When John Cage distilled sound into four elements-pitch, duration, timbre and loudness-he succinctly summed up many 20th century musicians’ attitudes towards music: sound itself matters more than the structure in which it resides. Cage’s approach was expressed in jazz by the '60s avant-garde. They rejected conventions like swing, bar lines and rigid solo formats in favor of expressiveness, texture, and free-flowing interaction. They explored the essence of sound, and in doing so made a massive noise.
Like its predecessors, the Esa Pietilä Trio also peels away jazz’s conventions to reveal its basic sound elements, but its efforts on Direct are leaner and more refined. With a minimum of song structure but a maximum of group interaction, they deliver a visceral gut-punch with both urgency and subtlety.
Direct bursts to life with the irresistible momentum of ”Mindhunt.” Markku Ounaskari’s staggering shuffle beat and Uffe Krokfor’s muscular bass jabs frenetically propel the music forward, while Pietilä stays removed from the rush. The saxophonist takes fragmented stabs at the melody, mutating it into strange shapes.
The rest of the album explores murkier territory with a series of short vignettes and longer studies of mood and texture. ”Bumpy Down” showcases how the trio often assumes different duet forms. Krokfors generates a frenetic pulse around which Pietilä on soprano prods the melody along. With only two players they aggressively explore yet still retain a vast silence. Their minimalist approach to ensemble playing also surfaces on Krokfors’ ”Spring Flower,” another soprano-bass duet.
The group does not rigidly define each player’s role, thereby freeing them to delve deeper into their instruments’ potential. On ”Purple Jungle” they stretch out, with Krokfors' bowing sounding like a horn, Pietilä’s throaty growls scraping like an arco bass, and Ounaskari’s percussion evoking plucked strings.
While much free jazz often climaxes in cataclysmic peaks, this trio prefers to let silence and resonance build. A delicious tension emerges on ”Headway” as Pietilä’s tenor stretches compact phrases into winding passages while Krokfors and Ounaskari string out the pulse until it nearly disintegrates. They then flow into a jaunty unison phrase, then retreat into the mournful minor theme.
By putting texture and interaction over harmonic development and song structure, the trio does often sacrifice each song’s identity, and hence the album often blurs by. But this quality also highlights the trio’s larger goal: creating a unified group identity.
Rather than re-create the '60s avant-garde's explosive slabs of sound, the Esa Pietilä Trio extends more on the spacious work of the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Unlike that group, though, they generate more percussive power. As a consequence, Direct offers a subtle blend of melodic sketches, rhythmic boldness and intense interaction-a quiet storm of noise.
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