Iiro Rantala: My History Of Jazz (2012)
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It is perhaps an odd history of jazz that opens and closes with a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, but My History Of Jazz is a very personal history, the history of Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala. His previous album, Lost Heroes (ACT Music, 2011), was a solo piano recording; full of mesmerizingly beautiful music, it was one of the year's finest releases. My History Of Jazz doesn't quite match the consistency of Lost Heroes, but its best moments are on par with those of its predecessor.
The Bach aria which bookends My History Of Jazz is brief and beautiful. Rantala, with sympathetic support from bassist Lars Danielsson and, on the closing track, drummer Morten Lund, captures the aria's lyricism and grace. The pianist's short "Goldberg Improvisations"-five in all, based on Bach's Goldberg Variation No. 1-each have a distinct character. On "Goldberg Improvisation I" Rantala and Danielsson chase each other through an inventive, rapid-fire 53 seconds. Improvisations II and V-the loveliest-stay closer to the original Variation, III has a skittish, jagged rhythm and IV rolls cheerfully along thanks to Lund's brushed drums.
Rantala's versions of a few jazz classics sparkle with invention. George Gershwin's "Liza" has a ragtime feel coupled with unexpected pace. "Caravan" gets a real makeover-violinist Adam Baldych takes Juan Tizol's classic by the scruff of its neck, his raw and expressive playing adding drama to the desert journey even if it loses a little of the tune's subtler moments. Pianist Thelonious Monk's "Eronel" is full of life and movement: Rantala's upper register playing is filled with a particular joy, Lund's drumming adds color and drive to the performance and Danielsson's solo keeps up the energy and feelgood vibe. For Kurt Weill's "September Song," Rantala adopts a stride piano style, the punchy, positive, left- hand patterns creating an optimism that contrasts starkly with the regret and sadness often invested in the song.
Rantala's own "Americans In Paris" is pretty and a little wistful, while "Bob Hardy" swings. "Smoothie," another of Rantala's own compositions, is immediately memorable. Taken at a relatively slow tempo, Lund's drumming has a laidback and relaxed feel, yet there is an energy and drive to the tune. Baldych gives his most empathic performance, playing a hypnotic pizzicato pattern to match Danielsson's bass rhythm and underpinning Rantala's own crystalline playing. A $10 bet on this becoming a future jazz standard could be money well spent.
My History Of Jazz tells one musician's musical story-"My entire history in music" as Rantala writes in the liner notes. There's no blues and no mainstream, because he's never been into those styles. There's Bach, because that's where Rantala's story began, like many pianists. Above all, there's an obvious affinity with jazz masters like Monk and Duke Ellington. The result is music of great technical skill and, even more importantly, of great emotional depth.
Track Listing: Aria / Goldberg Variation No. 1; Liza; Goldberg Improvisation I; Caravan; Eronel;
Goldberg Improvisation II; Americans In Paris; Bob Hardy; Goldberg Improvisation III;
September Song; Danny's Dream; Goldberg Improvisation IV; Smoothie; Goldberg
Improvisation V; What Comes Up, Must Come Down; Uplift; Aria.
Personnel: Iiro Rantala: piano; Lars Danielsson: bass, cello; Morten Lund: drums; Adam Baldych:
violin (4, 8, 11, 13).
Record Label: ACT Music