TALK OF THE BARITONE
Rupert Howe, New Musical Express, 1 February 1997
December 6, 1996. The 79th anniversary of Finland's independence from the Soviet Union and, as far as the staff at the Finnish Institute in London are concerned, the perfect excuse for a party. And who better to entertain the assembled collection of bemused embassy top brass, trendy young urbanites and waitresses in bizarre rubberised costumes serving intriguing Scandinavian delicacies and free Finlandia vodka, than sparkling (his jacket, anyway) techno cabaret star, JIMI TENOR.
Born and raised in Finland, these days Jimi can only be described as a citizen of the world. In the past years he has lived, variously, in New York, London and Vienna. He currently has a flat in Barcelona, where he has been "staying home, writing songs, going to the beach, and eating excellent black sausage with champagne!" Yet the day after the Institute gig, he's straight onto a plane en route to Nicaragua to see his brother.
It's a hectic, hedonist's lifestyle which feeds directly into his music, itself a cosmopolitan fusion of jazz, techno and soul. And, while his two previous lo-fi works, Sähkömies and Europa (both released on tiny Finnish independent Sähkö) were largely made up of late-night jazz-infused instrumentals, Intervision, his debut LP opus for Warp, has a still more diverse feel. Modern mood music for urban interiors, it encompasses seductive ballads, rasping Iggy Pop-style electro pop and a unique amalgam of superfly '70s funk and New York house swing (as on the recent single, Can't Stay With You Baby).
"I think it's quite a commercial album," says Jimi before the Institute gig. "Although when I listen to proper pop music the production is always way more precise, it must be be ten times easier for the kids to go with that sort of naturally flowing sound. Whereas in my stuff the rhythm is sometimes a bit awkward and goes off sideways, a bit like a rabid dog or something! It certainly isn't flowing like proper swingbeat or R&B."
Much of the charm of his music stems from the way it sounds strangely isolated in our late-20th century digital environment -- romantic, a touch sentimental, all too human. Even Jimi's voice seems to strain to be heard, whether he's talking, whether he's talking or singing, while his lyrics centre around small observations and snapshots of everyday urban life: "Got to go downtown to get money," he croons on Can't Stay With You Baby. Even the idea of space remains an entirely interior experience (as in Spaced Out).
"Some experiences do come from my life," he continues. "Wiping Out -- it's obvious where that's coming from. And normally, the title is the lyrics! The isn't much more to it. I don't see why I should add any more lyrics than that. I get lots of ideas from reading books by (black thriller writers) Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. I've read them all, actually," he smiles. "Life in the ghetto, you know?"
Which explains why parts of Intervision sound like excerpts from long lost blaxploitation movies (a glimpse of Afroed hustlers engaged in a desperate search for that elusive dollar bill), building up to the sublime jazz odyssey that is Atlantis -- the album's closing moment and a sign that Jimi may end up abandoning orthodox song structures altogether and attempt an "experimental thing with a horn band". Even if other jazz musicians think the whole thing is an elaborate hoax. "At least, when I talk to them they say to me, 'Jimi, your saxophone playing is a joke!' But the official jazz scene is bullshit anyway, it's just like their publicity photos which are so clean, all silk suits and soft filters and shit."
It's certainly hard to imagine Jimi's incendiary live performances pleasing the audience at a conventional jazz session. The sight of him clambering up on his Hammond at the Finnish Institute, his head wedged under the low ceiling, one foot on the keyboard, is not one likely to be repeated on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. Even though his performances have been as important as the records in establishing his reputation.
"Many people like the performances more than the record and sometimes it does sound better when I play live because I can be a bit more relaxed. That's just something to do with my personality, I guess. When I go to the studio I'm a little bit nervous, a bit too conscious of what I'm doing. Whereas when I play live I don't give a fuck. Maybe it's easier to listen to a record that has been carefully done, but I like records which are quite improvised."
Improvised or not, the best moments on Intervisions suggest a more relaxed, intimate environment. Some of it is almost bedroom music, an updated version of Barry White, the sort of music young men once put on to get their girlfriend 'in the mood'.
"Well, that sounds good!" he beams. "And anyway, Barry White is a genius. I especially like the stuff he does where he doesn't sing, with really loud drums and a 60-piece orchestra going in the background. That's what music is about anyway -- all those repetitive beats. Quite a few people say to me, 'I used one of your tracks when I took this girl home and it worked really well. Had the best sex in a long time'!"
Although, of course, he's never tried it himself.
"No, I think with my own music it would be a bit too much."
Even Jimi has to draw the line somewhere.
* Jimi Tenor's Outta Space ten-inch is out on February 10, and the Intervision LP is out on March 10.
Copyright © 1997 NME