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When jazz vocalists drew from folk blues and popular song they found abundant and lively inspiration; recently it seems they are returning only to find a dry well. Many contemporary vocalists adhere so closely to the accepted repertoire and moods that they have taken the life out of the tradition. Yet Finland's Ahava, featuring vocalist Mia Simanainen, have gone searching elsewhere for their sources and what they have found is fertile ground: Scandinavian folk song and poetry. On their self-titled debut they blend storytelling, a little folk magic, a classical sense for dynamics and jazz improvisation to form a mysterious, spacious sound that captivates and surprises.
Simanainen, who composes most of the album's material, sings in clean, fresh tones with articulation and a sharp attack. In her voice one can hear her varied musical inspirations: a classical music background shows in the precise pitch; folk music roots bring a lilting cadence; jazz allows her to vocalize like a horn on many tracks. Her ability to express herself in three languages-Finnish, Swedish and English- offers tone colors that most contemporary jazz vocalists cannot. Listen to the breathy consonants and warm vowels of "Kristallen den fina", a Swedish folk song, and let your imagination wonder about the lush possibilities of Swedish in a jazz context.
Simanainen's band paints the needed dramatic landscape for her ideas. Kari Ikonen, Mika Kallio and Sonny Heinila provide sensitive, subtle support while maintaining an understated intensity. "Lilya" has a sparse funkiness created by Ikonen's Fender Rhodes punctuations and Kallio's quiet but insistent ride cymbal. Then the rhythm dissolves and the tempo is merely hinted at, building a subtle tension until returning to the loose opening groove. On "Usvan Neito" the band uses their diversity of musical sources to mirror the narration of a story. As the story unfolds, Heinila embellishes the fragile melody on both nay, an Egyptian bamboo flute, and soprano sax, while Ikonen on piano builds the harmonic layers and Kallio colors delicately on the drums (like on much of the album). At the climax, Kallio breaks into a tumbling tom-tom beat and Ikonen's phrasing becomes choppier and more aggressive.
Ahava explores moods and stories quite separate from the usual nostalgic, sentimental fare of jazz vocal combos. Song titles like "Usvan Neito" (Maiden of the Mist), "Suo" (Swamp), "Kaarmelaulu" (Snake Song") and "Sato" (Harvest) point to ideas close to the heart of Finnish folk art: farming, nature and storytelling. "Usvan Neito" tells, first in Finnish, of a girl who has run off into the forest alone. Simanainen adapts a Swedish poem by Karin Boye for the conclusion of the song, and leaves the listener to wonder if the girl has drowned herself in a forest pond.
By digging into alternate traditions, Ahava has unearthed new stories and fresh emotions that enrich and expand the jazz vocal idiom. The mysteries and music of Ahava linger, and after each listening grow deeper.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.