In a concert broadcast by Finnish radio station YLE from Helsinki's Jumo Jazz Club to all of Europe, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and the Finnish big band UMO transmitted two clear messages: Stanko is one of the trumpet’s most unique voices, and big bands still do have an important role to play in the development of jazz.
Stanko’s understated sound, both lyrical and witty, turns conventional trumpet playing on its head and draws attention not for its bluster and volume, but for its breathy delicacy, whispered with equal parts sadness and humor. To recognize his quiet gifts, UMO chose to honor and challenge him with five original compositions commissioned from Finnish composers.
The composers approached this challenge from two basic directions. One approach took advantage of Stanko’s effusive, bubbling sound by building structures that allowed for a kind of open-ended momentum to build. Most successful were Esa Onttonen’s “Keko” and Jarmo Savolainen’s “Over, Out, There”, which kept the arrangements focussed and the rhythm propulsive. Both composers made effective use of brassy interludes to heighten drama, allowing Stanko to climb the harmonic steps in front of him, all the while building and re-building peaks of emotional intensity.
The second approach could be called “cinematic” in that the composers created a series of episodes, each consisting of contrasting moods, for Stanko’s character to play against. UMO’s drummer Mikko Hassinen offered “Music for T.S. Garp”, which sounded like it could have worked as a film score, with its jaunty opening theme and Stanko’s sly, bluesy dialogue with baritone saxophone in the middle. Pianist Iro Haarla, widow of Finnish composer/drummer Edward Vesala, contributed “Oma Rauha” (“One’s Own Peace”). This piece gently unfolded, moment to moment, from fragments of melody played on baritone sax, soprano sax and flutes backed by bells and chimes to more frenetic outbursts of blurry, abstract tone colors. The effect was poignant and aching.
Most compelling of the cinematic pieces was saxophonist Jouni Järvelä’s “Three Questions”, for it drove Stanko to create a variety of moods within the confines of one piece. Following from the title, Stanko was presented with three “questions” to which he had to provide answers. The first was a quiet, wandering theme which Stanko responded to with choked, jagged phrases, more breathing than blowing through the trumpet. The second theme was propelled by Hassinen’s furious ride cymbal, eliciting dense flurries of notes from Stanko. And the final question forced Stanko to answer with a combination of the previous ideas.
UMO, meaning “New Music Orchestra”, has been exploring and expanding the big band tradition for over 30 years. They have worked with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, even the eccentric pop experimenter Jimi Tenor. They have reworked the traditional big band fare-Duke Ellington-and the not-so-traditional-70s Miles Davis. Their arrangements are always airtight, their playing almost mathematical in its precision, and their repertoire open-minded.
Unfortunately, at times UMO lumbers along under the weight of its own precision and hyper-detailed arrangements, losing their rhythmic drive by trying to do everything at once. However, on this night composer Kari Ikonen was able to balance UMO’s strengths and weaknesses to create one of the most powerful pieces of the night. His “Nosreglo” did not feature Stanko, which maybe allowed it to stand on its own. It started with a bold spectrum of brass, a la Gil Evans, using UMO’s heavy-handed harmonizing as a virtue, then proceeded to a striking introduction of the rhythm section, followed by a sharp, confident flugelhorn solo, before fading out with muted trumpet section. Essentially, Ikonen allowed each part of UMO to speak separately, then strung the parts together, making UMO’s precision sound natural and light, rather than technical and heavy.
Maybe the challenge Ikonen, Stanko and others present is what UMO wants. They want to reach beyond their limitations by having others present them with fresh ideas. In doing so, they keep the past masters alive, provide bold settings for the innovators of the present, and open trails for tomorrow’s sounds.
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