The splendid music on Conversations is as close to the celebration of Impressionism in modern music as possible. It is true that saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto create epic narratives here, and also true that both act as characters in those narratives. Of greater significance, however, is the extraordinary emotion of these musical stories, facilitated by sublime technique and use of dynamics by both musicians. Aaltonen crowns his playing with broad glissandi in longlegato passages marked by staggeringly brilliant and complicated cadenzas. He employs soft dissonances uttered or sung with towering, filigreed figures that show a reverent respect for Pharoah Sanders. While Sander's is rococo in his work, Aaltonen is more direct. With simple angularity, he provokes extraordinary responses from the pianist.
Sarmanto is always ready for what Aaltonen throws at him. Sliding single notes and beautifully colored chords punctuate Sarmanto's filigreed runs on the keyboard, showing how broad a musical palette he is capable of using. His colors are always moving and the hues always changing. The brilliant arpeggios are interrupted by fingers stabbing at the keys, accentuating a particular characteristic of the music. Listening to him solo is like watching a wholly new canvas come to life and remain alive with eternally changing, always-wet colors that trickle and drip down the canvas. As the colors run, new relationships are formed with those dappled on by the tenor saxophonist. Both musicians trade licks with entwined lines, like the proverbial geometry of a DNA molecule.
The chart "Alone Together" takes on an anthem-like quality as the two musicians poke and prod the melody with child-like curiosity, coming up with the most unusual [end?] that consecrate the song's solitary splendor. The aching balladry of "You and the Night and the Music" takes on a slightly noir personality as the two men roam in search of the perfect notes to re-invent the song. The deepening emotion of the rest of the program is marked by explorations of whole tone scales and expert dissections of modal concepts. In what seems like a continuous tale of sequences, "When I was With You" and "So Much Happened" are inextricably linked, as are "War Trane" and "Peace Talk" on CD2. In the latter sequence, "War Trane" also bristles with real-time imagery with a dark, rapture-like description of the art of killing.
More than anything else, this is a moving album and its emotional impact is likely to remain much longer than its specific notes, lines, or scales. The musicians pour in so much of themselves that they will be certainly forgiven if they never produce another album like this in a long, long time.
CD1: When I Was With You; So Much Happened...; What We Cannot Imagine; ...It Happened
Today; Le Petit Soldat; Just Like a Dream; You and the Night and the Music; Evening Prayer.
CD2: From Nothing; No Work Bound Me; Free Souls; The Sea in the Moonlight; War Trane;
Peace Talk; Alone Together; Evening Haze.
Juhani Aaltonen: tenor saxophone; Heikki Sarmanto: piano.
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