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TUM Records: Putting Finnish Jazz Top-Shelf

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Finland has been growing its own jazz dialect for over thirty years, developing a crop of world-class players that unfairly get only scant coverage outside their home country. Helsinki-based TUM Records, with three new releases in the past four months, are giving Finnish jazz the world-class presentation it deserves. Among the doom and gloom forecasts for the CD industry, TUM Records releases top quality music in top shelf packaging that makes their catalogue stand out.

The design and liner notes make the TUM releases more than just CDs—they make them cultural artifacts. The notes (all in English) feature personal essays by the musicians, historical perspectives by label producer Petri Haussila, profiles and song notes. Painter Juhani Linnovaara provides the artwork for all three releases. His surreal, strangely comic images portray animals real and fantastical in dark landscapes. He sets a mood that is both familiar and unsettling, inviting the viewer into a rich land of imagination, beckoning the listener to explore the sound worlds inside.

The three releases present Finland’s elder statesmen and new voices in a variety of settings. Mother Tongue highlights the intense interaction of the Juhani Aaltonen Trio; Uhka displays the tightly controlled collective improvisation of Suhkan Uhka; while Strings Revisited revives the '70s collaboration between composer/arranger Otto Donner and saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen, and adds to the mix bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. All the albums contain original compositions, solid playing and moments of inspired interaction.

These musicians have harnessed the explosive energy and raw emotion of 60s free jazz, and then used their sense of craftsmanship and restraint to hone the music to a diamond-fine expressive point. This quality shows up most dramatically on Aaltonen’s trio album. On “Reflections," the Krokfors-Nekljudow rhythm team gently unfolds a surging pulse. While Nekljudow mallets broad waves of cymbals, Krokfors sculpts dark, dramatic edges and Aaltonen colors inside those edges with broad-toned flute lines. Their restraint builds emotional tension and reveals every nuance of the trio’s interaction.

Aaltonen lends his voice to all three recordings, but his role on each differs. On Strings Revisited he laces his snaking tenor sax into the spiky string backdrop created by Donner, whereas on Uhka he blends into the group concept Suhkan Uhka strives for. On Mother Tongue he merges his tumbling peaks and valleys of sound with Krokfors and Njedkudlow to build an expansive group voice.

Aaltonen's playing points to a larger pattern: the music on all three CDs emphasizes the ensemble over the solo, but the structure for the music comes not from detailed composition but from the musicians themselves, who stay focused on the collective mood of the piece. The Aaltonen Trio play a slow-burning “Nature Boy”, full of uneven spaces and emphatic interlocking figures, that drives for the tune’s inherently sad, world-weary heart. Strings Revisited , a showcase for Aaltonen’s playing, focuses more on creating diverse textures and groups of voices that can express something personal and human.

Suhkan Uhka openly states this theme in their name. Loosely translated, it means “the threat of togetherness." The group hopes to challenge and threaten the world with an example of positive, collective creation.

This musical approach-thinking always of the ensemble before the solo-has its roots in the Sound and Fury recordings of drummer/composer Edward Vesala. He strove to create an intense, introspective sound that combined brash, unexpected ensemble passages, swelling rhythms, and voice-like timbres with a maximum of group discipline-make it wild, but keep control.

Suhkan Uhka clearly descends from these experiments; unsurprisingly so, since nearly all of its 12 members played with Vesala at one time or another. “The Great River” and the hypnotic swell of “Suhka” extend Vesala’s explorations of richly layered ensemble playing. The latter slowly evolves over Jone Takamäki’s vocalizing on. the didgeridoo. Aaltonen and Tane Kannisto play a creeping flute melody colored by Seppo Kantonen’s sparse, gentle arpeggios on the piano. Different ensemble voicings-plaintive guitar, low chanting, wandering tenor sax-are gradually layered, until they culminate in an impassioned, yet calming wail. Here the density becomes powerful, heartbreaking unity.

None of the TUM releases aspire to easy commercial success. The Strings project, a descendant of the 50s forays into lush backing arrangements, sounds fresh and forward thinking. Donner and Aaltonen released an album in 1976 called Strings , and the 2003 version contains three re-workings from that project. Donner is an omnivorous composer, drawing on modern classical techniques (the thick, creeping cloud string atmospheres that open and close “Trains & Boats & Planes”), pop sensibilities (the softly romantic “Sax Ballad”), and world musical traditions (“Deliverance” gets its lilting rhythmic phrasing from Indian music). Strings Revisited in no way screams eclectic; it shows that Donner has just translated a few musical words into his own language and used them to help express his own cleverly crafted sound.

The music on the three discs often broods with a dark intensity that lends the music a tense, emotional weight. At times it weighs too heavy, like on Suhkan Uhka’s “Tuonen Tytti,” where the ensemble grows so dense that the music becomes directionless. At others, like on Donner’s “Evolution Vamp," the heavy brooding transforms the music into a bold experience of voices moving in many directions and jagged rhythms.

While everyone talks about big changes in the recording industry, TUM Records is quietly showing an alternative: make the product worth a listener’s time and money. The musicians on these recordings have thought deeply about their music; they deserve that music to be presented with the same depth. TUM Records does exactly that.


Visit TUM Records on the Web.


December TUM Records reviews at All About Jazz:
* Ilmiliekki Quartet: March of the Alpha Males
* Raoul Björkenheim & Lukas Ligeti: Shadowglow

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