Electrojazz pioneer Tapani Rinne: Big bands, DJ scratches and yoga soundtracks

Saxophonist Tapani Rinne has blazed an electronic jazz trail with his group RinneRadio, whose next album experiments with AI. He also teams up with circus performers, yoga teachers, visual artists, filmmakers, indigenous vocalists – and most recently with ambient keyboardist Juha Mäki-Patola.

“I like working with directors, dancers, poets, circus artists, visual artists, ceramicists, yogis, scientists, architects, actors and so on. The newest project is always the most interesting. You can only judge how successful it was in retrospect,” says Tapani Rinne.

The saxophonist is primarily known as leader of RinneRadio, which has been splicing melodic jazz with electronics since the late 80s – well before the ‘nu jazz’ wave of the ‘90s. He also creates atmospheric ambient music, often on bass clarinet, including with keyboardist Juha Mäki-Patola. The UK label Bigo & Twigetti released the duo’s wistful, elegant Decaying Light EP in May, following their 2022 debut Open.

“Critics call our music ‘new classical ambient jazz’ or something like that. It seems funny to us, but it’s great that the same song can be found on a classical, jazz or ambient playlist,” says Rinne. The duo has been featured on Apple Music and Spotify playlists as well as the BBC Sounds shows Night Tracks and New Music Fix, Soho Radio and NPR’s New Sounds in the US.

Rinne, 62, was awarded a state artist’s pension last year, but shows no signs of slowing down. He frequently collaborates with artists from other fields, “mainly because I’ve been asked and because I’m a curious person,” he says.

One of my main ideas is the union of the organic and the technical, man and machine – Tapani Rinne

For instance, he has created sound installations for train stations in Vantaa and his native Pori on Finland’s west coast, as well as soundscapes for his wife Leena Kouhia’s ceramic art exhibitions.

Rinne has also teamed up with a wild array of artists, from Sámi yoik vocalists Wimme and Hilda Länsman to hip-hop artists Paleface and DJ Slow, multi-instrumentalists Jimi Tenor and Teho Majamäki, rock bands Nits and CMX – and the Helsinki Philharmonic.

Along the way, he’s earned a shelf-full of awards including Jazz Artist of the Year, back in 1992, and the coveted Teosto Prize for the 2011 album Mun with Wimme.

Besides 16 RinneRadio albums, including last year’s Balladium with Länsman, and several with Wimme, he has also released five solo albums since 1999.

“Not all of my musical ideas fit in the RinneRadio file,” he explains. “One of my main ideas is the union of the organic and the technical, man and machine. In my work with Wimme, there’s also a contrast between ancient and modern. Even in my solo bass clarinet works, I can sense the same.”

Watch the music video for "Blackhorn".

Big band member at age 12

Rinne started playing recorder at the Pori music conservatory at age 7. A year later, he and classmate – and future collaborator – Jari Perkiömäki graduated to the clarinet, which Rinne later studied at the Sibelius Academy.

“When I was 12, we got a new music teacher, Tapani Kontula, who co-founded the Pori Jazz Festival and was a great jazz lover. He bought used instruments to start a jazz band at our school. Jari chose the alto sax, and I was left with the tenor. Kontula also took us to Pori Big Band rehearsals, so that’s how I first got to know jazz,” recalls Rinne.

Rinne began playing with the band at the tender age of 12. In those days, the ambitious PBB was part of the Pori Jazz organization, whose longtime boss, Jyrki Kangas, “had progressive ideas to raise the band’s level,” says Rinne.

“Every year we had an American jazz legend who led an intensive training session, after which we toured in Finland and abroad. So I got a chance to experience the musician’s life as a teenager through musicians like Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Ted Curson.”

In the 80s, with the Espoo Big Band and the UMO Jazz Orchestra, he backed legendary soloists such as Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard.

Physically, jamming with Edward Vesala was like a sports performance. Mentally, everything was possible – Tapani Rinne

Rinne also experienced “a very intense musical adventure” for a few years under the influence of free jazz drummer and bandleader Edward Vesala, an ECM recording artist and a major figure on the European free jazz scene.

“He and his wife, the pianist Iro Haarla, had developed their completely unique musical world through their ensemble Sound and Fury. We practiced every weekday and besides that Edward coached us young players by jamming with us personally. Each jam could last 30 minutes, with the intensity rising all the time, just drums and sax. Physically, it was like a sports performance. Mentally, everything was possible.”

Vesala suggested that Rinne should make his own record, with the drummer composing and producing. Rinne came up with the name RinneRadio for the new band and album, which appeared in 1988.

“I’m still very satisfied with that record today. It was Edward’s brainstorm, but you can hear elements that are essential to the RinneRadio sound: a steady rhythm rather than free-jazz open pulse, strong melodies and musical colours,” says Rinne.

After Vesala’s death in 1999, Rinne continued to work with Haarla, collaborating on an album of Rinne compositions with the Pori Big Band, nearly 40 years after his first gig with them as a kid.

Watch the music video for "Here".

Machine beats, DJ scratches and jazz

RinneRadio was one of the first bands in Finland to combine jazz, ambient and electronics.

“In the early 90’s, I think RinneRadio was at the forefront of combining machine beats, DJ scratches and jazz, even in international terms,” Rinne replies. “Around the time of our debut, the first sampler had just entered the market. We started experimenting with drum machines on our second record, Dance and Visions. And with the first Wimme project, Joik in 1992, we hit the emerging ‘world music’ boom with the same kind of concept, mixing yoik and ambient landscapes. At the time, though, we just made music that we thought was interesting.”

I didn’t become a classical music professional, a traditional jazz player or a free jazz musician. From everything I experienced, I've tried to create my own source and be faithful to it – Tapani Rinne

RinneRadio’s sound has evolved along with 14 members over the decades, and the leader as the only consistent factor. The 2024 line-up includes Juuso Hannukainen on percussion and Aleksi Myllykoski on electronics. Rinne says the next RinneRadio album is in the planning stages and “will use AI in some form” – still trailblazing, three and a half decades on.

Looking back over his career, Rinne muses: “I didn’t become a classical music professional, a traditional jazz player or a free jazz musician. From everything I experienced, I've tried to create my own source and be faithful to it.”


Tapani Rinne on Spotify

Stream Tapani Rinne's tracks on Spotify!

Tapani Rinne: Grey

Listen to Tapani Rinne's latest album "Grey" on Apple Music.