A Magnum Opus from Finland
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto have a majestic, magisterial album, Conversations, recently out on the perennially adventurous Tum Records label. It’s a dark, classically-tinged mix of nocturnes, a soundtrack from the travelers’ lounge in Purgatory. The lavish double-disc set is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole. There isn’t an overwhelming amount of interplay here, actually: it’s less conversational than casually and intricately interwoven, the two players likely to juxtapose their lines, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes with piano as accompaniment to sax and vice versa. The compositions are all originals save for a surprisingly and vividly wistful take on You and the Night and the Music, more of a requiem for what might have been than joyous anticipation; they also deftly work up some unexpectedly anguished ambience in a version of Alone Together. Sarmanto favors resonant block chords and glimmering cascades; Aaltonen plays with the insistent, occasionally bursting Dexter Gordon-esque attack that’s been popular with many Finnish reed players over the years. Rhythm here tends to matter-of-fact and usually on the glacial side when it’s not completely rubato. Both Aaltonen and Sarmanto have a tendency to veer off course bracingly from warm consonance to icy atonalities, a trait they use judiciously and powerfully.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that the ultimate game plan here is pitch-and-follow on a series of modes, although that device is frequently employed with potently memorable results. September Song allusions, spiraling parallelisms, warmly consonant glimmer versus unease, a saturnine, elegaic ballad and a very long, moodily exploratory introduction of sorts complete the first disc along with the first of the aforementioned covers. It ends as Sarmanto hands off the melody to Aaltonen, whose understatedly plaintive lines carry a quietly explosive power. The second disc contains mostly Sarmanto compositions. More spacious and somewhat more eclectic, with quick bursts of latin, high Romantic or pop inflections, it works moody modes with subtlety and grace and thematic variations, ending with a series of cinematic, overlapping segments with lead melodies deftly handed back and forth between instruments. For those whose taste in jazz, or in music in general, leans toward the melancholy side, this is a must-own, one of the most richly satisfying releases in recent months and a stealth contender for best of 2012.
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