Perhaps the most intriguing question about a tribute album like this is the original performer's reaction to a modern shakeup of their work. Approval? Outrage? Indifference? A key factor, aside from quality, might be the artist's inclination for departure from convention. If so, Finnish composer Toivo Kärki probably would approve much, if not everything, about this 2005 release by a fellow countryman.
Leivonen Lumimyrskyssä is a documentary as well as musical experience by pianist and composer Mika Pohjola, who now lives in New York. A large roster of players in multiple ensembles perform fifteen songs; the CD also contains five interview snippets with Kärki, plus a computer-compatible multimedia presentation featuring some of his original arrangements.
Kärki's interest in jazz began after hearing Louis Armstrong's 1920s recordings. Plans to move to the US were abandoned when he was called into service during World War II. "Kärki used very sophisticated melodic and harmonic ideas in all his compositions and arrangements," Pohjola writes in his liner notes. "My arrangements on this record are somewhat out of the ordinary, yet they convey an idea of the strength of Toivo Kärki's music; his compositions preserve their character even when expressed in a musical style far away from the original."
The strengths and weaknesses of this approach are clear on the opening "Souvaripoika - Lumberjack." The roots of the original 1951 Jenkka are intact, with a lightheartedness of lyricism that befits its title. A syncopated beat adds a more lively modern pace, but a couple of contemporary smooth-toned tenor sax solos temporarily turn it into a schmaltzy pop ballad. "Sininen HetkiThe Blue Moment" is more successful in this vein, thanks to a multiple-instrument orchestration that is complex but draws more from the original framework.
The range of Kärki's compositions means sometimes a simple freshening up works best. "Soita Hiljaa, Kitarain - Play It Softly, My Guitar," an Argentinean Chacarera featuring a Cueca rhythm, goes from a crooning string-heavy ballad (old) to a snappier duet of high female/low male vocals with some "Spain"-like rhythmic flair (new), both benefitting from similar light-note melodic cushioning on guitar.
The dramatic, wistful or taunting vocals carry most of the album. Pohjola's lightly melodic piano can be heard with a soft touch on a few songs. But many extended instrumentals, such as the strings on "The Stories Of My Pint," are just pre-arranged glue holding the lyrics together.
Pohjola's original arrangements elsewhere are probably stronger, and for pure entertainment I confess a bias for his Moomin Voices, a tribute to Finnish painter and children's author Tove Jansson (a fan of my significant other). Still, the Kärki tribute is worthy for those familiar with him and/or Pohjola, or who are interested in the region and its music of the era, especially given the welcome context provided by the supplemental material.
As for approval by Kärki, Pohjola noted in an e-mail that "the CD was commissioned by Toivo Kärki's son, Kalervo Kärki, who has not only approved my 'shake-up,' but actually encouraged me to do it. (I was hesitant in the beginning, but believed more in it when time and the work progressed). Kalervo has said that his dad would have absolutely approved exactly this type of development of the music, as his favorite music always was jazz."
Souvaripoika - Lumberjack; Leivonen Lumimyrskyssä - A Lark In A Snowstorm; 3)
Haastattelu/Interview: Jazz; Nuori Sydän - Young Heart; Tuopin Jljet - The Stories Of
My Pint; Soita Hiljaa, Kitarain - Play It Softly, My Guitar; Haastattelu/Interview: Molli Ja
Duuri - Minor And Major; Koivun Alla Kello Kahdeksan - Under The Birch-Tree At Eight;
Toivematka - Dream Journey; Hiukan Haikeaa - A Bit Melancholic; Haastattelu/
Interview: Inspiraatio - Inspiration; Sininen Hetki - The Blue Moment; Päivän Kehr
Mika Pohjola: piano, keyboards, melodica, arranging, audio, programming,
production; Henrik Lamberg: voice; Sanni Orasmaa: voice; Eeppi Ursin: voice; David
Ambrosio: bass; Laura Arpiainen, Anna Basis: violin; Bill Campbell: drums; Mark Ferber: drums;
Alan Ferber: trombone; Janne Halonen: electric guitar; Fernando Huergo: electric bass;
Robin Miller: cello; Indra Ozola: flute; Franco Pinna: cajón; Felipe Salles: clarinets,
saxophones; Julio Santill
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