’Glacial’, ‘pastoral’, Lightless days’, ‘snow swept’: writers often feel compelled to resort to sub-arctic language when describing records coming from the Nordic countries. Of course, this compulsion is not unfounded. Jan Garbarek, Edward Vesala, and many others have all used folk song and spacious, melancholy moods as a basis for improvisation. But brawny free jazz and propulsive rhythms have been used just as much.
Two new albums from the Finnish label TUM belong to this latter category. Reflections , a collaboration between Finnish free jazz stalwart Juhani Aaltonen, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, and Sudden Happiness , with John Tchicai and the Finnish-Danish Triot, seethe and pulse with vibrant rhythmic interplay and rambling melodic improvisation. Yet the albums take different approaches. The celebratory Sudden Happiness cooks with a blues, free-bop pace, while the more somber Reflections veers into abstract, textural territory. Both bring moments of quiet pleasure, the ones where you stop and marvel at their telepathic communication. Both declare: put your winter melancholy adjectives in the drawer. It’s summer, and up north the sun never sets.
John Tchicai & Triot
This live recording of the quartet’s 2002 Danish tour shows three young, in-demand talents of the Nordic countries and one master improviser dialoguing to create an impassioned set of music that elucidates the closeness of musical and human language.
Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen composed six of the record’s nine pieces, and the group’s effortless interaction imbues them with vibrant, joyful energy.
Innanen’s ”Second Night (I Was Happy...The Street Was Dark)” was inspired by the mood and rhythm of Gregory Corso’s poem “Second Night in N.Y.C After 3 Years.” After the unshakable swing and moaning horn chorus, both coursing with the spirit of Mingus, Tchicai intones Corso’s poem. ”I was happy I was bubbly drunk/The street was dark,” he begins, as Innanen on alto sax shouts his affirmation. “Undercurrent” also takes its cue from a poem, one of Innanen’s own, but the atmosphere is mourning and the colors shade darkly. Tchicai, on bass clarinet, and Innanen, on baritone sax, weave aching phrases around drummer Stefan Pasborg’s rain-shower ride cymbal and bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen’s ominous counterpoint.
Much as the Beats’ whimsical word play disguised their exploration of how language’s fundamentals - sounds, words and sentence structure – could interact to create the same intuitive effect of music, Innanen’s compositions mask a deeper look into how jazz’s fundamentals – the blues, swing and improvised solos – can speak with language’s informal complexity and human intimacy. We rarely think of how complex language is, even our everyday conversations, because we use it so instinctively. The quartet creates the same effect. On “Berber,” Pasborg and Munch-Hansen lock into a muscular calypso that moves in 12/8, transforming Tchicai and Innanen’s solemn opening chant into a hypnotic, swaying dirge. On “Netop,” a collective improvisation, the quartet merges four streams of consciousness into one, flowing from a rapid, compulsive walk punctuated by Tchicai’s twisted blues shouts into a freer dialogue where Innanen picks up Tchicai’s fragmented phrases and extends them into a wry soprano solo, anti-climaxing in a rustling drum solo from Pasborg, and finally transitioning into Innanen’s locomotive “Sci-Fi Hotel.”
On Sudden Happiness Tchicai and Triot reach the sublime heights of the best poetry, where our everyday language is made to speak with a voice of the heart, where with each listening and each reading the words and sounds resonate more deeply.
Personnel: John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Mikko Innanen: alto saxophone, soprano sax, baritone sax; Nicolai Munch-Hansen: bass; Stefan Pasborg: drums.
Aaltonen - Workman - Cyrille
The six pieces on this album turn the extroverted expressiveness of free jazz into an introverted study of quiet intensity. Recorded during a 2002 visit to Finland by Cyrille and Workman that also produced the chamber orchestra collaboration of Strings Revisited , Reflections showcases three mature voices of free jazz’s first wave. Their mutual respect shows in the ample room each gets to mold the trio’s improvisations, giving the music an expansive, exploratory atmosphere.
Five of the seven tunes are Aaltonen’s, and they lean towards wandering lyrical journeys. The ballad “Serenity” simmers with Aaltonen’s smoky, raw tone and Cyrille’s shimmering cymbal backdrop. “Supplications” pulls the spiritual weight of a Coltrane dirge, the trio’s voices merging in an impassioned cross talk. Workman first bows, then adds thick, picked phrases, Cyrille points out multiple rhythmic directions on snare and cymbal while Aaltonen unwinds long strings of husky, rasping tenor sax.
But it is Aaltonen’s flute that provides the album’s most meaningful moments. On Cyrille’s suite “The Navigator,” his full-bodied tone and heavy vibrato gives the melody lonely immediacy, contrasting sharply with Cyrille’s low-key march and Workman’s piercing upper-register stabs and double-stops. Workman underpins the second part with a cyclical, swinging 6/8, and Aaltonen shows a more rhythmic, though still melodic side. “Still Small Voice” again features Aaltonen, this time darting in and out of Workman and Cyrille’s fragmented pulse.
But the real proof of this group’s maturity and inventiveness is “Effervesce,” a tune that embodies its title. Aaltonen sets the pace with a rapid, stuttering fragment, like a bebop phrase set free from its harmonic foundation. Cyrille at first colors with shakers, a gong and glass bottle, then falls silent for Workman to enter with a churning pulse. When Cyrille re-enters, he brings the trio to a rolling boil. Just when you think they will ascend to a full out peak, Workman takes a bowed solo that is a smear of upper-register clusters and percussive beating. They create the feeling of freedom, but with an unfelt craftsmanship.
On Reflections Aaltonen, Workman and Cyrille demonstrate that free music and lyricism are not mutually exclusive ideas. By using a restraint learned from experience, they show that intense introspection can generate as much raw emotional impact as the most explosive expression.
Personnel: Juhani Aaltonen: tenor saxophone, flute; Reggie Workman: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums, percussion.