FINLAND: Tolonen! - Jukka Tolonen
The guitar virtuoso is at his best on this album which not only shows off his skills, but his ear for interesting combinations of sound
Finnish jazz guitarist Jukka Tolonen has had a life of ups and downs, to put it very mildly. Starting his career in the Finnish prog rock band Tasavallan Presidenti (meaning ‘President of the Republic’), he went on to achieve popularity and stardom in his native country and in Sweden, releasing many albums with his band, as a solo artist, and as a sideman to various jazz and rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. International stardom eluded him, however, as various tensions within the band led to its split in 1974, just before they were due to go on tour with Kraftwerk in the United States, and he turned down the chance to tour with ABBA in 1975 not only because of the success of his solo career, but also due to the birth of his child. Eventually, however, his career declined, leading to a divorce which led his life on the streets of Stockholm in the late 1990s. His perennial drug habit and alcoholism worsened to the point where he stabbed his girlfriend in Helsinki after a gig. She survived the attack; he was arrested and then found guilty of aggravated assault, spending one and a half years incarcerated. After his release from prison in 2010, Tolonen has attempted to turn a corner in his life. He’s kicked the drugs and alcohol, he became a born-again Christian, released an album of religious music, and has ceased playing the guitar due to his arthritic hands. Now a pianist and occasional bassist, he has had some success in making new music and reviving his old band, Tasavallan Presidenti. But before I knew any of this, I listened to Tolonen!...
“This album shows Tolonen at a transitional period in his music in which the full-bloodedness of rock mixes beautifully with the intricacies and complexities of jazz.”
Tolonen! from 1971 was his first solo album, and it is a dizzying album that shows a musician at the height of their powers. Though he is often called a jazz musician for his later work, this album shows Tolonen at a transitional period in his music in which the full-bloodedness of rock mixes beautifully with the intricacies and complexities of jazz. This is evident from the very first song, called Elements, where it begins like a prog rock song might with acoustic guitars, pianos, and distorted guitars, before yielding to a blistering rock guitar solo that then gives way to another prog-inspired yet jazzy second half. Ramblin, coming in at nine minutes long, certainly is a trip around the houses, musically speaking, yet Tolonen’s musical virtuosity keeps the listener hooked, with jazz saxophone dominating the start, a gentle, melodic guitar solo in the middle, and a rambunctiously rhythmic rock closing section, that nonetheless is inspired once again by jazz drum beats and saxophone playing. The album continues much in this vein, with the five songs on the album generally being long and complex, almost like they were jam sessions that ended up being recorded (and who knows, maybe that is how it was conceived), frantically spinning from one musical theme to the next, and somehow making it work. It’s not all frenetic guitar shredding and jazzy high-hat drumming, Mountains is a marvellously slow piece of folky acoustic rock that evokes images of gentle rolling hillsides and dramatic highlands, while Wanderland is a return to prog rock, featuring the return of the distorted guitars and electronic keyboards. Tolonen then ends the album on the purest rock song of the album, the four-minute guitar extravaganza that could melt the face of even the stoniest music snobs.
This album is a really great one. It’s short, sweet, and to the point, filled with variety, differing styles and genres all expertly fused, consummate musicianship, and it is also accessible to anyone. It’s never too prog rock or too jazz-inspired for it to be accused of pointless guitar noodling. At its heart, it is a rock album with a rock ethos. But there is an elephant in the room. It can be hard to hard to separate art from the artist. Many of my favourite authors musicians, filmmakers, and actors I later discovered to have done objectionable things in their personal lives, whether it’s John Lennon beating his wife and being an all-round shit to his son Julian, Stanley Kubrick’s abusive actions on the set of The Shining, Roald Dahl’s vile antisemitism, or Dustin Hoffman’s sexual harassment allegations. All of us, I think, will have to reckon with whether that is enough to make us withdraw our admiration or actively denounce the work of someone we find reprehensible. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here, and everyone can make their own minds up. Tolonen’s brutal act of domestic violence may be enough to put one off his work forever, despite his apparent remorse and efforts to improve himself, and I would understand that. Nonetheless, it is also true that Tolonen! is a truly towering achievement. There are no excuses for his previous actions, but his subsequent ones do allow me to believe that he has been successful in turning his life around, and perhaps I am naïve but I do believe in second chances. I hope you decide to take the time to listen to this album, as the fact still remains that once upon a time, he was Finland’s answer to Angus Young, David Gilmour, and Pat Metheny all rolled into one.