The Espoo Big Band, a bellwether of the Finnish jazz scene for more than three decades, is known for its adventurous nature, and Neandertal Grooves, which showcases the music of guitarist/composer Jarmo Saari and the talents of master percussionist Trilok Gurtu, does nothing to undermine that enterprising spirit.
As “neandertal” (Neanderthal) has become rather a synonym for “primitive” or even “uncivilized,” one might expect the same from Saari and the EBB, but that’s hardly the case, even though some of the music is rough and relatively unrestrained, blending elements of jazz, rock and fusion into a percolating stew that is rhythmically strong but not always melodically charming. There are, however, three lovely songs, “Hymn,” “Funeral” and “Lake Disappointment,“ that serve to underscore Saari’s lyrical side. Regardless of what one’s opinion of his music may be, there’s no doubt that it isn’t easy to play, and the EBB and conductor Martti Lappalainen earn high marks for tenacity and competence. As for Gurtu, he uses every weapon in his arsenal including his malleable voice (on “Runabout/Walkabout,” which includes a wordless chorale by members of the band).
It’s unfortunate that the album should open with “Krapina,” perhaps the least persuasive of its seven selections (I’d definitely place the emphasis on its first syllable). But circumstances improve after that, and there are any number of enjoyable moments before the session ends much the way it began, with a cacophonous uproar on the otherwise moderate “Hunt.” As this is very much a team effort with Gurtu and the ensemble holding sway, soloists aren’t identified but there are a few including trumpet on “Bonfire,” alto saxophone on “Funeral,” tenor on “Runabout,“ baritone on “Hunt” and Saarmi’s guitar on “Krapina” and elsewhere.
Elaborate big band jazz, and definitely not for the faint of heart (or those whose taste buds favor Basie, Herman, Buddy Rich, the Boss Brass or other customarily straight-ahead ensembles). But even those who don’t cotton to its music must give the EBB credit for going its own way.
Krapina; Hymn; Dance by the Bonfire; Funeral; Runabout / Walkabout ; Lake Disappointment; Hunt (48:21).
Martti Lappalainen, conductor; Kari Tenkanen, alto sax, clarinet; Markus Holkko, alto sax; Esa Pietil