CAMBRIDGE — Jussi Reijonen learned how to handle culture shock at an early age. Born in Rovaniemi, a Finnish city on the Arctic Circle that proclaims itself the home of Santa Claus, he was transplanted at age 6 to the heart of the Middle East.
Several postal codes later — the family bounced between Finland, Jordan, Tanzania, Oman, and Lebanon before settling back where it started for most of Reijonen’s high school years — he’s added several pages to his musical passport.
Proficient on guitar (with a penchant for the fretless variety) and oud, a Middle Eastern fretless lute, Reijonen released a debut album this year that shows off his distinctive, jazz-laced synthesis of influences.
Jussi Reijonen: un
Partly, it’s his stab at musical autobiography.
“My childhood had so many different cultures,” says Reijonen, now 32, “that it took me quite a long time to process all of that. And just on a personality level, to find out more about who I am and where do I come from and what is my own culture and all that — I think much of the figuring out happened through the music. And it’s still happening through the music.”
‘It’s nice to see people with their eyes closed at gigs, just really letting this meditative kind of a state happen. I like that kind of thing myself.’
His father’s job as a telecommunications consultant triggered the globetrotting. Reijonen’s initial transition to Jordan was complicated by his enrollment at an English-language school before he spoke a word of it. But he soon made a habit of learning new languages, musical and otherwise.
His album “un” incorporates scales sourced from Arabic music and rhythmic patterns borrowed from North African and South Indian folk styles, among other influences. While the rhythmically complex “Serpentine” has the upbeat lift of Moroccan gnawa music and dashes of flamenco, the record is suffused with a calm, meditative aesthetic that Reijonen traces back to northern Finland.
Indeed, despite its varied inspirations, Reijonen’s music is markedly uncluttered. It feels powered not by the equatorial heat, but the rosy, sunset glint of light on ice.
“He has a great sense of space and timing in his music. And he is very patient with his compositions. He’s not afraid of developing things very slowly,” says Bruno Råberg, a former professor of Reijonen’s who plays bass in his band, “which is kind of rare, these days. It’s nice to play music that is more meditative.”
Råberg, pianist Utar Artun, and percussionist Tareq Rantisi will back Reijonen for his gig at Lilypad on Friday.
Reijonen speaks in a low, deliberate tone that seems to reflect his methodical approach to music and his openness to quiet spaces. On an album launch tour in Finland this winter and assorted stateside shows since, he was happy to see audiences easing into his tranquil pace.
“It’s nice to see people with their eyes closed at gigs, just really letting this meditative kind of a state happen. I like that kind of thing myself,” he says. “I think I’m quite calm as a person, so it just started to settle a bit into this more open, slower, pace. I like space, atmosphere, states of being, states of sound.”
He remained self-taught until his early 20s, when he launched a concerted effort to sort through the various kinds of music he came across while growing up, and learn from masters. A backpacking trip to Morocco yielded his first oud, and he later traveled to Beirut to take lessons with Ziyad Sahhab, an ace on the instrument. Somehow, it makes sense that he also spent a year studying theoretical physics before landing on music as a full-time pursuit and career.
Reijonen worked various jazz and rock gigs in Helsinki, where music teachers insisted he master bebop first before daring to branch out to other styles, he recalls. It was only when he came to the United States in 2008 to study at Berklee College of Music (he’s since wrapped up his undergrad studies there, and just added a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory) that he could further advance his ambitions as an instrumentalist and composer.
“I think the whole east/west thing is just really wide open,” remarks David Fiuczynski, who’s explored multicultural fusion with Hasidic New Wave and other groups and was one of Reijonen’s professors at Berklee. “I’ve done a lot of New York ‘downtown’ stuff where they mix different styles from different regions, but it’s very much a Western thing of just absorbing a few elements. This is not the case with Jussi. He’s very serious, very thorough, and the results are very beautiful and powerful.”
Unsurprisingly, now that his academic studies are completed and his debut album is released, Reijonen is considering another move.
“I don’t feel 100 percent Finnish, although ethnically I am,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a contradiction because part of me really misses having roots and a sense of home. And the other part of me gets very restless when I’m in one place for very long.”
He’s tempted to try New York City, though isn’t sure how his style would mesh with the pace there. Maybe Paris, he suggests.
“I’m pretty much prepared to go anywhere where the music is good.”