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New Jazz Guitar Today Interview With NYC Guitarist Olli Soikkeli

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JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to one of the most active guitarists in New York City, Olli Soikkeli. Olli is equally at home playing gypsy jazz, Brazillian, as well as bebop.  

Olli’s artistry has graced the stages of Lincoln Center, Birdland, Blue Note, and Iridium as well as other great stages of New York and beyond.  Recently featured at Frank Vignola’s Guitar Night at Birdland, I posed these questions to get better acquainted with this young rising star.

JB:  Talk about when you started to play guitar and was it Django Reinhardt that inspired you to play jazz guitar?

 OS: In Finland, I started playing the guitar at the age of twelve, through listening to my older brother’s rock and metal records. I got introduced to Django Reinhardt and Gypsy Jazz through my guitar teacher Kari Pääkkönen. After a while, I fell in love with Django’s music and that led me to discover all other styles of jazz guitarists.

JB: Did you study at a music college in Finland?

OS:  I studied for one year in Helsinki but was already playing around quite a bit and visited New York City for the first time that year. I consider myself more of a self-taught guitarist.

 JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?

OS:  Rosenberg Trio Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival

This is the record that got me hooked on Gypsy Jazz. Still to this day that is some of the highest quality Gypsy Jazz playing. From time to time I go back to it for inspiration!

Joe Pass: For Django

I discovered this record very early on and it’s something I’m trying to reach! It is jazz guitar playing at the highest level! In the 1960s, Joe Pass was just pure fire!

Wes Montgomery: Full House

Wes is beyond a guitarist! One of the all-time great musicians in any style or genre! And what a band, Wynton Kelly on piano, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.  They are one of the greatest rhythm sections ever and then add Johnny Griffin just blowing the roof off!

JB:  Other than the instrument you would use, talk about what you do differently playing gypsy jazz as opposed to bebop guitar. 

OS:  It’s almost two different instruments. Gypsy Jazz is all about the sound and the touch on that special kind of acoustic guitar. Getting a good sound out of those guitars is not easy. I come from Gypsy jazz so when I started studying jazz guitar for real, I had to learn how to play softer and how to use an amplifier, use sustain that there’s very little on Gypsy guitars. Phrasing and the concept of group playing is also very different.

JB:  Tell us about your goals in making a recent album Lentement Mademoiselle?

OS:  We recorded that album during COVID in Finland. I’ve been playing with pianist Marian Petrescu since 2017. In 2019 we recorded our first album as a trio without drums, kind of like the Oscar Peterson trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. During COVID, I met a wonderful drummer Aleksi Heinola who was perfect for expanding the group into a quartet with Joonas Tuuri on bass. The album is pretty much the first time we really played together. Now we’ve toured with the album in Finland for two years and the group has grown a lot from that session. 

 JB:  What do you find so rewarding playing Brazilian Choro music?

OS:  I fell in love with Choro music during my teens after seeing a documentary by Mika Kaurismäki called Brasileirinho. I never thought I’d be playing that music myself but in New York, I met a wonderful 7-string guitarist, Cesar Garabini and we started a musical exchange with Cesar since he is a huge Django fan. There are a lot of similarities between Choro and Gypsy jazz with the melodies, harmonies, and the emotional feeling of the music. But the rhythm is what is very different, and it’s been so much fun and refreshing to explore and learn about that aspect!


JB:  You have performed and recorded a YouTube video with guitarist Frank Vignola.  Talk about Frank’s impact upon your playing.

OS:  Frank has been a huge influence and booster of my career in the USA. I discovered Frank through his work with Jimmy Rosenberg and fell in love with his playing. Also, the video on YouTube of Frank and Ken Peplowski playing Tiger Rag as a duo is some of the hottest stuff on the internet! I met Frank very early on when I started to come to the US and he’d hire me a lot on his gigs and got me playing with legends like Bucky Pizzarelli, Al Caiola, Gene Bertoncini, and many others. I’m eternally grateful to Frank!


 JB:  Tell us about the guitars you play.

 OS:  All my guitars are by the Finnish luthier, Ari-Jukka Luomaranta (AJL-Guitars). He’s mainly known for the Gypsy guitars, but I have two amazing archtops from him. I never met a luthier who pays so much attention to detail and always goes for perfection. I feel very lucky to have that kind of connection with a luthier who understands what musicians are looking for. We’re now working on a nylon string model together so stay tuned for that!


 JB:  What amp do you use?

 OS:  My “go to” amp is a Fender Princeton size amp with a deluxe speaker, custom-made by Tomi Kettunen. For New York small gigs I use Scheltler Giulia.

JB:  With so many wonderful guitarists in New York City, talk about how you carve out your place and make a living there.

OS:  Definitely moving to New York and playing Gypsy Jazz was a great help. There are not that many guitarists doing it and there’s a demand for that style. These days I’m lucky that I make my living by touring and New York is a home base and place to improve my playing by playing with all the great musicians! The level of music is so high here which keeps you inspired and practicing.


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