One Track Mind: Jussi Reijonen, “Naima” (2013)

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John Coltrane’s “Naima” is very likely his most covered song, and for good reason. The term “tone poem” gets tossed around a lot in the vicinity of any pretty, graceful melody, but this composition is the epitome of that term, and the beauty of it is evident in every cover I’ve heard. That said, if anyone’s going to offer up yet another version of this song, it had better be particularly striking in its arrangement and mood to hold my attention. Jussi Reijonen’s take on it did just that.

Reijonen hails from the Lapland region of Finland, but he’s also lived in the Middle East and East Africa before obtaining a music degree at Berklee in Boston (he’s currently working on his Master’s at the New England Conservatory, also in Boston). He’s poised to release his debut album un next week, where he reveals his widely diverse influences from three continents, playing a regular guitar, a fretless guitar and an oud. un is often more Arabian and European in style than American, but for his only cover on the album, Reijon went with an American for the source. That doesn’t mean he plays the song like an American, though, and that’s a lot of why it’s attention grabbing.

For this song, Reijonen plays an electric fretless guitar, which in his hands least it sounds like a cross between a slide guitar and an Fender bass, and more specifically, a Jaco Pastorius Fender bass. “Naima” is a very spiritual song, but Reijonen found a way to make it even more so: he stripped it down and slowed it down. Bassist Bruno Råberg and percussionist Tareq Rantisi softy mete out a pulse at some unusual time signature (9/8?) and Reijonen plays that prominent main melodic line using single line notes played at about half the pace of the original, pretty much ignoring the faint beat from the rhythm section. The tone from his guitar attracts anyway because of it’s rich resonance and because Reijonen can freely oscillate around notes like a slide guitar. Utar Artun discreetly enters into the song going into the second verse, and he eventually plays the only solo, pouring out notes with delicate restraint and understated lushness.

The ponderous pacing and the lonely, angular feel constitute a large contrast from other versions, but Reijonen’s quartet nonetheless follows the original flow of the song. Since it flows so much slower, it clocks in at ten and a half minutes. The mesmerizing method applied to this classic Coltrane song makes it seem much shorter than that, however. The fresh perspective coming from a young talent from the Arctic Circle and other far-flung places of the world casts “Naima” in a different light, and the gem still sparkles.

un will be released February 26. Visit Jussi Reijonen’s website for more info.

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