Finnish-born, Brooklyn-based virtuoso, the go-to guitarist for acclaimed bandleader Brian Krock, seeks common ground between Tim Berne, Ralph Towner, Deep Purple and other longtime inspirations
On Displace, his latest album and first for Ropeadope, the Finnish-born, Brooklyn-based guitarist Olli Hirvonen introduces a highly personal, pathbreaking vision of guitar heroism. The virtuosic rapid-fire phrasing of Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell meet the complex compositional ideas of Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell. The immersive sonics of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields share space with meditative acoustic soundscapes that call to mind Ralph Towner and Oregon. Postbop and prog influences press up against Hirvonen’s years in a noise-rock outfit.
When Hirvonen mentions how much he digs Ben Monder, it yields an Aha! moment—not because he sounds so much like Ben, but because they’re both similarly complete musicians: technical masters who employ chops only in the service of good ideas; jazz guitarists who view rock as a great musical and sonic concept rather than an excuse to turn up. What else would you expect from a victor of the prestigious Socar Montreux Jazz Electric Guitar Competition who grew up obsessed with Deep Purple?
The full breadth of Hirvonen’s voyage comes into play on Displace, a quartet album with pianist Luke Marantz, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell. But rather than a pointed, willful fusion of disparate genres, Hirvonen’s mission is to meld the different music he loves—and yes, that includes not only Deep Purple but Iron Maiden too—as organically as possible. “I started finally accepting my different influences from back in the day,” explains the guitarist, 30. “I wasn’t consciously trying to combine everything. I was more just accepting what is already there.”
Among the most crucial releases in Hirvonen’s journey is his 2017 disc, New Helsinki (Edition), a work of cutting-edge contemporary postbop featuring Walter Smith III and Adam O’Farrill. Another is his auspicious debut as a bandleader, 2014’s Detachment, released the same year he toured the U.S. as the Finlandia Foundation’s Performer of the Year. Yet another contains ferociously ambient improvised noise-rock—the 2015 EP by Red Reiter, featuring the guitar provocateur Brandon Seabrook. Hirvonen, Kenney and Ellman-Bell made up the core of Red Reiter, whose intuitive rapport expanded to include Marantz on New Helsinki.
Perhaps equally important are his collaborations with the saxophonist and bandleader Brian Krock. Hirvonen is an invaluable presence in both Krock’s small group, liddle, and his audacious large ensemble, Big Heart Machine, as critics have noted. “Hirvonen again adds outsized blasts of electric guitar, lending no-wave flair,” DownBeat wrote in its review of liddle’s new self-titled record, which also touts Kenney, Ellman-Bell and Matt Mitchell on keys. “Hirvonen’s work on the guitar can stand in the front with more assuredness, becoming more of a fixture than a feature,” Nextbop commented in its writeup of the same album.
In some fashion, Displace is an amalgam of all these recordings, and a document of a still-rising generation of young, forward-leaning New York-based musicians invested in jazz, metal, new music and more—a clique of artists “who aren’t afraid to combine things and take risks,” as the guitarist puts it.
But in the end, Hirvonen’s music is its own island. Displace kicks off with “No Light,” which commences with a snowballing piano rumble and opens up into a kinetic demonstration of electro-acoustic fusion. (Put Hirvonen’s performance here alongside any classic early jazz-rock LP; it stacks up.) Sometimes Hirvonen uses his Fender Jazzmaster solidbody electric as Leo Fender intended, for plucking stout single-note phrases. At other times, as on the cathartic postrock of “Displace,” he taps into the instrument’s history of strummy, stormy avant-rock textures.
The noir-tinged rhythmic games of “Nondescript”—Ellman-Bell’s elastic mastery is worth a close listen here—leads to the Berne-ian through-composition of “Size Constancy.” “Faction” is a frighteningly challenging piece, spilling over with polyrhythms and knotty unison lines and shifting sections, yet it somehow doesn’t feel clinical. “Tactile,” which finds inspiration in Dave Holland’s writing, conjures up a mesmeric, minimalist bedrock, with rhythmic and melodic components layered on top. “Unravel,” a fount of pretty, pastoral acoustic melody and genteel Towner-esque arpeggiation, serves to cut the compositional tension elsewhere on the album. Throughout Displace, the band demonstrates deep listening and thoughtful reacting. While the influences might pull from all contemporary corners, the ensemble dynamic is undeniably rooted in jazz interplay.
Hirvonen started studying classical guitar in Finland when he was 9, which helped him develop an ability to sight-read that continues to be an asset today; in New York, he’s a go-to guy for composers looking to test out demanding new music. He received his first electric guitar a year later, and became enamored of Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. (In fact, one of his earliest bands played nothing but Deep Purple.) A guitar teacher introduced him to jazz in high school, and slowly but surely he became immersed in the music. His late teen years, as well as his undergrad tenure at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where his mentors included Raoul Björkenheim, were all about internalizing the bebop language, and he spent many hours absorbing George Benson, Grant Green and the like.
In 2011 he moved to New York to pursue his master’s at Manhattan School of Music, and his creative world opened up. He met many of the comrades he continues to gig with today, studied classical composition and electro-acoustic music, and discovered the thriving avant-garde. That meant the outré side of jazz and classical, sure, but also Nels Cline, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and other explorers.
After earning his master’s in 2013, he worked hard and smart on the New York scene and beyond. In 2016 he won first prize at the Montreux guitar competition, where his solidbody Fender and fiery expressiveness made an impression on the head judge, John McLaughlin. He’s gigged at some of world’s most respected venues and festivals, among them Pori Jazz, the Kennedy Center and the Jazz Gallery.
Despite such achievements, when he speaks about Displace, Hirvonen summons up nothing but humility. “I’m trying to be as honest as I can,” he says, “with regard to what my playing is and what my history is.”
released August 30, 2019
Olli Hirvonen - guitar
Luke Marantz - piano
Marty Kenney - bass
Nathan Ellman-Bell - drums
All music composed and arranged by Olli Hirvonen
Produced by Olli Hirvonen
Recorded at Figure 8 Recording, Brooklyn, NY
Engineered by Michael Coleman
Mixed and mastered by Joseph Branciforte at greyfade studio, Brooklyn, NY
Photos by Luke Marantz
Cover design by Andrew Neesley