came true for Aaltonen when he received a 15-year state grant, again allowing him to concentrate on his own projects. Spirituality began to be a strong influence and he began to perform more frequently at church concerts and related events and much less at rowdy jazz-rock gigs. In the '90s, he presented a remarkable solo flute recital at the Tampere Biennale and returned to the collaboration with Sarmanto. In 1990 and 1992, Aaltonen toured with his own quartet. "For me life is an ongoing school and I am an enigma even to myself," is an example of Aaltonen's philosophy as provided by the Finnish Music Information Centre, the enigma compounded by the Centre's assertion that this comment was made on the musician's "150th birthday." In 2000, the duo of Aaltonen and Sarmanto released their most successful venture together to date, the duo recording Rise.