With Northern Sunrise, pianist Mika Pohjola steps into the space between old and new worlds. Close attention reveals a diverse range of influences here, from the worlds of Baroque and the avant-garde, to old school bop and '70s rock-fusion. There's a little solo piano, some trio arrangements, and wonderful quintet explorations. But what makes this perhaps one of the best of 2009 is that it is jazz that truly captures the emotion, refinement, and power of great classical music.
For this reason, it seems like a mistake to pigeonhole this as a crossover album. Pohjola plays Grieg's "Peasant's Song" and his own "Passacaglia," but he also mixes in superb jazz standards. It is beautiful, but not fluffy. It is challenging, but not unpleasant. It is thoroughly thought-out music, combined with the spontaneity of superb improvisation.
The band has a distinctly introspective quality to it. Bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Mark Ferber weave backdrops that unreel with the easy, flickering tempo of film. The excellent altoist Steve Wilson and guitarist Ben Monder are understated at times, though their talent shines through every chance they get. A real highlight is a buoyant "Sweet and Lovely," that stretches out as the sax and guitar get into it with the piano, and Wilson quotes Charlie Parker's "Buzzy" in the heat that follows.
All the same, Pohjola is the central presence. He plays with a penetrating and evocative touch that has a chant-like intensity to it, particularly on tunes like the title track. His statements are soulful in a pensive kind of way, one which reaches for both the brain and the heart in the span of one chord. His compositions mirror that approach with a mix of variation and experimentation.
The sound never veers into dissonance, but there are moments that expand expectations, such as a prepared piano treatment of "Have You Met Miss Jones" that rings the entire tune out of the instrument's warbling strings. Eerie and darkly humorous, it shows Pohjola's ability to find beauty in unexpected places, by unexpected ways.
Similarly, "Ebb & Flow" is a tribute to bipolar disorder and mental illness that revolves around a host of changing time signatures and feels. Yet for all the technical transformations, all the moments of tension that arise, at no point does the group lose its tenderness. This is accomplished with a delicate use of space, which makes almost every tune here accessible to a broad audience.
In some ways, the music suggests the distinct sound popularized on the ECM label. Pohjola's solo piano treatment of Charles Mingus' "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" finds that perfect space where jazz, America's classical music, meets and draws off that of Europe. With its measured flourishes and blocks of tugging dissonance, it captures the singular beauty of this albuma willingness to close gaps, and explore every inch of the spaces that open up.
Personnel: Miak Pohjola: piano, compositions; Steve Wilson: saxophones; Ben Monder: guitar; Massimo Biolcati: bass; Mark Ferbrer: drums; Franco Pinna: bombo (3).