Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Forget Wall Street: Occupy the World!

Wadada Leo Smith is Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis and Gil Evans rolled into one on his new album Occupy the World. It picks up where his magnum opus, last year’s Ten Freedom Summers left off. In the liner notes, Smith optimistically quotes Thoreau in envisioning the possibility of a better society than what the Western democracies have achieved thus far. Joining Smith and his longtime bassist John Lindberg for a set of towering new works for large ensemble is the 21-piece Finnish group Tumo, comprised of many of that scene’s most adventurous players. In many respects, this slightly smaller yet similarly lavish double-disc set echoes Ten Freedom Summers’ most lush, sweepingly atmospheric moments.

The opening composition, Queen Hatshepsut, grows methodically out of a somber, slowly syncopated theme followed by a triptych of group improvisations in the same vein as Smith’s old Chicago pal Anthony Braxton. It’s elegant and airy, with plenty of space for similarly judicious (and occasionally raucous) solo features from saxophones, flute and piano, with Smith’s own regal, resonant trumpet solo as its centerpiece.

The Bell 2 expands on Smith’s quartet composition originally released on Braxton’s 1968 album 3 Compositions of New Jazz, beefed up for large ensemble with a new introduction and a more rhythmic focus. Verneri Pohjola’s spacy electronics and Mikko Iinvanainen’s dark, biting electric guitar help carry it forty-five years from its origins as a lustrous proto Space Odyssey theme.

The first cd’s last track, Mount Kilimanjaro was written as a companion piece to Smith’s 2004 piece The Africana World. That one was a feature for violinist Jenifer Choi; this is a vehicle for Lindberg. It opens with an expansively spacious, majestically intense bowed bass solo, collides with cadenzas from the orchestra. epic drums pairing off against the strings’ fluttery angst.

The second cd opens with the Crossing on a Southern Road (A Memorial for Marion Brown), a sweepingly rapt 25-minute-plus homage to the late saxophonist. Dreamy ambience surrounds tersely dancing bass, an agitated pulse giving way to whispery strings, stately shifting shades, a burnished Smith muted trumpet solo and richly sustained, quiet swells that are suddenly and cruelly cut short.

The title track, perhaps ironically true to its inspiration, was completed in haste shortly before its 2011 premiere by the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra. It clocks in at over half an hour and interpolates portions of two previous works, Smith’s Kosmic Music and the string quartet section of In the Diaspora. And it’s counterintuitive: although there is frequent agitation, driven by biting, tumbling strings, it’s more of a methodically crescendoing tribute to resolute defiance. Again, Smith’s sostenuto trumpet serves as a frequent anchor, through a momentarily explosive duet with electric guitar. giving way to shifting sheets of orchestration and finally a gorgeously luminous full-orchestra coda with echoes of Gil Evans at his most majestic.

With tight and inspired playing, the cast also includes trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, trombonist Jari Hongisto, horn player Kalle Hassinen, tuba player Kenneth Ojutkangas, Seppo Kantonen on piano, Iro Haarla on harp, Kalle Kalima on guitar, Veli Kujala on quartertone accordion, Terhi Pylkkanen and Neils Thorkild Levinsen on violins, Barbora Hilpo on viola, Iida-Vilhelmiina Laine on cello, Ulf Krokfors on bass, and Janne Tuomi, Mika Kallio and Stefan Pasborg on drums. Finnish label Tum Records, recently home to Smith’s small-group projects, gets credit for putting this one out in a lavish package with artwork and extensive, insightful liner notes.

July 12, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lynchian Menace and Suspense from Kallle Kalima

Today we shift from one kind of intensity to a vastly different one. Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima and his group K-18 – saxophonist/reedman Mikko Innanen, adventurous quartertone accordionist Veli Kujala and veteran bassist Teppo Hauta-aho – generate plenty of it on their new suite, Out to Lynch. Much of which sounds like they’re out to lynch somebody, but it’s actually a series of compositions inspired by David Lynch films (they have a thing for movies: their previous album was a Stanley Kubrick homage). K-18 is Finnish for “rated R” – apparently the Finns’ film ratings are less alarmist than they are in the US, considering how tame an R rating is here. How Lynchian is this album? Lynchian in an Eraserhead sense, certainly. And although this is challenging and frequently abrasive music, much of it is far from ugly.

It’s important to keep in mind that the compositions here are inspired by various films or characters, rather than being representational. Interestingly, Kalima never reaches for the twangy noir of Angelo Badalamenti. The opening track, BOB – the first of a handful of Twin Peaks references – squalls and squeaks and quickly throws rhythm out the window, then goes unexpectedly sketchy and minimalist. The Elephant Man inspires a quietly skeletal interpretation, Mulholland Drive a series of casually bracing, swirling clusters – lights moving against a Hollywood hills backdrop at night, maybe?

Laura Palmer is a suspense piece, bass stepping gingerly through the darkness before the guitar provides a flashlight and then they rise in eerie, noisy sheets before returning to a tense spaciousness. The most thoroughly enjoyable track here is, perhaps predictably, Eraserhead, a deliciously creepy microtonal acccordion tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Dave Fiuczynski catalog.

A couple of cuts draw on the lovers from Wild at Heart. Lula Pace Fortune gets airy flute and accordion over distantly menacing atmospherics that rise to a grinding sostenuto blaze; a bit later on, Sailor inspires a similarly terse series of duo improvisations. Alvin Straight, who drove hundreds of miles along the side of the road on his riding mower to visit his estranged brother, serves as the impetus for a wryly methodical, minimalistically paced tone poem featuring the bass.

The Mystery Man (from Lost Highway) is the most intricate number here, a series of circular riffs interchanging over dynamic shifts, growing more ominous with squalling, shivering sax and guitar and ending with a twisted march. Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper has a fluttery tone poem to show for all his persistence, while the Man from Another Place – another Twin Peaks character – gets all of thirty seconds of flurries. On the concluding cut, Frank Booth, there’s no candy-colored clown, only a funereal rubato bass pulse lowlit by guitar that finally explodes: it’s not hard to imagine the poppers oscillating through the Blue Velvet villain’s brain as he huffs from that evil tube. Innanen contributes a devilishly tongue-in-cheek interlude along with Hauta-aho before the album’s most melodic and appropriately menacing passage.

Like all Tum Records releases, this comes beautifully packaged, including artwork by Marianna Uutinen and a magazine’s worth of liner notes: the Tum peeps are writing a lavish history of Finnish jazz in installments. It’s also worth mentioning that Innanen – who ironically leads another project called the Serenity Ensemble – has an excellent, sonically challenging album of his own, Clustrophy, out from Tum as well.

September 23, 2012 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

A Sly New Spin on Classic Sounds from Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner

“SHE’S GOT IT! Yeah baby, she’s got it! I’m your [muffled, incoherent], I’m your fire, your desire!”

You’ve heard it before, well-intentioned but clueless non-English-speaking European musicians of a certain age aping iconic Americana roots styles. A lot of those players were hippies and were probably so stoned at the time they didn’t realize how badly they were embarrassing themselves, so they get a pass. But if the idea of a Finnish version of Mose Allison or early Lou Rawls might sound icky to you, that’s ok. You just need to hear Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner’s More Than 123: it will completely change your mind about European bluesmen. These guys absolutely own what they do – they completely nail the idiom with just as much or even more imagination than the Americans who were doing it the first time around. To say that this album is a trip to hear is an accolade, not an insult.

Lindholm is the guitarist and singer in the band; what does Donner do? Well, he’s the conductor. OK – maybe the idea of a blues band needing a conductor might seem like a red flag, but in this case, it’s not – if the horn charts here are his, he’s a genius. Whatever the case, it’s an irresistibly fun record. It’s an absolutely original, unique blend of 60s soul and blues…but with arrangements straight out of 1948! Lindholm’s smoky baritone betrays his Finnish roots, but he’s completely on his game as sly oldschool blues crooner, and the band is coolly sensational. For example, check out the inventive, period-perfect conversationality between Tero Saarti’s suave muted trumpet and Manuel Dunkel’s tenor sax on the opening track, Why I Smile Again.

The second track, Oh Don, is an innuendo-charged murder ballad straight out of the Hazmat Modine playbook, with Lindholm’s guitar wailing over the cosmopolitan, hushed brushwork of drummer Mika Kallio. “They’re gonna take you to Yellowstone, but I can take you to the moon,” Lindholm croons on the briskly noir-tinged, Mose Allison-esque I’m Right, Dunkel spiraling down to Riitta Paakki’s rippling piano as the arrangement grows more suspenseful. The lushly gorgeous blues ballad Where You’re Walking Now artfully features Mikko Heleva’s Hammond organ taking over for the entire ensemble as Paaki’s piano goes unexpectedly terse and biting, and then back up again. An equally wry, bittersweet ballad, True Life works a methodically killer crescendo beginning with Pepa Paivinen’s baritone sax handing off to Dunkel’s tense, expectant tenor and then the trumpet to take it all the way up. The band channels Magic Sam circa 1967 on the shuffling I Know My Boulevard before closing the record with an unexpectedly dixieland-flavored march, Lucky Johnny’s Gone, a diptych of sorts whose centerpiece is a church organ processional. Without question, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable and utterly original albums of recent years, in whatever style you choose to call this. It’s out now on the Finnish label Tum Records.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Great Billy Bang Sounds From the Archives

When a great jazz musician leaves us, invariably archival recordings begin to surface: some released in a cynical attempt to capitalize on the player’s legacy, some to further cement that legacy. Happily, the newly released History of Jazz in Reverse by the Fab Trio – bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Barry Altschul and the late, great Billy Bang on violin – falls into the latter category. Each of these players made a name for himself in jazz improvisation, but there’s a purposefulness on this 2005 studio session to rival just about any album of carefully planned compositions. Not everything here is a jam – there’s a bright, Asian-tinged homage to Don Cherry by Bang that could pass for a Cherry piece, the violin’s microtonal pizzicato evoking the sound of a koto. And the three vamp their way through the Afro-Cuban standard Chan Chan, which only gets interesting when Altschul decides to mimic a timbales solo – and pulls it off with a mighty grin.

But the juiciest parts of the album are the improvisations. Altschul manages to be everywhere at once, holding the center while leapfrogging, galloping, cartwheeling and expanding the perimeter: it’s an impactful performance, both literally and figuratively. Fonda is the nucleus of this particular isotope, a terse pulse and omnipresent voice of reason when the violin and the drums go machinegunning their way out of the thicket of sound (that reference is deliberate, Bang’s Vietnam War experiences having been such a defining part of his life). The most stunning creation here is the most terse: the trio learned while in the studio that their friend Sam Rivers’ wife Bea had died, so they made up an elegy on the spot, an anguished yet absolutely regal dirge of sorts that’s equal part blues and oldtime spiritual.

The title track makes an interesting journey backwards from free jazz to swing, and then a boogie that Altschul, counterintuitive as always, uses as a graceful exit. Bang’s alternately shivery staccato flurries and blues-drenched minor-key swirls are characteristically chilling and exhilarating, particularly on the opening jam, Homeward Bound, as Fonda and Altschul tiptoe in tandem around them. There’s also the deliciously chromatic, funky, conversational Implications, and From There to Here, the one track that would have been better left on the cutting-room floor since even Bang can’t keep up with its breakneck pace (Fonda quickly finds out that it makes more sense to hit on the “one” rather than walking it, while Altschul deviously plays halfspeed). But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise intense and often haunting session that reliably challenging Finnish label Tum Records happily saw fit to release.

January 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith Does It Again

Forget for a minute that Wadada Leo Smith’s new album Dark Lady of the Sonnets, with his trio Mbira, is a summit meeting of three of the most compelling voices in jazz improvisation. More than anything, it’s a celebration of being alive. An intimately majestic, sometimes exuberant, warmly conversational album, it’s a must-own for fans of free jazz. Then again, that could be said about a lot of the Wadada Leo Smith, Min Xiao-Fen and Pheeroan akLaff catalogs. This particular session, recorded in 2007 in Finland and released worldwide just now on the reliably adventurous Tum Records label, captures the trio exploring Smith’s permutations on ancient Shona melodies from west Africa.

In the liner notes (which include comprehensive bios for each artist), Smith traces a line back from himself to Louis Armstrong, a connection that might not seem evident at first listen, but up close becomes very clear. Steeped in the blues as a child, Smith never lost that idiom’s terse soulfulness. What’s more, this album is remarkably rhythmic for a free jazz session, something that Smith’s cohorts here deserve credit for as well.

But first Smith goes back to a bell-like Miles Davis tone on the first track, Sarah Bell Wallace, a dedication to his mother, trumpet austerely calling for a dutiful response from spiky thickets of pipa plucking and rolling, suspenseful drums in turn. AkLaff’s signature drum sound, playing actual melody rather than simply rhythm, is in vivid effect here. It’s a warily soulful portrait of an indomitable woman who obviously knew suffering but rose above it and brought her family along.

Min Xiao-Fen, who is afraid of nothing and will play anything, is often the wild card here, bringing her signature sense of humor to Blues: Cosmic Beauty, a story of renewal. Peering up through Smith’s alternately flurrying and richly sustained, restrained lines, she swoops, dives and vocalizes a little, finally ceding to the trumpet on the chorus (much as there’s a great deal of improvisation going on, there’s a clearly defined architecture to all these works).

Zulu Water Festival, meant to evoke South Africans dancing on surface of a lake, juxtaposes a festive melody to a stately allusive groove and a strikingly spacious interlude held down by akLaff’s apprehensively nuanced, drony rumble. The title track, a Billie Holiday homage, puts the pipa player to work as a singer again, low and intimate as the conversation between instruments slowly rises, finally reaching bop fervor as Smith takes the trio out rattling and flurrying. The final track is a suite simply titled Mbira, a spiritually-inspired ballet based on Shona thumb piano music, with variations on a hypnotic circular theme. An animated dialogue between the three instruments swells and ebbs, with akLaff almost imperceptibly building to what seems like an inevitable crescendo with gorgeously nebulous washes of cymbals. Pipa, vocals and trumpet move from calm and sustained to agitated, Min finally swooping down coyly to meet Smith’s summoning call and then setting the whole thing ablaze with a forest of tremolo-picking as akLaff rumbles and leapfrogs his way out of it. It ends on an ambiguous note – maybe there’s a sequel lying in wait.

Also recently out on the Cuneiform label is Smith’s considerably more electric, aggressive and compositionally-oriented Heart’s Reflections double cd with his Organic band, featuring akLaff along with guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross along with a wide assortment of downtown New York types. Smith will be giving both of these bands a workout along with his Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and Silver Orchestra as he celebrates his 70th birthday at the new Roulette space in Brooklyn on Dec 15 and 16 at 8 PM.

December 13, 2011 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