> The big band’s role in jazz has shifted throughout the years, riding the changes of the music itself. Used to be big bands were the place where young players cut their performance teeth, honed their chops and gained the confidence to develop their own voice. When jazz started to lean towards small groups, the large ensembles waned in popularity, and when it moved into the conservatories, formal instruction took the place of nightly educations.
With the rise of studied jazz has also come a new generation of composers who conceive forms for improvised music using a range of devices. Yet another role for the big band: as a performing ensemble akin to a symphony orchestra.
Finland has fused the educational and orchestral qualities of the modern big band by establishing bands in most major cities, giving the chance for students and professionals to mix. Most well known among the Finnish big band, UMO has for over 25 years served as a proving ground for many of Finland’s young players, interpreted the works of everyone from Jimi Tenor, Muhal Richard Abrams and Miles Davis to Ellington and Basie, while at the same time commissioning new works from top composers both abroad and in Finland.
The Jyväskylä Big Band is another such ensemble. Their performance in the local music conservatory’s auditorium, Siltasali, displays quite clearly how the big band has been transformed from popular entertainment into a vehicle for composers. The stadium seating, dimmed lights and quietly attentive crowd give the JBB’s performance of compositions by Esa Onttonen, Kari Ikonen and Samuli Mikkonen the air of a classical music concert.
> But the pieces demand such strict attention with their detailed settings filled of subtle colors, intricate rhythms and intensely compact soloing. They also exemplify that the big band can be a diverse ensemble where many possibilities exist. The format’s inherent resources aid the expression of nuanced moods, sonorities and ideas.
The pieces by Ikonen and Mikkonen occupy two ends of the musical spectrum. Mikkonen’s “Port Rerehatwe” pits the slow, dense, almost choir-like tones of the ensemble against alto saxophonist Antti Kettunen’s lone voice, which weaves in and out of the cloud of harmony until the whole piece dissipates into individual voices, resolving by evaporating. In contrast, Ikonen’s “Peikkola” has the swinging groove of a spy movie theme, with the churning bass joined by riffing guitar and guest soloist Mikko Innanen on baritone saxophone. Muted trombone growls prowl the background until the entire ensemble enters for the action-packed climax.
But the centerpiece of the evening is Onttonen’s “Five Pieces for Saxophone and Big Band.” Conceived as a vehicle for the ambidextrous improvising of Mikko Innanen, the piece sprawls at almost thirty minutes, but never drags. Onttonen cleverly breaks the piece up into five episodes, each illustrating different possibilities within the large ensemble format. Part I opens pastorally with thick Mahlerian horns. Innanen also enters tentatively, minimally on soprano sax, his tone thick and breathy, until he grows busier and more vocal, creating tension between his exhortations and the gentler ensemble.
Part II begins life as an insistent, minimalist piano phrase that slowly mutates into a more rollicking, gospel-inflected keyboard romp buoyed by drummer Osmo Blomqvist and bassist Jori Huhtala, calling to mind Jarrett’s open-ended explorations,. The ensemble adds sharp accents, almost mirroring the piano intro until Innanen begins on alto sax.
Parts III and V explore more ambient, even ballad-like settings, allowing Innanen to work his soprano saxophone into extended techniques. Onttonen here paints the ensemble in darker colors, adding slightly menacing ostinatos and space for a dark flugelhorn solo from Kalevi Louhivuori.
But it is the piece’s interlude that provides the evening’s climax. Titled “Joker: New States,” Onttonen lets his biting musical wit loose on two genres not obviously compatible. Innanen and the rhythm section set off with an edgy, high-charged bebop pulse that pushes at the borders of dissonance with Dolphy’s sharp tongue. The rest of the ensemble gradually lays out brooding, majestic tones and the two parts fight for reconciliation. That is, until they began to merge into a steaming romp, like a national anthem for a country where Albert Ayler is the national hero.
It is the big band that makes such a full-bore collision of styles possible, and only an acute musical imagination like Onttonen’s, well-studied and yet adventurous, could bring them together. The big band is alive and well. It’s gone to school, discovered the classics, but without losing its ability to entertain.