Nu Spirit Helsinki
By John C. Tripp
For a music project that began as a little fun on the side, Nu Spirit Helsinki has blossomed into a serious affair. In its three year existence, the Finnish collective of musicians, DJs, vocalists and producers have become leading members of Europe’s ‘nu jazz’ school. Getting to this level has been a growing experience. “We started out with a nice hobby, but now it’s more serious,” says Kallio, who for the moment anyway, is relaxing in the lobby of the SoHo Grande Hotel reveling in the fact that the record is complete.
Nu Spirit Helsinki are breathing a lot easier these days, and for very good reason. The long and arduous process of releasing their debut full-length is over and the fruits are divine. After a long wait their public can finally be treated to a fully realized vision and sound that encompasses jazz, R&B, latin and electronica. But like anything that transcends expectations, the record didn’t come easy as founding member producer Tuomas Kallio tells. Sitting in the lobby of the posh SoHo Grand Hotel with co-founder DJ Ender he seems bemused at the whole process of putting together a recording of such breadth. “It took a lot of time and it wasn’t easy, at least for me. There was a lot of things we had to do twice, like the mastering. There were a lot of challenges. There were things that didn’t go right the first time,” he says.Of course, this is par for the course in the music industry. But for something that started out as a little fun on the side, Nu Spirit Helsinki has blossomed into a serious affair. In their three year existence, the Finnish collective of musicians, DJs, vocalists and producers have become leading members of Europe’s ‘nu jazz’ school, resting comfortably alongside their compatriots in the scene. Getting to this level has been a growing experience. “We started out with a nice hobby, but now it’s more serious. The professional level was very different then. We just asked friends to play on a track we did. Which is nice, but it’s not like doing songs that are on the album. But it was a good start, it was pretty fun. It’s not that fun anymore,” says Kallio.
Working with over a dozen musicians and vocalists across the globe doesn’t make for an easy project, as Kallio will attest. “Well, the process of producing this album was really sort of chaotic. Just trying to come up with tracks. Basically, it was pretty much influenced by the contributors: the guest musicians and the guest vocalists. We sort of tried to come up with a track which fits into their style,” he said. The group’s toils don’t go unappreciated. The debut CD, on Chicago’s Guidance records, is a sublime tapestry of mood, substance and rich musicianship. It’s a milestone in the fusion of jazz with urban sensibilities and will serve as a roadmap for the future. With contributions from leading Finnish musicians and a range of vocalists and poets Nu Spirit Helsinki have bridged genres and continents.
And Kallio is very pleased with the results. “For me itÕs a CD. ItÕs something you listen to. ItÕs for the audience, itÕs for the people. I just wanted it to sound as good as possible so it was maybe the best studio you can find in Finland where we mixed the album. We have a studio where we recorded most of the stuff but we went to a really top studio to mix. In terms of influences on the album, the way it sounds the influences are more in the US for us. The Philly sound and the roots R&B like DÕAngelo and so forth. The sound is something that I really love. The techniques, using analogue tape is very different from this electronica in Europe.”
It’s a long way from their first 12″ recording, the deep house favorite ‘Take it Back’, which breathed some fresh air on dancefloors worldwide in 1999. That was followed up by the afro-beat and Latin groove of “Makoomba Breaks” and an EP, “Montana Roha Jazz”, that furthered their credibility as jazz artists schooled in the clubscene. For those seeking the floor-raising rhythm workouts of those singles the CD may come as a surprise. Things have been toned down considerably on the full-length with a much more polished, modal-jazz-meets-urban-flavor permeating. Think Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” or the atmospheric jazz of Weather Report and Lalo Schifrin set to a modern tone and one gets the idea of the turf they’re treading.
Considering the well-developed Helsinki jazz scene and the fact that Nu Spirit Helsinki members include some of the country’s top jazz musicians it’s no wonder they’ve come up with something great. “I think the thing that makes this unique is the quality of musicianship we had access to,” says Kallio. “There’s not many electronica artists that can work with such a level of musicians. Like Teppo Mäkynen our drummer and Jukka Eskola our trumpeter: they are the number one guys in the whole country,” he says.
It’s this unheralded musicianship that distinguishes Nu Spirit Helsinki. You can wax all you want about electronics replacing instruments but it’d be a near-impossible challenge to meet the quality of this recording with beats, loops and samples. “We have collected many different people and everybody brought some influence,” explains Kallio. “We wanted to do something unique. I have a musician background so for me it is important to be able to play the music live. The situation is so unique; it’s a great feeling when it works.”
If Nu Spirit Helsinki were simply another live jazz outfit there wouldn’t be all that much to get excited about. It’s by blending that live element with a big nod to DJ culture that the group have distinguished themselves. There’s a strong DJ vibe present in their music without being derivative, i.e. house oriented. And while Kallio represents the more schooled side of the collective, cofounder Hannui Nieman (DJ Ender) represents the club side. With DJing roots that span the history of club culture as we know it, Nieman has contributed to both the Helsinki underground scene and the collective. He founded the city’s legendary Club Deep, and his tastes in funk, jazz and Latin music have played a big part in shaping the Nu Spirit sound. Nieman is one of Helsinki’s most prolific DJs, with residency at Kerma and regular gigs across Europe.
Three other DJs round out the collective’s core team—Lil’ Tony, Eppu and Kasio. “We have a sort of music Mafia under our control,” says Nieman. “Two of our guys are running clubs there. They’re the main clubs for eclectic dance music. Lil’ Tony’s place, Soda, is quite a place. Everyone knows it and for that kind of music you don’t see such a fancy club in Europe. In London you get the very fancy places for the mainstream but for this kind of music it’s more like smaller joints.” It’s this club network that keep Nu Spirit Collective attached to the rest of Europe’s scene and give them a base. “It’s really important for us to have this home,” say Nieman.
Their other home is their Chicago-based label, Guidance records, a leading purveyor of new urban music. Nu Spirit’s relationship with Guidance has been long-standing and fruitful. And, aspiring musicians take note, it all started with a demo. “We just sent out some demos of the house stuff we started with. And Nigel Hayes, the UK based DJ sent some to Guidance. It was actually the first label that wanted to sign us and they offered right away, ‘let’s do some singles and an album,” says Kallio. And thus was born a fruitful relationship we can all be thankful for.
Official website: nuspirit.com
Guidance Records: 33rpm.com