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Markku Ounaskari / Samuli Mikkonen / Per Jørgensen: Kuara: Psalms and Folk Songs

John Kelman By

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While early reference points for jazz and improvised music may have come from the Afro-American tradition, global musicians of the 21st century have increasingly looked to their own cultural touchstones for music that speaks to them at a mitochondrial level. If music is a reflection of who we are and what we experience, then it only makes sense for artists to mine their own backgrounds for a place to start, rather than attempting to bring deeper significance to music they may have studied, but don't inherently feel. Drummer Markku Ounaskari and pianist Samuli Mikkonen, both fixtures on the jazz scene of their native Finland, have been mining the nexus where Russian and Finnish cultures meet, exploring religious music linked to pagan cultures, rather than more commonly held monotheism. Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs brings together some of these simple but compelling melodies, along with a handful of psalms stemming from Russian Orthodoxy, the latter at the suggestion of ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher.

The duo's connection with the music is deep, using it as a springboard for improvisational explorations that are, at times, austere, elsewhere transcendent. The recruitment of Norwegian trumpeter/vocalist Per Jorgensen—known for his ECM work with trumpeter/composer Michael Mantler, percussionist Miki N'Doye and, most notably, with keyboardist/composer Jon Balke on albums such as Diverted Travels (ECM, 2004)—elevates Kuára to even greater heights. While most think of Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Mathias Eick—all past or present ECM alumni—when it comes to Norwegian trumpeters, all three readily cite Jørgensen as a seminal influence, and it's understandable why. With a personal tone so close to the expressiveness of the human voice as to be nearly identical, and a singing voice that's equally moving in its unbridled emotive purity, Jørgensen's augments this already moving duo into a trio of expansive yet often understated power- -as capable of dark turbulence and brooding majesty ("Polychronion") as it is gentle beauty with a pulse, all the while possessed of an unsettling harmonic undercurrent ("Psalm CXXI").

Because of the rather unusual instrumentation, it might be easy to compare Kuára to Norwegian pianist Christian Wallumrod's similarly configured 1998 ECM debut, No Birch—especially in the trio's use of silence and decay. Still, Mikkonen is a more outgoing pianist; Jørgensen 's tone (whether open or muted) is a tarter alternative to Henriksen's shakuhachi-like timbre; and, despite an overall similar gravitas, it's less relentlessly astringent. The music also aspires towards greater dramaturgical heights, especially on tracks like "Soldat Keljangúr," an Udmurtian folk song that features Jørgensen's voice, moving from deep-rooted melodism to plaintive wails of near-despair, with Ounaskari's empathic interplay more about color than pulse.

And Kuára is an album about spontaneity and interaction. The source material often provides little more than undeveloped motifs, but between Mikkonen's evocative harmonic contexts, Ounaskari's textural and only occasionally rhythmic support, and Jorgensen's dual role of thematic foil and emotional catalyst, Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs is an album rife with hidden meanings, revealed only gradually and with each successive encounter.

Track Listing: Polychronion; Psalm CXXI; Tuuin Tuuin; Aallot; Introit; Pitkä Pajo; Introit / Changing Paths (1); The Gypsy's Stone; Pikkumetsä; Soldat Keljangúr; Mountain of Sorrow; Introit / Changing Paths (2); Sjuan Mad'; Sjuan Gúr.

Personnel: Per Jørgensen: trumpet; Samuli Mikkonen: piano; Markku Ounaskari: drums.

Title: Kuara: Psalms and Folk Songs | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ECM Records

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