Iiro Rantala, former member of the defunct Finnish jazz supergroup Trio Toykeat, crafts long, sinuous tunes, serpentine in timbre and tone, yet accessible and guileful in their transitions. Nimble-fingered scaling and rapid, dual-fisted minor-key slams slip fluidly into chipper waltzes and Art Tatum-esque swing.
He hunches over the piano in a tropical sea-blue shirt, looking a little solipsistic, gently swaying his head, his body still and his hands galloping and jumping and thrashing and pounding, living entities full of vigor.
A steady three-note pulse occupies his left hand, a trance-inducing, almost minimalist little riff around which Rantala wraps a frantic improvised solo. (He signals the start and end of his solos by raising his hand, as improvisation is rare in Rantala’s performances; he’s proclaimed that “compositions come first.”) His feet stomp while he sings to himself with his eyes closed, and his right hand explores the gamut of keys, unleashing a protean hailstorm, never errant or erroneous, always melodic.
Rantala has worn his influences like badges of honor, or perhaps like bumper stickers tagging where his aesthetics and aspirations have ventured. He throws insouciant winks toward piano pioneers Bill Evans and Duke Ellington, as well as the mad maestro of fretless bass, Jaco Pastorius. His performance is essentially a history of jazz peppered with jokes (“I won’t be playing any cool jazz, it’s cold enough in Finland!”). He performs renditions of Bach and Gershwin and offers commentary between tunes, edifying the audience with simplified theoretical musings.
His covers (to borrow a phrase not usually used by classical musicians) are suffused with zest, but the Finish composer seems most vehement when performing his own material: the mnemonic, sepia-tinged “Americans in Paris” flutters by like a swarm of butterflies; the Jonathan Franzen-inspired “Freedom” veers from mania to meditation and back; and in “Thinking of Misty” the flurry of notes fires from his fingers like sparks from a powerful wizard.
Rantala’s compositions are like aural macaronics, mixing the languages of classical and jazz into something new and singular. The defiant bite and zeal of jazz pervades the restrained melodies common in classical music. Rhythmic washes bleed in and out of chaos. The songs build in intensity and mutate into combustible concoctions.
Rantala isn’t afraid to forego this affinity for bedlam. Sometimes he’s a fervid, one-man cacophony of focused energy, sometimes he’s as mellow as transient clouds drifting across an azure sky. He can make a vast abyss seem homey, but it’s the quiet, intimate moments that seep into the deeper confines of the heart.
Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.