The best music tells stories, and the best stories captivate the audience. Composer/pianist Samuli Mikkonen and a hand-picked group of Finnish jazz veterans did just that at Jyväskylä’s Jazz Bar during the CD-release concert of his latest album, Samuli Mikkonen + 7 Henkeä. Over two hour-long sets, they spellbound a packed house with their narrative, energetically introspective music.
For this concert Mikkonen augmented his working trio with some of Finland’s finest reed players. The cast spanned three generations of Finnish jazz history, representing its most adventurous players: Juhani Aaltonen on tenor sax and flute; Pepa Päivinen on tenor, baritone sax and flute; Sonny Heinilä on tenor, soprano sax, flute and ney; Jorma Tapio on alto sax, bass clarinet, flute and bells; Sakari Kukko on tenor and flute; Uffe Krokfors on bass; Mika Kallio on drums.
From the start one could tell this group would be plumbing the depths where sound, mood and rhythm merge seamlessly. On the opener,“Varjot horisontissa” (Lights on the horizon), deep rumbling piano tones melted into a gentle, cascading melody spiked with ringing dissonance-beauty, rough around the edges.
All evening the group struck this balance between dark intensity and calm reflection. “Teeskentelja” (Pretender) burst with the ecstasy of free jazz: raw, angular saxophone clusters moaned a funeral dirge, followed by Pepa Päivinen’s fire-and- brimstone baritone sax solo. Conversely, the sparse ”Keljonlahden stalker” got a rarefied air from Tapio’s high-pitched hand-bells, while Heinilä on ney created a distant mood. Still, neither forgot the song’s roots as a church hymn from the 15th century “Prague Manuscripts”.
Yet Mikkonen does not let his inspirations overcome him; instead they seem internalised then extended upon. Towards the end of Jean Sibelius’s “Sydämeni laulu” Mikkonen and Krokfors improvised a kind of bridgea rolling minor-key riff both delicate and addictively “in-the-pocket”. Quite an extension of a piece originally meant for choir.
Mikkonen writes music that unfolds more like stories than like typical compositions, which allowed the group to communicate more directly with the audience. Not once during the evening did I find myself thinking “musically”, i.e. trying to figure out the meter or chord changes or song form. Why try to analyze the dense thicket of riffing flutes on “Ilma pitkillä pihoilla”? Or how to parse the foreboding horn choir and molten arco bass of “Raudan synty” (The Birth of Iron)? On these compositions the musicians built up such an irresistible motion that they picked the audience up and carried them along to the conclusion.
Such a narrative drive was aided by Mikkonen’s conception of the music with specific players in mind, for they essentially became characters. In an element characteristic of all Mikkonen’s compositions their solos grew out of the music.
Juhani Aaltonen took the lead role on “Varjot horisontissa” as his probing tenor sax voice built that tune to a furious climax. Sonny Heinilä constantly changed voices, switching between ney, flute, tenor and soprano sax. Over Krokfor’s deep arco bass, and Mikkonen and Kallio’s minimalist accents on “Vehkeilija” (Conspirator) he floated dark phrases, painting a character stark and surreptitious. But Sakari Kukko played the real subversive role, as he usurped the restrained mood with a scorching, unaccompanied outburst on tenor saxophone.
By gathering this group of musicians to dramatize his stories, Mikkonen has proved himself to be a great bandleader as well as an imaginative composer. As the last note dissipated, I got the same feeling one gets upon finishing an engrossing novel: sad and a bit empty, for a fascinating journey had just ended.
L to R: Samuli Mikkonen, Mika Kallio, Uffe Krokfors (photo: Esa Onttonen)