Jazz CD Reviews

Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations – TUM

Collective improvisation and instinctual conversation by two of Finland’s finer jazz artists.

Published on March 11, 2012

Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations – TUM

Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations – TUM CD 024-2, (2 CDs) 57:14; 59:02 *****:

(Juhani Aaltonen – tenor saxophone; Heikki Sarmanto – piano)

The most meaningful dialogues are often those between just two people. The most instinctive discussions are ones where one person seemingly finishes the sentence of the other, those rare partnerships which seem to have empathy if not outright telepathy. Case in point: tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto, two of Finland’s foremost jazz artists, who have been friends and musical colleagues for close to fifty years. The 2-CD duet project, the aptly titled Conversations, is a manifestation of the musicians’ mutual history and frequently common connections and a reminder free improvisation does not denote lack of melody nor total abstraction.

Most of the nearly two hours of material consists of reinterpretations of compositions Sarmanto wrote in the early 1970s, which Sarmanto explains in his lengthy liner notes was “a particularly creative period during which we together explored new musical avenues focusing on collective improvisation.” This sense of musical adventure and investigation endows many of the 16 tunes with a freshness of vision, where even the pre-written pieces are a starting point for a free-flowing approach which combines melodically grounded elements with progressive, almost transcendent territory.

There is a perceptive, kinetic beauty to many tracks, where nuances are important. Most pieces have a poetic sensitivity, which is appropriate given their literary influences. The searching “When I Was with You” is based on Gopal Sukhu’s poem about the emotional strain of two lovers separated from each other. The sax and piano skillfully render the feeling of a couple saying goodbye with no assurances of reunion. Rika Lesser’s surrealistic writing is also an inspiration. “What We Cannot Imagine,” “From Nothing” and “No Work Bound Me” all have a calmly abstract quality, a kind of circling aspect which echoes Lesser’s ideas on the past and future always being intertwined. Coltrane’s early 1960s appearances in northern Europe had a huge impact on Aaltonen and Sarmanto. Coltrane’s spirituality and ascending outlook permeates the forcefully concentrated “War Trane,” which is also a remembrance for the Finnish children who were relocated to Sweden during World War II. Sometimes only fragments from Sarmanto’s arrangements are utilized, such as picturesque closer, “Evening Haze,” which owes most of its conception to extemporaneous improvisation.

During the recording sessions, Aaltonen and Sarmanto conceived five spontaneous titles, where they performed within the decisive moment, that special instant when creativity guilelessly takes over. This is apparent on two linked cuts, “So Much Happened…” and the likeminded “…It Happened Today.” Both show a spacious range where there are flashes of Coltrane-like dynamism, without obvious structure or stricture, alongside tenderly meditative sections with expressive harmony. The duo’s intrinsically elegiac sensibility comes to the foreground on the introspective “Just like a Dream,” which emanates so naturally it is difficult to believe it was not penned before entering the studio.

Aaltonen and Sarmanto’s inherent lyricism is so compelling it frequently has the feel of familiarity, similar to when someone covers a jazz standard, which is why two selections from the Great American Songbook by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz flow so well with other tracks. “You and the Night and the Music” and “Alone Together” have a touch of relaxed acquaintance. The recognizable melodies function like identifiable characters everyone appreciates, but the well-known works allow an underscored freedom and demonstrates how amenable and satisfying open-mindedness can be.

The material has been sympathetically recorded to emphasize both the vigorous performance moments where piano and sax soar, as well as the softest notes, when Aaltonen’s breathy intonations can be heard or when Sarmanto strokes the piano keys with graceful subtlety. Extensive liner notes describe the duo’s history and include comprehensive biographical notes, track-by-track commentary, and even a page about Finnish artist Juhana Blomstedt and the specific painting used for the album front cover.

TrackList:

CD1: When I Was with You; So Much Happened…; What We Cannot Imagine; …It Happened Today; Le Petit Soldat; Just like a Dream; You and the Night and the Music; Evening Prayer.
CD2: From Nothing; No Work Bound Me; Free Souls; The Sea in the Moonlight; War Trane; Peace Talk; Alone Together; Evening Haze.

—Doug Simpson




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