Here are three discs (more like two and one–half, actually) by Finland’s foremost big band, Espoo, one recorded in 1993 with guest conductor Carla Bley, the others last year during an Australian tour. Also sitting in on the earlier session is the well–known American bassist Steve Swallow. On the Jazz continuum, Espoo is definitely in the avant–garde camp. Its music should carry a PG–17 rating; that is to say, for adults only. The charts are complex and multi–layered, and require one’s unabridged consideration. In other words, this ain’t Basie, Herman, Kenton or even Ellington, even though Espoo does swing in its own measured and at times even intemperate manner. Sometimes, as on “Andy Boy,” for example, the ensemble can become downright raucous, but these moments are the exception, not the rule. More often, Espoo is painstakingly dissecting labyrinthean compositions and arrangements with an eye toward painting memorable cameos in sound, and succeeding far more frequently than it fails. Four of the seven ambitious compositions recorded in Australia were written by Jukka Linkola (including the remarkably descriptive “Boogie Woogie Waltz”), with one each by Pekka Pohjola (the colorful three–movement suite, “Yesterday’s Games”), guitarist Jarmo Saari (“Krapina/Hymn”) and the American tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza (“Brace Yourself”). All of the soloists are first–rate, with special commendations for pianist Taipale, tenors Dunkel and Pietilä, altos Tenkanen and Pylkkänen, drummer Eskelinen, and trumpeters Priha and Lindgren. The second disc from Australia seems almost like an afterthought, clocking in as it does at 14:46 compared to 63:19 for the first. Apparently, the band felt it had too much material for a single disc, not enough for two. The result is a disc with two tracks, “Brace Yourself” and Linkola’s “Friends,” both of which offer conclusive evidence that Espoo can swing when necessary. The band swings somewhat less forcefully while under the spell of Bley, whose inward–leaning compositions rarely lend themselves to that sort of exuberance. That’s not to say the music is any less persuasive; only different. Bley comes at the listener from a variety of directions, but all roads lead in their own way toward musical pleasure for those whose minds and ears are open to the possibilities. It’s Jazz over a low flame, personified by the absorbing tone poems “Permanent Wave,” “All Fall Down,” “Dreams So Real” and the gospel–flavored “Who Will Rescue You,” all of which simmer instead of sizzle. To vary the menu, Bley does add some spice to “Fresh Impression” and “The Lone Arranger.” Again, Espoo is unfazed by anything set before it, while its soloists are comfortably creative in any context, with alto Tenkanen, trumpeter Priha, tenor Pietilä and alto Jouni Järvelä among the standouts. More than two (but less than three) superlative discs by one of Europe’s most accomplished big bands.
Track listing: Live in Australia. Disc 1 — Boogie Woogie Waltz; Krapina/Hymn; Andy Boy; Flower; Yesterday’s Games, parts 1–3 (63:19). Disc 2 — Friends; Brace Yourself (14:46). Plays Carla Bley — Permanent Wave; Who Will Rescue You; Fresh Impression; All Fall Down; The Lone Arranger; Dreams So Real (55:17).