Pianist Samuli Mikkonen’s first album as a leader delves even deeper into the abstract shapes and reflective tempo first explored by the Mikkonen/Jormin/Kleive trio on KOM-live , also recorded in 1998. Joined this time by two other Finnish players, Uffe Krokfors on bass and Mika Kallio on drums, the mood turns darker and the focus shifts ever more towards growing an enigmatic, mysterious atmosphere.
The album’s title, which means “Listening to the Wilderness,” reveals much about the music itself: beneath its quiet surface, the music hides an intense center, a compelling sense of architecture and purpose; the same purpose you might find when you stop among the forest and listen intently. But do not take the title so literally, as Mikkonen warns on his website. Instead, think of these compositions as creating a space, a landscape in which to wander.
On “Pahan tuulen alla” (In the eye of an evil wind) the trio creates a layered, multi-directional sound both rhythmical and lyrical. Krokfors bows an ominous, jagged theme on the intro, giving way to Mikkonen’s insistent left-hand pulse. Lightly and loosely, Kallio joins in on his ride cymbal. Mikkonen, seemingly of two minds, maintains his pulse while insinuating asymmetrical melodic shapes into the mix. Krokfors’ bass constantly shifts form, pushing the tune to different plateaus without shaking its forward motion.
Despite their abstract, fluid surface, “Pahan tuulen alla”, “Linna” (The Castle), “Memento Mori” and others follow jazz’s basic head-solo-head form, and yet the players manage to hide that fact with inventive, surprising twists. Hence, solos arise naturally from the group as a whole, develop the narrative, and recede when their time winds down, subsumed back into the mix. In some respects Mikkonen views his role as a musician as that of a craftsman, and like all good craftsmen, he works with whatever tools seem to fit the work at hand.
“Pilvi puhuu” (A cloud speaking) is built on a text that Mikkonen wrote, and that text forms the entirety of the musical direction. Like its title suggests, the song speaks in vaporous, hazy textures: the piano emits cavernous booms, the arco bass creaks and moans, and cymbals rustle restlessly-something ominous this way comes.
As a player, Mikkonen places his notes pensively and strings loose, lilting phrases together, building up an inevitable logic that hides itself until the last moments. He also possesses a subtle sense of drama, which manifests itself in often long, irregular pauses. Take as an example his almost hesitant attack on “Varjag”. What appears hesitant at first soon becomes forceful by what he chooses to subtract-silence itself becomes a sound, an accent.
Kallio and Krokfors fit perfectly with the concept of the music, for both turn the traditional roles of the drums and bass on their heads, yet they never lose sight of their instruments’ essential nature, either. Kallio explores in depth, and then foregrounds, the tonal colors and rhythmic directions suggested by the cymbals. Krokfors deconstructs his bass lines, turning rhythmic pulse into rough- edged texture. They underpin “Haljennut ulappa” (The fractured seas) with a pulse so quiet that one almost overlooks it. Kallio whispers an insistent pitter-pat rhythm on his cymbals while Krokfors floats thick held notes that create a slow rocking back and forth.
The result: a hypnotizing rhythm built on the bare minimum of sound.
Personnel: Samuli Mikkonen: piano; Uffe Krokfors: double bass; Mika Kallio: drums