The Austrian artist Hundertwasser once said, “The straight line is not a creative line, it is a duplicating line, an imitating line.” While listening to pianist/composer Samuli Mikkonen’s newest album, Samuli Mikkonen + 7 henkeä, Hundertwasser’s dislike of the straight line entered my thoughts, because Mikkonen’s music also avoids rigid forms. Rather than beat mechanically, his compositions seethe, pulse and drift.
To bring these shifting forms to life, Mikkonen has gathered a veritable who’s who of the Finnish jazz world and arranged them into a variety of ensemble combinations ranging from solo piano to octet.
But Hundertwasser was not proposing that artists and architects avoid form, and neither is Mikkonen; he instead seeks alternative shapes, ones he discovers in the natural world and in human nature. This music surprises and challenges as it sprouts strange melodies, off-center pulses and mysterious harmonies. Mikkonen creates these unsettling rhythms and melodies because he draws inspiration from unconventional sources. The poetry of the Kalevela, Finland’s national epic, inspires “Raudan synty” (The Birth of Iron). However it is not just the spirit of the poetry that inspires, but the form itself.
Drummer Mika Kallio actually plays the words of the poem while Mikkonen and bassist Uffe Krokfors take on the role of characters. The almost 14-minute piece sets off with a furious howling (the breathing of a forge, perhaps?), then slowly evolves through a series of episodes, each one marked by increasing urgency and harsher textures: a calm piano interlude gives way to percussive plucks; staccato pops and breathing become stratospheric screams; bass clarinet and flute all struggle for space; arco bass grows into darkly insistent warnings. It all climaxes in cataclysm, cutting off short of resolution.
After the epic jagged lines of “Raudan synty,” the album calms and presents a series of gentler moods. Mikkonen draws sparse, subdued pictures with the solo piano of “Peilin lumoama” and the ney-piano duet of “Keljonlahden Stalker.” Heinilä, Tapio and Päivinen form a flute trio to bring to life the fluttering tension of “Taivasalla.” Such well-executed variety of mood and form strengthens the album and rewards repeated listenings.
“Virta vie” and “Peili” feature Mikkonen’s working trio. Propelled by the leader's left-hand, both roll along quietly, creating a maze-like web of intersecting paths. Krokfors and Kallio layer the pulse with bold yet restrained accents, conveying the sense of an infinitely continuing journey.
The raw urgency and large ensemble of “Raudan synty” return on “Teeskentelijä” and “Niitty.” On the former, Edward Vesala’s presence can be felt in the angular head arrangement, and Ornette Coleman’s ebullient drive propels Päivinen’s baritone sax solo.
7 henkeä puts on an intriguing, versatile display of musicianship and form: colorful musical architecture that feels rooted deep in the spirit at the spot where humanity and nature meet.
Visit Samuli Mikkonen on the web.
Personnel: Samuli Mikkonen-piano; Mika Kallio-drums; Uffe Krokfors-bass; Juhani Aaltonen-tenor sax, flute;