Since Louis Armstrong, jazz has been a soloist’s art form where listeners long to hear the individual unfold their emotions in either tightly-constructed phrases or volcanic bursts of sound. In contrast, classical music has built a tradition of expressing emotion through the calculated construction of ensembles. Aside from Ellington, Mingus and a handful of others, very few jazz artists have managed to write music for large ensembles that can express intensely focused moods. Between these two approaches is where Finnish pianist Samuli Mikkonen finds himself, and as he shows again and again during his set at the Tampere Jazz Happening, a large ensemble and expressiveness do not exclude each other.
His 7 Henkeä ensemble features some of the most original Finnish voices on the reed instruments-Sakari Kukko, Pepa Päivinen, Pentti Lahti, Jorma Tapio and Sonny Henilä-and one of the most in-demand rhythm sections-drummer Mika Kallio and bassist Uffe Krokfors. Such a collection of voices allows Mikkonen to flexibly organize the voices into different groups, working with the focus of a classical composer and the ear for individual voices of Mingus and Ellington.
Moods of melancholy and mystery dominate Mikkonen’s compositions, manifesting themselves in crowded unison horn textures, broad piano chords and drifting rhythm support. Many of them combine written ensemble passages interspersed with improvised space for solos or group interaction. “Varjot horizontissa” begins with thick horn harmony that echoes the blues in feeling but not in form. The sound quivers like someone aching for something just beyond their reach. As the tune progresses, Mikkonen and Krokfors duet, then Lahti and Krokfors, then Tapio takes a solo. The group continually revisits the original harmony, and each time the sound aches even more, becoming more and more full-bodied.
Kallio keeps the improvised sections from wandering too far astray by giving shape to the soloists’ expressions. Under Tapio’s solo he grows from sharp accents to shimmering propulsion. On the long “Päijänne” he adds a light. Lilting pulse with the kantele, a Finnish folk instrument similar to a cymbalon.
Mikkonen also works as a shaper during the performance, with his playing and his directing. He marks out the dynamic steps of Sibelius’ “Sydämeni laulu,” and on the already-mentioned “Päijänne” he guides the expanding and contracting volume of the group with hand signals. As an instrumentalist he contributes to the tunes mostly by comping, but not in the sense of accompanying. His comping is spontaneous composition. His rich, detailed figures expand the song structure, at once suggesting new directions and sustaining the mood.
The jazz tradition has long wrestled with the tension between the soloist’s voice and the group’s interaction. Mikkonen has forged a middle path that turns the group into one expressive voice by abandoning a rigid adherence to a chord structure or rhythmic motif and expanding the role of dynamics, volume and timbre. One wonders what kind of music will develop when he turns his focus to rhythmic textures. For now, listeners can simply lose themselves in his dark, densely layered moods and savor the deep sense of longing buried within them.
Complete coverage of the 2003 Tampere Jazz Festival...
Tampere Jazz Happening: Speaking a Universal Language
Wibutee in Tampere: Club Music and Jazz Collide
Erik Truffaz in Tampere: Fusion for the 21st Century
The Bad Plus in Tampere: Cinematic Trio Images
The Electrics in Tampere: All-Acoustic Electricity
Kornstad Trio in Tampere: Improvisation as Negotiation
Scorch Trio in Tampere: If Hendrix and Coltrane had a Love Child...
Uri Caine's Bedrock 3 in Tampere: Too Many DJs
Gnomus & Jukka Gustavsson in Tampere: The Wit of the Improviser
William Parker's Healing Song in Tampere
Samuli Mikkonen in Tampere: Composed Moods and Spontaneous Energy
Louis Sclavis in Tampre: Memories of a Naples that Never Was
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