Ahava & Tony Elgland: Defining Space at Jyv

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Space, both physical and musical, plays a vital role in how a performance unfolds. Physical space-the performance space-can open new possibilities for the performers; while musical space-the role silence plays-can create tension and mood in a piece. Performing in Jyväskylä’s spacious Taulumäen Church as part the Summer Jazz festival, Ahava, a quartet led by vocalist Mia Simanainen, and bassist Tony Elgland, in a virtuoso solo performance, used both kinds of space to create intense, introspective atmospheres. Their approaches to musical space differed radically, yet the cavernous ceilings of the church gave both performances breadth and power.

In a half-hour set, Elgland displayed an impressive, expressive range on the double bass. He used intricate harmonic runs on “Idas sommarvisa”, a deep, bold bowing technique on his own “Pärtällä jousi” and fiery melodic shaping on another original, “Sherlock”.

Yet even while using a this range of technique, he retained the essence of the bass: propulsion. His bow hardly left the strings on “Pärtällä jousi” as he pulled out long, powerful notes, resulting in a dense, pulsing slab of melody which he finally resolved with jagged contrast in a pizzicatto melodic fragment.

His ear for melodic contour and harmonic development came to the fore on his kinetic reading of Keith Jarret’s “Prism” and the traditional “Suvivirsi”. The former bustled along with force, yet surprised when his extended lines would reveal themselves with a well-timed resolution. For the latter, he expanded the lullaby-like folk melody into an energetic balance of melody and forward motion.

Ahava also mined Finnish folk material for their set, yet they went in an opposite direction from Elgland, using space to let their melancholy melodies float about the church’s expansive acoustics in a drifting, quietly intense narrative. But Ahava’s music goes deeper than acoustics, into the realm of storytelling, and their live set expanded on the tales they spun on their self-titled 2002 Fiasko Records release.

They featured three pieces from that album, plus four new compositions. They slipped seamlessly from the opening “Agda Airi” into the ambient, free-floating of “Suo”. On the first, Simanainen’s crystal-clear voice wrapped Swedish lyrics around saxophonist’s Sony Heinilä’s gentle lines. From this gentle start they began to open the music up, letting every sound take on its own life, from the rumble of low-register piano to the drummer Mika Kallio’s imaginative cymbal work. As the song wandered through its minimalist head to the picturesque poetry of the lyrics the music gained background and foreground, evoking a swamp alive with voices.

A fitting analogy for Ahava would be that of the short story writer, for while their music draws from folk song themes, they heighten the mood by injecting various ideas from more modern music: classical dynamics, free jazz fireworks, advanced harmonies, breathy vocals. Their songs have the air of the perfectly crafted short story, where every word, every gesture is calculated for maximum effect.

Two compositions, Simanainen’s “Etsi” and Ikonen’s “Vihaa Suurempaa”, exemplified this narrative approach to composing. The former began with Heinilä stating a rhythmically charged, minor mode melody on the ney flute, but then the group unexpectedly slipped into a softer mood as Kallio gently brushed a pulse and Ikonen led the group forward with rich, dramatic lines. Ikonen’s piece also toyed with the audience, beginning with a menacing intro, then juxtaposing softer pockets of sound with spikier ones. After this push and pull Ikonen finally unleashed a thundering percussive outburst from his piano, just to make sure that no one was asleep. The effect was riveting, setting off an adrenalin rush that lingered past the last dying notes.

It was a fitting end to the evening, as both Elgland and Ahava captivated the crowd, each in their own way: Elgland with pure musical energy and Ahava with a honed sense of drama and suspense. They showed that what matters these days is not what space you are given, but what you choose to do with it.

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