Peela consists of some of Helsinki’s most exciting up-and-coming jazz musicians and revolves around the compositions of guitarist Johannes Granroth. They pull influences from jazz, funk and soul to a sound where improvisation, strong melodies, luscious harmonies and groovy rhythms play a major role. Their music is further enhanced by the silky, raspy and scatting vocals of Maja Mannila.

Maja Mannila is one of the most captivating singers of improvised music in Finland at the moment.
Here she performs at the Koko Jazz Club in Helsinki’s Hakaniemi district on March 7, 2024. Photograph: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

Seeing Peela live for the third time borders on catharsis.

The Koko Jazz Club in Helsinki’s Hakaniemi district was packed with people from 20 to 70 years old on Thursday night to celebrate Peela’s third album Notbad.

Okay. So they play in a jazz club, but is it … jazz?

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Yes. But not like it was played in the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s. In fact … the grooves are closer to the electric form of the ’70s.  Jimi Ahlroos’ sax sometimes nods to Grover Washington Jr’s sound, and that, folks, is fantastic, but when provoked he will wail and squeal the living devil out of that horn.

Yeah, yeah, so the music is some kind of so-called “fusion,” you might say, but maybe we should look beyond labels and just accept it for what it is: improvised music.

As the late, great flutist Herbie Mann once said:

“To me, jazz is improvisation—in any meter, in any form. It’s the end result that makes it jazz.”

Okay, old sport?

Johannes Granroth is the guitarist and composer of Peela. He is as versatile in fast solos as he is in soft ballads. Next to Granroth is saxophonist Jimi Ahlroos.
Photograph: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

Johannes Granroth’s guitar melodies and solos just flow and flow, sometimes hitting chords in rhythm patterns similar to the Swedish math-metal group Meshuggah. How about that?

We have Mikko Antila greasing the groove with congas, keys and vibes and an occasional cowbell.

Maja Mannila, behind the keys and a cardioid mic, works her magic. I’ve heard her sing at least five times now in various settings, and her vocal range—and good vibes—will cast a spell on any audience, and if you don’t feel it, you’ve had too many beers or passed out.

Oliver Karttunen does funky things with the electric bass. He plucks and ducks his head into his chest, pulling energy out of the ground and making the audience nod their heads.

And then there’s Severi Sorjonen, the 23-year-old drummer, who told the journalist that he started playing drums on a pillow when he was under 10.

“Later, I inherited the drums from Dave Weckl, who played with them in the ’80s,” Sorjonen said after the show, still brimming with energy as if it required Jedi concentration to stand still.

No wonder! Imagine being locked in the pocket of the groove for a couple of hours, hammering out solos with accents and rudiments so clear they would make Steve Gadd proud. Not to mention Mr. Weckl!

Severi Sorjonen plays with metronomic precision. His drumming is inspired by the musicians who came before him in the 1970s and 80s. Photograph: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

As I was writing, a certain melody was stuck in my head all day. It’s called “Don’t Touch My Pizza,” the last song of the set before the crowd brought the group back twice with their room-shaking applause. After the melodic “Liar,” Peela asked the crowd for a request.

“Ball Dance!” someone in the crowd shouted.

“Fine,” said guitarist Granroth.

And off they went with another banger.

Peela’s set included 11 of the 14 songs on their latest release.

The album’s titles balance playful themes like “Love Smoothie” with the aforementioned pizza song and “Liar,” sung by Mannila, which is basically about a person who does things behind your back and is afraid to tell the truth.

On the other hand, “Cross The Line,” which was not part of the setlist in Koko, was composed and sung by Granroth. Here’s an excerpt:

“You looked at me like I was something you’d eat for dinner / I knew I wasn’t gonna be a winner / Do I have to live with you chasing me all my life?”

Lighter lyrics in the smooth soul burner “Let Music Lead The Way,” a duet with Granroth and Mannila, balance the drama with an ode to the gift from above we call music:

“I’ll let music lead the way / Sing and play some every day / Just let music lead the way and say / It’s gonna be ok ….”

Peela is a Helsinki-based ensemble formed by an extremely talented younger generation of musicians who live and breathe improvised music.

While the group’s name is a play on words, so is the name of their latest album: it can be interpreted either as “not bad” or, perhaps, in Swedish, where “notbad” means “note bath.

The latter, referring to their refreshing music, is a rather poignant point.

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