Deep-Sky Improvisation from Esa Helasvuo
Musicologists have long tried to make a connection between music and the terrain where it’s made, with mixed results. Residents of the land of the northern lights are not the only ones who write still, spacious, deep-sky music. But there seems to be a connection. That’s what veteran Finnish pianist and improviser Esa Helasvuo offers on his aptly titled new solo album Stella Nova, his first recording in twenty years. It’s a starry, nocturnal, contemplatively expansive series of introspections that looks back to similar work by Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett from forty-five years ago, along with frequent echoes of Kurt Weill and Erik Satie.
The album begins careful and steady with To Feel You Is to Know You, reaching toward third-stream/art-song balladry, Helasvuo working in some bluesiness as is his custom throughout the album. The expansive, practically ten-minute title track is its darkest and best, vividly evoking the Satie gymnopedies, only offering momentary relief from the incessant darkness before taking it back down into the murk again. Likewise, Intimacy begins on a lingering, judicious tone, Helasvuo working a righthand riff of the utmost simplicity toward a blues-tinged ballad, back and forth. The most traditionally jazz-themed number here is Kisumu, an enigmatic number that switches out the Chopin and Satie for Miles Davis.
Boa Noiti Meu Amor, a remake of a 70s Helasvuo composition, gets impressionistically deconstructed. The following track, Improvise, is far more interesting than the title implies, a return to darker, more pensive territory with its moodily spaced chordal figures. Helasvuo quietly and methodically sinks his fangs into Unto Mononen’s famous Finnish tango Satumaa’s inner creepiness, alternating between brooding improvisation and a mutedly dusky, metrically shapeshifting approach.
Figuring Out the Sky goes from pensive and distant to variations on a long chromatic descending progression, a rather nostalgic song without words that more or less segues into Souvenir, which is essentially Yesterday When I Was Young. The album ends with Blues Addiction, a good-naturedly expansive wee-hours exploration: the bar is closed, the gates are pulled down but he’s got a lullaby left in him. This seems to be more about figuring out the sky than the album’s eighth track. Fun fact: Helasvuo got his start with legendary Finnish instrumentalists the Sounds in 1964, reaffirming the confluence between the worlds of jazz and surf rock! Tum Records gets credit for this one.
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