Lucid Culture


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.

August 17, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Olavi Trio: Fun with Headphones On

The Olavi Trio’s latest album, Triologia, is best enjoyed lying down, with headphones on (earbuds will do, but headphones are better). Yup, one of those. It’s not very rhythmic, nor is it very melodic either, but the fun the band is having translates viscerally to the listener. It makes you wonder what kind of stuff they grow in the greenhouses up in Finland where this comes from – although that’s not to imply that the musicians were under the influence when they made this album. For jazz this woozy, it’s very purposeful – which is what you might expect from a big band trombonist (Jari Olavi Hongisto), a symphony orchestra bassist (Teppo Olavi Hauta-aho) and the drummer for the Tomasz Stanko quartet (Niilo Olavi Houhivuori). More obviously, what these musicians have in common is a warm repartee and love for collective improvisation, on the thoughtful, quiet side. Juhani Aaltonen and Kalle Kalima join them on tenor sax and guitar, respectively, on a couple of tracks as well.

What this album’s first eleven tracks have to offer (you are now reading the longest sentence ever in the history of jazz writing) includes swoops over an approximation of a groove; playful baby elephants chasing each other over a muffled, cleverly disguised boogie beat; a tone poem contrasting plinks, creaks and dark washes of sound; muted contentment against a casual rubato stroll; a lively exchange of flourishes (specifically, a dynamite cover of Anthony Braxton’s No. 69B); a comedic jazz-in-the-forest setting; simple and vivid variations on a moody modal riff; a brief, dangling conversation; two distinct strata very much alive in a primordial soup; waves punctuated by drums, with comic relief from the trombone; and an unexpectedly creepy music box interlude.

With the album’s twelfth track, they take it into more familiar free jazz territory, with a distinct melody and variations. That tune, Old Papa’s Blues was brought to the session by its composer, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, a mournful, distinctly Nordic progression bookending a very lively midsection: this old guy’s not ready to go yet. The album ends with an improvisation that evokes strolling insects (throughout the album, toy instruments are employed to enhance the amusement/strangeness factor), and then Taysikuu, by Toivo Karki and Reino Helismaa, an apprehensive, out-of-focus tango with bowed bass that coalesces with disarming matter-of-factness. For those who believe that the idea of waves punctuated by drums is hopelessly unlistenable, this album is not for you. But for those who would enjoy that, this album will take you on a journey to a better place and make you smile along the way. It’s out now on the adventurous Finnish Tum Records label.

November 17, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment