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Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto: Conversations

Dan McClenaghan By

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Many musicians from other countries come to the United States to study their art and then remain to build careers. Others, like saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto, both from Finland, attended programs in the US—in both cases at Boston's Berklee College—and then returned home to perform and record.

With a history of five decades of musical collaboration, the Finnish legends open an ongoing dialogue with Conversations, a two-CD set of nearly two hours worth of free improvisation—a duration and description that can scare off those without fair supply of free jazz fortitude. But free jazz/free improvisation is spread out across a broad spectrum here, from calamitous, seemingly pattern-less caterwauling to gently ruminative and melodically beautiful—though the melodies may not be familiar. Conversations leans hard to the latter end of the spectrum.

In some ways Aaltonen and Sarmento seem like disparate musical spirits. On "Le Petite Soldat," the saxophonist rasps out notes that are deep-from-the-gut raw, his lush glissandos fluttering around the gruff, wandering melody—a mix of classical sophistication and plebeian anguish. Other times—as on the pensive "Just a Dream"—the conversationalists seem to be inseparable, like-minded soul mates.

The searching and tranquil mood of much of the set recalls iconic saxophonist John Coltrane, during his early Impulse! years. Aaltonenen's side of the conversations have the heft of Dexter Gordon, the subtle and labyrinthine eloquence of Joe Henderson and Coltrane's unbridled sense of spirituality. With the sound of the saxophone—especially in Aaltonen's hands—there's no escaping the more earthbound, visceral side of that spiritual quest, while pianist Sarmanto seems to ride the clouds in a more heavenly exploration, with coordinated explosions of notes, like flocks of birds bursting into the sky.

Nestled amidst the free improvisations are two Great American Songbook pieces from the pens of Arthur Swartz and Howard Dietz: "You and the Night and the Music" and "Alone Together." The familiarity of these melodies serves as touchstones among the freer efforts, and also underlines just how melodic and beautiful a freer approach can be in the right hands.

Conversations is a gorgeous, nuanced and transcendental musical experience.

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