Teemu Kekkonen, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

The spark to pursue music happened quite early on in my life. My father is an amateur musician, he played a bit of the keys and we had an electric keyboard at home. It had this drum machine that played all kinds of styles, like swing and tango, which I liked to listen and dance to. Each key had a different sound, it felt magical.

The first conscious thought of doing music as a career happened around 8 or 9 years old. I was waiting for my piano or band lesson to start at Kuopio conservatory, seeing musicians hanging out, talking about their favourite records. I just loved that kind of a hang and wanted to be part of it. My band teacher Lemmy used to stroll along this one long corridor and play the bass guitar while it was hanging around his neck. He is a very tall man and at the time I was a short kid so he looked colossal. I wanted to be as cool as him, so I had to become a musician! 🙂

Later when I discovered the music of jazz pianist Chick Corea at the age of 13 and found out one could make a living by performing one’s own music, that’s when I knew what I wanted to do.

Bobby McFerrin & the Chick Corea – Armando’s Rhumba #2

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Number one is my parents. They never forced me in any direction but they did encourage me to apply to the conservatory and were always supportive of my interest in music. Also a big early influence was my piano teacher Mikko Pasanen at the Kuopio Conservatory. He brought a wide variety of music for me to learn. We played jazz standards, Mozart, popular dance music styles… I was reading sheet music and he emphasised details. He encouraged me to improvise and never said this or that style is better than the other. That open-minded attitude really stayed with me. Also, playing in bands from age 9 with good guidance was important in my development both as a musician and a person. 

In high school I made new friends who introduced me to new music. We played together and learned a lot from each other. Those years really shaped my musical life for the better. 

Later in my early 20s I saw many of my favourite artists live: Corea, Brad Mehldau, Santana, Dream Theater (I was deep into progressive metal in my teens). Being accepted to study in Helsinki and Amsterdam Conservatories were all big in affirming the decision to keep pursuing a career in music. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge of my career so far has been myself. I was a shy kid and in many ways it carried on to my adulthood in the form of self-doubt and harsh self-criticism. Through my 20s it caused me to miss opportunities and not give my 100% to music. After an intense study period and years of not being kind to myself, I had a burn-out in 2013. I didn’t touch the piano unless I had to. For about 3 years I couldn’t enjoy playing music. I probably truly got over it somewhere in 2018. Now it’s all good. I’m still learning to be better towards myself. External things like trying to book shows, time management, money matters are definitely challenging but part of the business side of music. If my mental health is good, I can handle them.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

The recording I’m most proud of is my debut album Here/There (self-released Sep 16 2022). Putting it together has been a lengthy process. The first track on the album is also the oldest, the ‘Here’ part of the title track (composed in 2012). The ‘There’ part came together in 2018. The newest tune Endless Joy came to life only a few days before we went to the studio. I’m proud of the way the tunes fit together, even when there are so many years between them. I feel the album represents my playing and compositional style well. 

Any performance where I can forget myself and be totally absorbed in the music and the moment is the one I’m most proud of. 

Teemu Kekkonen – YouTube

What do you do offstage that provides inspiration on stage?

Hearing any music that moves me in some way, seeing a show that makes me go ‘wow, it would be cool to incorporate that in my art’. I enjoy exercising, cycling and running in nature or along the Amsterdam canals. Seeing visual art, watching films. Cooking vegan food with friends and family. Hearing interesting stories, meeting new people. All those things are soul food for me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having a goal, a vision and fulfilling it. It can be any goal. For me a recent success was releasing my debut album. The next success I would like to have is performing the music to audiences!

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

Believe in your heart and the calling you hear. 

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

I feel we tend to shy away from talking about health, both physical and mental. It’s a very sensitive topic. I’m not referring to talking about what illnesses one might have. I see many musicians (myself included) pick up unhealthy habits which in the short term seem to bring ease to the stresses of being a musician, but in the long term wreck havoc. I used to struggle with back pain which was caused by too much sitting and not enough exercise. After picking up a regular exercise routine I don’t struggle with it anymore. Also cleaning up my diet helped. There’s so much more energy to focus on what I really want to do! 

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I’m composing new music for my next jazz piano trio album. I’d like to have strings and brass players in certain pieces. I’m also working on a solo piano program that includes some singing bowls, gongs and bells along with the piano. In ten years I hope to have a wider audience for my music!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being in harmony with yourself, others and nature.

Teemu Kekkonen’s debut album ‘Here/There’ is released on 16th September – a charming, sensitive and melodic collection of original songs with influences ranging from Ravel, to Bill Evans to The Bad Plus.

Finnish jazz pianist & composer Teemu Kekkonen is a rising star in the European scene. Thoughtfully crafted compositions, cinematic harmonies, captivating grooves and familiar melodies are the cornerstones of his music. As a musician Teemu is oriented towards a narrative style and strives to create musical adventures which evoke emotions and diverse moods. As the basis for his improvisations Teemu uses the thematic material of the piece at hand, sometimes transforming it to raw and rugged cacophony, at times to a calm and collected contemplation.

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(photo by Oskari Järvinen)